“Sometimes I think the hardest thing to be in the American work force right now is an educated white guy.”
– Kurt Fletcher, Dear White People
“I don’t see what the point is in blaming white folks for everything.”
– Coco Conners, Dear White People
Dear White People. The film’s title alone set me on edge. Somehow, those three words felt hostile, accusing. Dear White People, here’s a list of all the wrongs you’ve perpetrated against the melanin-rich people of the world. Dear White People, check your privilege at the door, if you dare.
When my friends from environmental justice class talked about seeing director Justin Simien’s Kickstarter-funded racial critique, I wavered. I already left class every Tuesday and Thursday drenched in white guilt. Besides, biting racial satire just isn’t my go-to brand of humor. But my friends’ enthusiasm won me over.
The film delivers a high-energy, cleverly executed satirical critique of a culture that pits whites against blacks, blacks against blacks, and activists’ ideals against their own self-interests. Simien’s script is as vicious as it is brilliant, if somewhat bloated by the sheer number of characters and issues he has set out to address.
The trials and tribulations of Dear White People take place among the students and administrators of posh Winchester University, a residential college where the grounds are as impeccably groomed as the inhabitants. Simien introduces us to a hefty ensemble cast wrestling with everything from black identity, parental legacy, and homophobia to interracial relationships, collegiate politics, and the power of media.
We meet Lionel, a black, gay wannabe-journalist with a truly spectacular Afro; Sam, the film’s self-professed “angry black chick” who can’t quite reconcile her white-bashing radio show with her Caucasian father and pseudo-boyfriend; Coco, who wears bright blue contact lenses in an attempt to feel less black; and a half-dozen other characters, each representing a perfect storm of racial, emotional and academic challenges.
Visually, the film is striking. Every shot drips with upper-crust elegance—carved marble and sandstone architectural accents give way to wood-paneled libraries and airy private dining halls. Orchestral baroque music features heavily in the soundtrack. The students, black and white alike, smoke cigars and sport tailored jackets and carefully-accessorized hipster ensembles; during student elections, they vote via smartphone app. These are high-class students at a high-class institution, getting a high-class education. One might even call them—gasp—privileged.
The film is very deliberate on this point: even as Winchester’s black students rail against racial injustice, they do so from a place of extreme privilege. They aren’t fighting for jobs, for safer living conditions, or for social legitimacy. Their cutting rhetoric about systemic racism is devoid of calls for equality and mutual respect. Instead, Winchester’s black activists have swung in the opposite direction by claiming cultural superiority over whites. Sam spends the film fighting to prevent a housing reform policy from mandating the black student community to mingle with the white students. She and her friends forcibly remove a batch of white students from the black students’ dining hall, then pelt the infiltrators with balled napkins when they try to return.
The film’s whites are no racial saints, either; they return insult for insult and end the film by staging a mocking, blackface Halloween party. The racial-cultural rift runs deep, and no one will take responsibility for it. Winchester’s white president insists that “racism is dead in America,” while Sam claims that “black people can’t be racist.”
These layers of irony form the crux of Dear White People’s satirical message: racism hounds us across generations, cultures, educational levels, socio-economic strata, and skin pigments. As long as humans insist on calling attention to color, color will continue to divide us.
Monday marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s been forty-seven years since a bullet ended King’s mission of equality and solidarity. Forty-seven years, and we’re still dreaming.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.