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'Dear White People' Expands the Possibilities of the Black College Experience on Television

The new Netflix series dramatizes the challenges that black students often face, while maintaining a vital focus on the fullness of the students' individual lives.
Dear White People.

Dear White People.

This February, when Netflix unveiled its trailer for Justin Simien's dramedy Dear White People—a series adaptation that expands on his 2014 movie of the same name—it swiftly brought out the lols and the trolls. "Netflix announced a new anti-white show (Dear White People) that promotes white genocide," tweeted white-supremacist Twitter personality Tim Treadstone. "I canceled my account, do the same. #NoNetflix." This silly overreaction highlights what makes Simien's latest so resonant: It's wholly unconcerned with white viewers, or at least with their comfort. Despite its title, Dear White People doesn't aim to snark on casual racists or full-tilt firebrands—its point, rather, is to portray the wide range of black experiences on a predominantly white college campus.

Dear White People, the show, picks up where the movie left off three years ago. We return to the fictional Ivy League-style Winchester University, where students are reeling from a blackface-themed party put on by Pastiche, the campus humor magazine. In the opening shots, we see overlaid text featuring the words of James Baldwin, setting the mood of the show: "The paradox of education is that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is educated." Enter Samantha White (Logan Browning), the Afrocentric school provocateur who runs the campus radio show of the same title as the franchise and who has a word of advice for the school's Caucasian students: "Dear white people," she says, her voice full of venom, "here's a list of acceptable Halloween costumes: a pirate, slutty nurse, any of our first 43 presidents. Top of the list of unacceptable costumes? Me."

While the movie closed on the party, here, the blackface bash serves as catalyst for the show's 10 half-hour "chapters," and as an entry point to explore the backstories of the show’s motley character line-up. The first five episodes, plus the seventh, all unfold through the perspective of a single character. In addition to biracial Sam, we also have aspiring journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), who's coming to grips with his sexuality; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the dean's son and Winchester's heaven-sent hunk; Colandrea "Coco" Conners (Antoinette Robertson), a social-climbing lawyer-in-the-making; Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), Sam's fuck-tha-police partner in political activism; and Gabe Mitchell (John Patrick Amedori), Sam's white boyfriend who negotiates the complicated role of (white) ally-ship.

The power of Dear White People derives from this close attention to perspective, as Simien shows viewers the many layers of black students' having to navigate spaces that weren't built with them in mind. For instance, Chapter V, easily the most devastating episode of the season, follows Reggie as he tries to get over the fact that Sam, his love interest, is dating Gabe. Reggie and his friends end up going to a party where everyone is sipping and swaying, coolly, to music. But then, in a matter of moments, we see a non-violent argument between Reggie and a white classmate—sparked over the latter's saying "nigger" as part of a song—and things take a harrowing turn. A white campus cop arrives and pulls a gun on Reggie, demanding to see his—and not the classmate's—student ID. Reggie, his hands quaking, his eyes defiant yet scared, complies.

This episode, directed by Barry Jenkins, the director and co-writer behind Oscar darling Moonlight, illustrates how racial inequality exists on a continuum, and how quickly black people can fall victim to its many manifestations. We get a sense of how the unthinking racism that leads to a blackface-themed party on a college campus co-exists all too easily with the visceral anti-black prejudice that can prompt a hyper-vigilant white police officer to beat an unarmed black person. (Think Martese Johnson, the young black University of Virginia student who cried out, "I go to UVA!" while he was bloodied in a violent arrest in 2015—a reminder that any sort of privilege that a black person might scrape can be snatched away in a split-second.)

Yet Simien also gives his black characters—and, by extension, the show's black viewers—space just to be, without invalidating very real conflicts. Part of the soul of Dear White People, I think, can be found in Chapter VIII. Lionel sets out to write a feature on Troy for the school newspaper, so they meet up at a bar to talk the piece over. Mid-conversation, the DJ says, saucily, "Whew, I dare any of you motherfuckers to be on the wall during this jam." Thelma Houston's 1979 disco tune "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning" begins to play in the background, and Lionel and Troy hit the dance floor. And there they are—Lionel is shaking his hips, Troy is flailing his arms, and both are bopping to Houston's lyrics about first impressions and love. It's a thematic tell—a potent, soaring measure of black freedom.

In Dear White People, Simien shrinks the collegiate world, makes it comprehensible for small-screen storytelling, without losing the nuance of the sometimes-clashing realities of blackness. The show zooms in on the challenges black students often run up against—the subtle and unsubtle toxicity of colorism, the screaming pushback that blacks face even in the aftermath of police brutality—but it also retains a vital focus on the fullness of the students' lives.

One of the chief joys of watching Dear White People, as a black American, is that, when the characters move, I see myself move too. Or some part of myself, depending on the character, because the show makes clear what shouldn't need to be said: that blackness operates in a million different ways in a million different contexts—and, indeed, it always has.