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By Paul Meekin
The trailer for the Netflix adaptation of 2014’s “Dear White People” has dropped… and it’s pretty funny.
For the uninformed, “Dear White People” is about several African-American college students who are busy trying to find their personhood while reconciling what society – white and black, expects of them.
And that’s the irony. “Dear White People” was never for white folks. Watching the movie recently it’s clear that while racism is an element of the story and the thrust of characters’ motivations in some cases – the movie, and I’d imagine the show, is more about how black individual can celebrate their individualism, while still being true to their ‘people’ – if that makes sense.
Hence, for all the hubbub about the show from, well, white folks, or from white folks celebrating how the show skewers racism, miss the point. It’s really about messaging and fitting in.
Take for example the main character – Sam.
Sam is a militant radio host who takes to the college airwaves daily to rant and rave and shout about what white people do wrong. In essence, she’s Rush Limbaugh. Taking mostly true statements and mutating and supercharging them to an bloviated end. For many black people, her message is cathartic. To whom she directs her words – white people – it’s too over-the-top to resonate. (See also: Alex Jones)
But Sam has a secret. She’s in love with a white boy – Gabe. But keeps him hidden for fear of appearing to be a traitor or somehow losing her authenticity. Gabe calls her on it. “Your favorite director is Bergman. But you tell everyone it’s Spike Lee. You love bebop but you’ve got a thing for Taylor Swift. And I know because my Mac picks up your Mac’s library.” He says. “…You’re more Banksy than Barack. But you’ve been co-opted as some sort of revolutionary leader or something. But really, you’re an anarchist. A shit-starter.”
Bingo! For some reason Sam had to become this person to feel authentic to her own self – to literally front as someone she isn’t on the inside. To feel accepted. Included. Powerful. Important.
(Speaking as a reformed liberal who dived into this libertarian stuff head first and without a snorkel, I can relate.)
There are other characters and they – like all of us – are trying to find their place and purpose and achieve success. For some it’s ‘turning’ against their people to become a reality TV show star. For others it’s accepting casual racism due to a crush on a newspaper editor. For one, it’s about being the perfect student because his dad and the world at large seem to signal that any dirt in an African-American Professional’s past could ruin their career at a higher rate than that of a white person. (see also: Nate Parker)
These are personal struggles. Not cries for social justice. This is not a show FOR white people or AT white people. It’s a show about the fundamental questions of being a black person in a ‘post-race’ world.
A world where Sage Steele is called a traitor , a “coon” and an “Uncle (Auntie?) Tom” by fellow African-Americans and TheRoot.com because she preaches personal responsibility. (See also: Larry Elder)
A world that questions Drake’s ‘credibility’ for not being gangster enough. A world that wants to champion black voices but only if those black voices say things the black community is okay with.
A world that seems to signal the quickest way out of poverty is to be a professional athlete.
And that world is made up of black and white and pick-a-color people. We’re all in this together and a unique black perspective on these things is valid.
This is a world white folks can be interested in. Empathize with, but not quite understand fully.
Like with any culture there are nuances and traditions and insular elements that make it impossible to fully grasp without being a member.
That’s not to say white folks shouldn’t watch the show. Quite the opposite. I am of the mind it’s important to ‘get’ that which is foreign to you. You can hem and haw about this show and “Blackish” and say it’s promoting some ridiculous Social Justice Agenda.
Or you could say these are quality entertainments from a perspective that is not yours, and may be worth hearing out – even if you think you’ll hate it. At the very least you’ll have informed ammunition for your concerns, qualms and balks, instead of an internet-typical dismissive tone.
Think about it this way – what’s the best way to work with a Democrat or a Republican when you’re a Libertarian. You don’t yell at them. You don’t turn your nose up because you “know” they’re going to come at you. You listen, you empathize, you ask intelligent questions and hope for intelligent answers in return. I would say it’s…fair to at least afford “Dear White People” that same respect before jumping into the inevitable shit storm.
So, no – Dear White People isn’t a reverse racist show determined to bring the white man down. It’s something a lot different and a lot more nuanced – human people.
At least I think so. But then again I’m white.