Written by: Paige Allen

Despite its somewhat lackluster theatrical counterpart, the Netflix adaptation of Dear White People has definitely been one of the surprise smash hits of the spring. As its own series, it shines as a thoughtful examination of black life within the ivory towers of elite academia, where racism and ignorance thrive despite institutional claims of progress and enlightenment. In comparison to the original movie, the new series greatly expands this original premise by enriching the characterization of its main cast, offering timely acknowledgment of this current era of civil rights activism and providing further nuance to many of the themes that fell short the first time around.

According to creator Justin Simien, Dear White People is supposed to serve as a conversation starter on race and identity in America. While at first blush the conversation may seem in danger of being dominated by white and nonblack audiences – I’ve certainly seen enough indignant cries of “This is so racist, what if we made a show called Dear Black People???” in reviews of the show to last my lifetime and the lifetimes of my future children –  the series itself focuses on various intra-community conversations around what it means to be a black face in a white place.

While the conversations themselves may not be new and are arguably even a bit outdated in comparison to the rapid-fire social commentaries of Black Twitter, it certainly never hurts to re-engage with them based on new information and from different perspectives. In this first promising season of the show, three topics stick out prominently as relevant areas of discussion:

The Performative Expectations of Black Pain

Since its premiere, you can’t read an article about Dear White People without the mention of episode five, and with good reason. Directed by Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight fame, this episode shows the multilayered aspects of racism that black people experience through the perspective of Reggie Green, a modern-day Malcolm X in the making. In the span of a single episode, racism swerves from the minor instances of annoying ignorance in everyday life – the school’s coach thinks Reggie’s a member of the football team, and a friend from class keeps asking if he’s allowed to say the N-word if it’s in a song, if he’s at a party, if he’s friends with a black guy, etc. – to its more severe reality where, at that same party, Reggie is threatened with a gun by campus security for no discernable reason other than that previously innocuous racism.

The situation serves as a poignant reminder of black people’s relative lack of safety in the world, even within the system of academia which has always been promised as an of haven against the brutalities of racism. But what also makes this episode profound in its instance of fictionalized violence is its nuanced depiction of trauma in direct relation to that violence. Partygoers are all affected, their reactions easily categorized along the racial lines of shocked disbelief from white partygoers that something like this could actually happen near them to the breakdowns of black partygoers who almost experienced for the first time (or were almost forced to relive) their worst nightmare before their eyes.

For his part, Reggie plays stoic before tearfully crouching behind the closed door of his dorm room. There he would have remained if it weren’t for Sam White, the series’ designated protagonist, and a host of the titular radio show. She holds back her tears to instead yield to righteous fury for Reggie’s sake, and episode five ends with Sam pounding on his door trying to convince him to join her in retributive action. 

But Sam’s calls for justice go unappreciated by Reggie in the aftermath of his ordeal. She wants to stage a protest, see the officer fired, accost the university’s dean and make him realize the true state of campus race relations – but Reggie wants no part in that. Instead, he wants time to process his trauma, which means laying low and being nonconfrontational for a while. It means softer forms of self-care, such as writing poetry and performing spoken word, and while Sam eventually comes to understand why he’s doing this it still stands in stark contrast to the more extroverted forms of black resistance they have previously reveled in together.

What is clear from these fraught interactions between Sam and Reggie is the divide in black social justice circles about the experience of black pain. It’s not its existence that is necessarily the issue, but how best to give voice to that pain within the context of their activism. After becoming a victim of racial violence, what is the best course of action – showcase that pain to the world and let it legitimize the work you are doing towards racial justice, or keep that pain hidden from prying eyes as you process it? How long are you allowed to process your pain until you reintegrate back into the world of activism, and if you do not reintegrate does that make you selfish and not truly down for the cause?

As denying black humanity is still seen as viable justification for our senseless murders, some might say that performing the depths of our trauma is a necessary sacrifice until the world recognizes our humanity as an indisputable truth. However, in an age where recorded evidence on cellphones and dashcams can’t bring us justice, and our cries for help have long been ignored for centuries, it may seem more radical to focus on the preservation of our communities as a whole as well as our individual selves. It’s one of the many questions that Dear White People leaves unsolved, and this question haunts the remainder of the series even after Reggie rejoins the cause.

To be Young, Gifted, Queer and Black

But the hallowed halls of Winchester University are not all blackface parties and unusually armed campus police officers; Dear White People is eager to delve into the rich melodrama that is the love lives of its main cast. Among the subplots of crushes, unrequited love, cheating and the no-strings-attached fucking that only college students can make look cool, there lies a unique perspective that soon joins the fray: the story of Lionel Higgins, a budding journalist also learning to embrace his homosexuality.

Lionel’s journey to self-discovery is integrally tied to Dear White People’s larger plot of revealing the university’s racial issues. He initially feels like an outcast among his peers, largely due to his nerdy interests and a palpable social awkwardness that is being caused by an indescribable feeling of difference between him and other young black men his age. As the audience soon finds out – in a wonderful scene that displays hints of Lionel’s bravery that we will again see – that difference is because Lionel trying to navigate his sexuality within straight black spaces. As he grows more comfortable with his identity, he then becomes more comfortable with the rest of the main cast, and thanks to this development Lionel greatly enriches the antiracist activism efforts that are being conducted on campus.

However, there are various other ways that Lionel is important to the narrative of Dear White People. To be black and gay is still a rather revolutionary act of representation for visual media intended to reach a mainstream audience. While there certainly has been an influx as of late of queer black coming-of-age stories, such as Pariah, The Get Down and Moonlight, their prominence only serves to highlight how scarce the overall media landscape remains for queer black characters.

