You could have replaced my brainstem with a celery stick last summer and not have noticed an appreciable difference in my behavior. Stuck in a weird kind of stasis, I wasn’t doing much aside from eating my mom’s leftovers and mindlessly slaughtering Bokoblins in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”
So when one of my old classmates suggested that I watch “Dear White People,” I figured I might as well. And yet, despite the show having black writers and a predominantly black cast, an indescribable annoyance grew in my gut after every episode. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what was wrong, I just knew that something wasn’t right.
Somewhere during the haze of my binge-watching session, it hit me: This show is for white people.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I mean, it’s in the title.
“Dear White People” is a Netflix television series centered on the lives of black college students attending a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League school. Each episode is pretty formulaic, with the focus on one of the cast members and a problem they face. Most of the episodes focus on themes surrounding blackness, like interracial relationships or police brutality, and very little on college life.
People tend to praise the show for its teachable moments. It does its best to maintain a sense of white palatability — most white people can watch this show and feel like they’re learning something without feeling attacked. Don’t get me wrong; I think that’s a great quality for the show to have.
But between the ham-fisted acting and the “woke” jokes the writers try to insert every 50 seconds, that’s pretty much the only good quality the show has, and that’s what makes it bad. The show gives people of color roles that solely play off of their color, depriving them of the chance to form any real interests or personalities. With the exception of Lionel, a black student who struggles and later reconciles with his sexuality, most of the rest of the cast’s sole defining traits are intimately related to their race.
Sam? Black activist. Reggie? Black guy crushing on Sam. Joelle? Black woman playing second-string to Sam. Gabe? White guy. I can barely even remember these characters’ majors because the writers are too fixated on creating more “teachable moments” and “ultra-woke” jokes to focus on literally anything else.
It almost seems as if the writers picked a race for a character, stuck a bunch of computer-generated character traits on a dartboard, closed their eyes, and went with whichever one stuck. So sure, Sam is black and sarcastic. But that’s really all she is.
What’s more, this show uses these caricatures to demonstrate very real problems, and in doing so, makes these problems seem unreal. Take episode five, for instance, when a cop threatens Reggie’s life with a gun. I already knew that Reggie’s humanity came before his blackness, but the show didn’t do enough to portray him as human (other than making him have a crush on Sam, I guess).
When I saw his life in danger, I didn’t think of a racist versus a human being — I saw an over-exaggeration of racism versus a cardboard cut-out of a black guy. If I, a black person, was forced to see the situation from that angle, what kind of message is that sending to a white audience?
A good chunk of this show struck me as unrelatable. It’s not that I couldn’t relate with individual parts of the series — I’ve had white people randomly decide to touch my hair and I’ve dealt with the assumption that I’m violent — but I couldn’t relate to all that happening every single time I talk to someone on campus.
The show seems to define blackness as dealing with a constant barrage of microaggressions every second of every minute of every hour, as only hanging out with black people, as only doing “black things.” If you do deign to have white friends or do “white things,” you’re either a Coco or a Kelsey: overly ambitious or extremely vapid and superficial.
Maybe some black people can relate to this show, and if so, I don’t want to take that away from them. But I’ve never felt “black first, other personality components second.” If anything, I highly identified with George Yancy’s concept of phenomenology, the idea that black people feel the weight of their blackness only when white people remind them of it.
I think I can best summarize the idea with an anecdote of my own. On move-in day, I was trying to find my residence hall and found myself walking near an old white woman. We made eye contact, and I gave her a smile. I didn’t think of myself as anything more than an average student. Her neutral expression quickly morphed into a frown, and she actually made the effort to move to the other side of the street. Then I remembered that I was black.
In “Dear White People,” all cast members are constantly reminded of their race to the point where they can’t be anything else. This show is constantly applauded for having a predominantly black cast, for being hilarious, for being “woke,” but not for actually having an interesting plot or well-developed characters. While we should be happy that more shows are making roles for people of color, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of complacency and automatically assume the show is good because a person of color is on screen or worked on the script. So if you’re white and didn’t like this show, don’t worry: That doesn’t automatically make you racist. I didn’t like it, either.
Brooke Sparks PO ’22 never thinks before she speaks. She mains Zelda in Smash Ultimate.