Written by Ashleigh Thomas
Sam was unapologetically Black, ambitious, creative, and was the fire under the skin of her school’s growing race problems. It was refreshing to see her take charge, clap back, and embody the movement.
Sam should not have been the main character of ‘Dear White People.’
She lauded herself for her ‘wokeness,’ but was incapable of admitting to how color bias got her to where she was. Sam constantly spoke over her friends, especially Coco, who was simply trying to navigate a white society as a dark skinned, inner city girl. Coco aptly said “You get away with murder because you look more like them than I do. That’s your light skinned privilege.”
Sam, the mother of the Winchester movement, queen of all things woke, only offered a joint as a hollow apology for said privilege. Granted, it may have been some good weed. But it wasn’t long before Sam was back to being her obliviously privileged self.
Secondly, Joelle’s character wasn’t nearly as fleshed out as Sam. Joelle was just as unapologetic in her Blackness, if not more. She was quickly relegated to the best friend who provided emotional support, and not much more. Even Gabe had an entire episode dedicated to his white guilt. While the episode was important to the plot, there was no need to continually sideline Joelle. She pushed her feelings for Reggie to the side, even hinting to Gabe she knew why Sam was chosen over her.
Joelle’s characterization should sound familiar. She is the dark-skinned-girl-who-keeps-her-light-bright-bestie-in-check. It is a tired trope. Almost as tired as I am from typing that whole thing out. Joelle’s character was often seen rushing to her friends’ aid, had zero romantic or sexual exploits, and spent the entire series cleaning up Sam’s messes. She forgave, consoled, and ignored her feelings just for Sam.
Tumblr user afrocentricbaydestrian put together a list of dark skinned women who forgo personal growth for the sake of their lighter counterparts. The list noted that the women, much like Joelle, are seen as the main character’s sidekick.
Case in point? In the penultimate episode “Chapter IX,” Sam was upset about where she and Gabe had left things off. She said to Joelle, “Say something funny and specific.” And she did since she was one of the few genuinely good friends/people in the show.
There was also commentary about Black women that choose to date white men. Reggie’s character managed a sly dig at Gabe while reading his poetry on the air. He looked out the studio window at Gabe and Sam while reading “White skin, light skin, but for me, not the right skin.” Was he talking about Sam not choosing him? Interpret it as you will.
The blame isn’t to be solely squared on Sam’s shoulders. The show was written in a weird way. I spent half the time trying to figure out who was the intended audience. Was it for the internet savvy Black Millennials, who don’t need further lecturing on police brutality and racism in schools? Or was it for the type of white person who decided to cancel their account after the show was announced? Either way, it felt like it missed the mark by trying to pander to an unspecified demographic.
Don’t get me wrong; it did have its poignant moments. “Chapter V” was masterfully done. The characters shine throughout the episode. It was great seeing Reggie as just a guy with a ridiculous amount of trivia knowledge. Ikumi calling the Black students ‘my people’ after declaring they’d share their weed with her made me laugh. It reminded me of the PoC solidarity I had with my friends at university, too.
And of course, there was the tragedy. Or, what could have easily been a tragedy, with the campus police pulling a gun on an unarmed Reggie.
It was the moment we all knew was coming, and yet it was still harrowing and uncomfortable.
The show also did a great job of allowing Reggie to handle the fallout. He didn’t want trouble with the dean, avoided his friends, and didn’t want to engage with the protest they planned. Gabe’s friend even mentioned Reggie being a ‘public victim’ who never got the chance to quietly process what happened to him. He had unwittingly become the face of the movement when he simply wanted to unpack his trauma.
Even with that knowledge, Sam went on a crusade, leaving Reggie’s opinion out along the way. Reggie took her to a poetry reading where he shared his feelings about police brutality. She noted she didn’t know the artistic side of her friend. Reggie commented that he had taken even Joelle to a few open mics. The two ended up sleeping together. Neither considered their friend’s feelings in the process.
Sam would have been a great main character for the show had it not been an ode to modern social justice. The whole group would have made for a totally binge-able series on Black campus life, featuring underage drinking, cramming, and sleeping around. ‘Dear White People’ was not written to be that show, and Sam was not written to be the leader of this one.
Or maybe the point is that even our most woke leaders are flawed?
It’s possible that Sam’s arc was meant to teach us that anyone can be problematic. If that was the case, the message was lost in all the layers of colorism and shoddy writing. Hopefully, season two can rectify some of these things.
And we better get at least three Joelle centered episodes goddammit.
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