Despite its title, we can all learn something from Dear White People.
Season 2 of Netflix’s racially-charged hit show, which is based on the 2014 film starring Tessa Thompson, just started streaming and no matter the colour of your skin, it’s must-see TV. In Season 1, its 10-episode arc followed the students of Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college with a predominately white student body. Each episode focused on the experience of a Black student, and occasionally the experience of ‘woke’ TA Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), as the campus dealt with rising racial tension prompted by a campus fraternity’s blackface party. Season 2 picks up right where we left off, with tensions still high and continuing discussions about free speech and hate speech. (New to the conversation this season: the very timely addition of the alt-right).
It may seem like A LOT for a series dubbed a “satirical comedy” but trust, this show is as entertaining as it is informative. As I watched Season 2, I found myself learning more about the nuances of race, privilege and diversity of experience in every scene. Whether it’s the student debates about Rikki Carter, a fictional Tomi Lahren-esque pundit played by Thompson or watching Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) struggle with shadeism and a brief fling with a hotep, Dear White People is so rich in cultural commentary that I wish there was a discussion guide to go with each episode.
In Season 2, Sam (Logan Browning) explains her motivation for hosting the radio show Dear White People and it encapsulates the central takeaway of the entire series. “I do the show to give voice to our experiences but also, yeah, to grab the people who don’t have to care about us,” she says.
And that’s exactly why this show is important for everyone—it’s not just white people that have more to learn about race, it’s all of us.
I am a person of colour, but that doesn’t mean that I’m free of unconscious racial bias. Just like how my brown skin doesn’t automatically make me an expert on where to find the best Indian food in Toronto, it also doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the stereotypes and misinformation that have been spread about racial and ethnic groups other than my own. For instance, I grew up with the understanding that my community would easily accept me dating an Indo-Canadian or white man, but Black men were off-limits.
Racism is not solely a black and white issue, as Sunil Bhatia, a professor at Connecticut College and author of American Karma: Race, Culture and Identity in the Indian Diaspora, explained in a 2017 op-ed for news site Ozy. Instead, prejudice exists within all cultural groups.
“Admittedly, I have heard friends and community members in the privacy of their homes use derogatory Hindi words such as kalu— in place of the N-word—to describe some Blacks as lazy, uneducated and disposed to violence and criminality,” writes Bhatia in his piece
. “And yet the paradox is that while these Indian immigrants readily acknowledge experiencing racism when they arrived in this country, they are fearful, ambivalent and reluctant to talk about the latent—and at times blatant—racism within our own communities.”
When attempting to unlearn these inherent racial biases, I’m not saying that watching Dear White People is sufficient on its own, but it definitely prompts reflection—and according to the show’s creator, Justin Simien, that’s exactly the point.
“I think the show has two goals. One is to allow people who don’t necessarily look like us to see themselves in characters they don’t expect to, so that the next time they see a Black guy at Starbucks, they won’t feel the need to call the cops on him,” Simien told The New York Times. “And the other thing is to make people who’ve actually gone through these experiences go: ‘Oh my God, totally. I’m so glad someone finally put it that way.’ I think both of those things allow Black folks to feel more human in society.”
At a time when it’s our responsibility to become more educated about what people of colour endure, I’m also acutely aware of the burden of constantly having to explain one’s lived experience. The weight of that responsibility is demonstrated through the numerous characters in Season 2 of Dear White People. One memorable example: when Coco (Antoinette Robertson) fields questions about racism from white residents of the Armstrong Parker dorm. “When did I become the white whisperer?” she says to her friend Muffy (Caitlin Carver).
Part of the reason the scenes in Dear White People work so well is because of the dialogue. The messages are not meant to be subtle. We are invited into the world of Coco, and the main character Sam (Logan Browning), and we are not only clearly told how they feel, but we also get a glimpse of the toll these discussions take on them. That burden is made particularly clear when Sam engages in an all-weekend Twitter war with an alt-right troll that leaves her feeling targeted, exhausted and infuriated all at once.
“One of the reasons why I liked the title Dear White People was because in a lot of ways these characters always feel like they’re in reaction to a white gaze—they always feel like they have to tell them how they’re actually feeling or ‘I’m not actually this way.’ What does that do to a person to have the idea of race applied to them?” Simien told Variety. “As a Black person you do have to respond to these things—but there’s a cost to that.”
Since Season 1 aired last April, there has been a rise of white supremacy and racist rhetoric with events like Charlottesville—further proof that shows like Dear White People aren’t just entertaining, they’re necessary.
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