For many, college is the chance to have a transformative experience of finding yourself. However, when you’re a student of color, you quickly learn (if you haven’t already) that you aren’t in complete control of your identity. There are massive institutions in place that control your representation. [Insert prayer emoji, raise the roof emoji, any emoji that will say what I cannot with words.] It is an absolute dream to see Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” where racial identity is foregrounded and handled with the complexity and nuance it deserves.
One of the most refreshing parts about this film is that there isn’t only one protagonist of color used to represent the collective struggle. There is an ensemble cast of black students, each with different backgrounds and conflicts.
“Your favorite director is Bergman but you tell people it’s Spike Lee. You love bebop but you’ve got a thing for Taylor Swift”—Sam White is half-white and half-black and is constantly accused of “over-compensating” her blackness as a result of her mixed race background. Her black pride is somehow invalidated when she is revealed to have tastes and interests outside the scope of the “black-appropriate” genre. Lionel Higgins is a queer black student who’s constantly forced to choose either a black or a gay identity. Coco Connors has internalized racism and distances herself from black culture, forced to assimilate to white beauty standards to get ahead. And Troy Fairbanks, the Dean’s son, is pushed into the student leadership roles he doesn’t want because his father needs to prove his son, a black man, can succeed.
Sam White has a college radio show called Dear White People, where she gives satirical PSAs like, “the amount of black friends required to not seem racist has been raised to two…” She outlines three “types” black people can be if they are to live in a white-dominated society: 1) oofta – someone who adjusts their blackness depending on the environment; 2) nosejob – someone who tries to hide their blackness in exchange for whiteness; and 3) 100 – someone who is 100 percent at terms with their black identity. More often than not, you’re not any one of these types, but you can’t be “just yourself” either. Being a unique individual unencumbered by racial expectations is a luxury.
“Dear White People” is also varied in its characterization of how racism is perpetuated and how black elites are complicit in maintaining the status quo. Again, this is also complex, because it’s a survival mechanism for living in a white-dominated society and a prime example for how having token minorities won’t change things.
It has often been said how timely “Dear White People” is, as Ferguson protests and racially-motivated police violence continue, as well as the media’s general anti-black bias. And “Dear White People” reminds us that nothing in the United States is untainted by racism, even prestigious academic institutions, which continue to maintain white privilege and systematic racism.
“Dear White People” is an ambitious film and is almost too packed with issues. There’s so much going on that I sometimes lose track of the story. Then again, it is a satire; it’s meant to be exaggerated so that the director’s points are driven through without room to misinterpret them. It’s rare when someone has the power to control how they are represented to the world, so you should see the result when they do.