I went into “Dear White People” wanting to hate it, but I didn’t. The film did exactly what it said it would do: parody the experiences of black students on a predominately white college campus. It was funny at times, heavy-handed at others, but overall, it was good. Was it a game-changing race film? No. Could it have done more to address more subtle forms of racism? Sure. But as A.O. Scott wrote at the New York Times,”everyone will see it a little differently.” At the very least, “Dear White People” has introduced a young black filmmaker, Justin Simien, to a national audience and shown that he’s got the talent to do even better work in the future.
But now, several days after seeing it, I can’t get over how much the film centers on how black characters react to racism from their white counterparts. That’s not surprising–the title, after all, is directed at white folks. But there’s a way of talking about race in America that centers the experiences of white people that irks me.
Simien’s story follows a group of black college students, but mostly one: Samantha White, a biracial campus activist and host of a radio show, “Dear White People,” who is struggling to find her political identity. There’s also the black, gay campus journalist, Lionel, who’s fighting for a byline at the school’s most prestigious paper; the black dean’s son, Troy, who wants to join an exclusive and all-white campus club lead by the son of his father’s rival; and there’s Coco, the dark-skinned black girl who wears blue contacts and wants to catch the attention of a black reality TV show producer. Each character is reacting to a very specific level of white racism that ultimately shapes their lives. Their fates come together when a riot breaks out after a racist campus party.
(Spoiler alert) Sam eventually backs away from her Black Student Union activism, calls herself an anarchist, reconciles with her white dad and openly embraces her white boyfriend. Lionel starts his own campus newsletter while Troy uses the incident to run for student body president
There are some plot lines that might make you cringe, like Sam’s irritating role as the tragic mulatto and the holier-than-thou Black Student Union member. But overall, Simien’s film delivers a satirical look at college racism seemingly ripped from the headlines about incidents at USC, Santa Barbara or Ohio University.
That’s to say, we know these stories well, and that’s at least partially why Simien’s debut effort has gotten so much mainstream attention. (He received a glowing review in the New York Times, a spot on “The Colbert Report” and Vogue coverage.) If we can’t do much about racism, then we can at least laugh at it, right?
The white racism in “Dear White People” could’ve also been ripped from the headlines of my own predominately white alma mater, the Claremont Colleges. In 2003, in the fall of my freshman year, a string of high-profile racist incidents swept across the Claremont, California, grounds. A cross was burned on one end of campus. A car was vandalized on another. Local media pounced, the FBI investigated, and the administration held rallies at which professors of color gave speeches. The students of color on campus, especially the black ones, were rightfully angry, and there was never a time when I felt more exposed than I did then.
Within months, the FBI closed its case. The news cameras left. Reforms, like more campus resources for students of color, were enacted. We moved on.
I don’t say that to mean that we in any way forgot about what happened or moved “past race.” But reacting to white racism was not the focus of our experience. It may have been the bass line to our college days, but we made up the hooks. We supported one another in the way that students of color often do when they’re totally outnumbered and coming into their political consciousness. There were no epic stances against racism per se; it was more individual. My closest friends, many of whom were black and members of our campus’ Black Student Union, vented to one another about how few students of color there were in British Literature–and the fact that we had to take British Literature. When one of my best friends moved off campus to deal with a medical emergency, we helped. When another lost her brother because of a senseless dispute over a PlayStation, we went to the funeral. When one of us drove three hours to visit his brother in prison, we were there to meet him afterwards to hear about how much he missed his brother’s laugh.
It’s those stories that I’d like to see more of. Not the ones where we’re being acted upon or reacting against, but those hugely important stories that don’t make headlines. The ones about your best friend’s certifiably non-existent game. The awkward sex stories. Or the tension that arises in a family when you finally “make it.” It’s the “Boomerangs” and “School Dazes” of today. Yes, it’s important to name overt racism. But it’s also important to name the ways that we thrive in spite of it.