As a result, it’s always good to welcome a new addition to this slowly growing media demographic, and Dear White People gets a special mention for how seamlessly interwoven Lionel’s subplot is with the rest of the show. He is allowed the narrative freedom to stumble into the realms of love and sex for the first time just like any other person, from crushing on his roommate Troy Fairbanks to awkwardly trying to decode the meaning of someone’s steady gaze from across a crowded room. His journey is on par with the varying levels of explicitness and intimacy given to the show’s straight romances, and his sexuality is acknowledged by other characters as a legitimate identity not warranting ridicule or scorn.

When I look at Lionel, I see reflected back my own queer journey in college – in watching the show, there were too many moments of been there, done that, also got a dramatic haircut because of it for me to even mention in one article. Not only does Lionel provide a new and relatable experience for queer black kids to see, but his relationship with the university’s black community as related to his sexuality is worthy of more discussion than I’ve seen so far. The acceptance that Lionel received from his peers was heartwarming if a somewhat privileged reaction thanks to being around like-minded individuals in a university setting. I hope to see more conversations about the diversity of black desire and how best to represent these lived experiences, as it will help foster real life examples of intra-community support.

The Gendered Aspects of “Wokémon Go”

Finally, this particular discussion isn’t in direct reference to the funny but short-lived appearance of “Woke or Not” in the show, an app which students could use to rank their classmates’ level of social consciousness. Rather, the final intra-community conversation starter that Dear White People provides has to do with the fake game’s real life consequences among Winchester University’s black students. For them, being woke is not just a cool phrase to use for all its worth before white students take hold of it and misuse it into oblivion; it is a lifestyle and a serious one that reflects your personal morals and dedication to black liberation.

It is interesting to note that the question of being woke is explored through a particularly gendered lens within the show. While Troy does have his status questioned due to how closely he socially aligns with the university administration and his father, the university dean, the question itself is embodied more in the show’s prominent female characters, former friends turned rivals, Sam and Colandrea Conners. As bright-eyed freshmen, they initially bonded over being the only black girls in their housing unit and all the subtle ways they tried to fit in with the social hierarchy around them, from wearing preppy clothes to perming their hair. Yet soon their paths up the collegiate social ladder split: Sam starts to fully realize the extent of racism around her, and as a result becomes more woke by going natural, protesting and starting the radio show Dear White People to rally against the university’s ignorant white student body. Meanwhile, it initially seems that Colandrea has yet to have her racial awakening, as she graduates to weaves and wigs, all white sororities and kissing the administration’s ass as it continues to support the systemic dismissal of its minority students.

In reality, both young women are experiencing the various issues that come with the pursuit of authentic blackness as measured by arbitrary standards such as wokeness. For Sam, this pursuit is marked by a distinct air of desperation: she is insecure in her identity as a black woman due to her light skin, which has shielded her from the brunt of racial hostility for most of her life. She, therefore, overcompensates for not embodying what she believes is undeniable blackness by being the most passionate black activist and the first boot on the racial battlefield, even if that means instigating and then subsequently documenting the inevitable clash of cultures herself. However, just as quickly as she rises to prominence in Winchester University’s black activist circle, Sam’s social standing plummets once it’s revealed that she’s sleeping with a white student. People naturally assumed that she would date Reggie so that together they would make the perfect picture of a black activist couple truly down for the cause. Sam is socially punished for her dating situation as a result, all the social justice work she has spearheaded and achieved ultimately null and void because of her refusal to adhere to the “correct” representation of a woke black woman in the eyes of her peers.

Meanwhile, Colandrea has been denied a high woke status as she closely adheres to palpably white beauty standards and activities. Yet she learned to act this way in college after a childhood spent in violent neighborhoods and a lifetime of negative experiences as a dark-skinned woman. Unlike Sam, Colandrea is not afforded the luxury of passionate anti-racist advocacy; her darker skin and coarser natural hair immediately distinguish her as black, and anything she does is subsequently seen as more threatening and unappealing than when Sam does something similar. So, if Colandrea seems to run from her blackness, she does so as a means of securing a brighter future for herself where her education and accomplishments will be acknowledged in spite of her blackness. This is why she clings to Troy as fervently as she does for most of the series; he is an educated and non-threatening version of blackness that is appealing to influential white people, and being associated with him secures Colandrea as an equally non-threatening black person for their consumption. If she also receives any woke points for being in a relationship with a black man, it is purely coincidental in her ultimate pursuit of survival.

Colandrea and Sam are neat narrative foils of one another, imperfectly and accidentally achieving the standards of supposedly authentic female blackness that they ultimately cannot live up to. Sam desperately tries to keep appealing to Reggie, her white boyfriend Gabe and her status as the perfect, perpetual activist and ends up losing all three. Colandrea starts to become more woke just as Troy likes by going natural and getting more involved in the administration’s social affairs, but she earns the good graces of the racist administration and decides to once again pursue assimilation just as Troy finally breaks free of his father’s purposeful racial blindness and loses his appeal to whiteness in the process. Their struggles throughout this first season of Dear White People leaves viewers such as myself wondering about the unattainable standards of being woke and whether, instead of being a useful shorthand for consciously advocating for racial justice, it has long since been used by some as a performative way to perpetuate other oppressions such as colorism, sexism and specifically misogynoir.

We can further interrogate the idea of being woke with other components of blackness presented in this article – can you be woke and not straight? Can you be woke and in pain, struggling to take care of your physical and mental health? And if your lifestyle does not allow you the opportunity to engage in the radical form of activism asked of you, does that deny you the authentic experiences of blackness that you have lived through?

It’s certainly a discussion worth having.

Paige Allen is a brand storyteller and content developer at a small public relations agency in Greater Boston. In her spare time, she’s an avid consumer of comic books, novels, and television shows. She has all but stopped sleeping to heavily critique the pop culture works she loves. Connect with her on Twitter @goodbye_duppy.