Netflix series Dear White People was always going to be an eye-catcher—especially with that outstanding title. I was immediately intrigued and open to watching it when it was first released in April of last year, but I didn’t get too far. Fifteen minutes into the first episode and I called bullshit—not on its ideas, but on its crappy quality.
Just over a year later season two popped up on my Netflix Original list. I complained loudly to my sister: “Why is this on again? No one liked it then, and they certainly won’t like it now.”
She replied with something that shook me: “Yeah, but the thing is, it does make me ask … do I not like it because it’s a shit show, or because it’s a topic that makes me feel uncomfortable as a white person?”
Before we jumped straight into our standard Harry Potter marathon, her words made me think. So, I suggested we finish the rest of episode one, where I had left off from over a year ago. I wanted to remember why I had stopped watching it. Was it a terrible script, or bad acting? Or African-American actors who talked and acted like spoilt, upper-class kids only to complain about oppression? It turns out, the script wasn’t bad, the acting wasn’t shit, and my own initial feelings about who gets to feel discriminated against were about to be shot down. I was about to have my ass sat down, and shut up—thank god.
I proceeded to binge watch the rest of the entire first season; and then, season two. While we wait anxiously for the release of season three, here’s why Dear White People is fucking brilliant and so, so necessary, relevant, empowering and goddamn real.
As a white-looking woman (albeit with Australian Indigenous heritage), this article is pretty easy for me to write, without having to live it. White privilege (yep, that’s me) is something that the show discusses freely and I hope that this contributes to that conversation.
For those who don’t know, Dear White People follows the lives of a group of Ivy League students—the vast majority of whom are African-American—struggling to deal with the simmering racial tensions that lie just beneath the surface. A black-face party is held, a security cop draws a gun on a black student, and the predominantly white-run university either just doesn’t get the black experience, or is directly supporting systemic racism.
Directed by Justin Simien, it encompasses so many important realities and discourses right now: the vulnerability of, and violence towards, the black man; the unequal beauty standards and back-benching of darker-skinned women; gun violence in America; racial double standards; and how identity and appearance means the difference between life and death—between opportunity, and oppression.
What amazed me as I watched this show was just how mind-blown I was. Either those writers are super woke, or I was just super naïve—probably both. While I never had a doubt in my mind that racism is still as alive with us now as it has been for centuries past—and that, yes, I had white privilege—I still didn’t really know. I mustn’t have. Because when my Indigenous friend told me, point blank to my face, without hostility, but with pure matter-of-factness, that I had white privilege, I was shocked. Why? Because no one had ever told me before.
Because, even though I see Black Lives Matter protests alongside cases of police brutality all the time in the news, I still didn’t really get it. The actors in this show talked about those issues because it is real life for them. This isn’t a faraway nightmare that happens to one in a million. Black people face racism day-to-day. For them, it is an inescapable reality, not just our latest shocking news item. People look at them differently, talk to them differently, walk across the street from them to feel safe, view the colour of their skin like it is a weapon to be used against them, follow them in the corner shop, and if you’re in the United States, maybe draw a weapon on them.
In between episodes it was like reality was mirroring what I’d just seen happening in the show. I opened my Facebook to see if there was any news on this. A single scroll down the page, and oh, look: a cop choking a black man. Oh, another scroll, and there’s a video on pregnant black women dying because the healthcare system is failing them. Don’t forget the recent forceful shoving of black graduates from the University of Florida stage by a white faculty member. These were just at the top of my news feed. Police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and members of the public calling the cops on innocent black people has been all over the news. But it wasn’t until I watched Dear White People characters being (quite rightly) angry about these issues, that I realised something I hadn’t before: too many white people are blind to what Black Lives Matter really means—to the racism that black people battle daily. We think we know, but we don’t.
And this isn’t just an issue in the States. Our global colonial history means that black people everywhere are told they are simply not as good as white people. Indigenous Australians continue to face marginalisation, systemic racism, and crazy, ignorant white people who think they can speak truths about traumatic Indigenous histories—that’s right, Sunrise, I’m looking at you. Also, why is no one talking about the Indigenous boy who appears to have been deliberately run over by a police officer last week in an effort to arrest him, causing him serious injuries? The only reason that moment has made the news at all is because someone caught it on camera. Turns out Childish Gambino was right when he sang, “This is a celly, that’s a tool” in his latest work of genius, This is America.
The evidence is right there in front of us. Now, it’s just a matter of what we decide to do with that information.
Dear White People asks all the uncomfortable questions, especially of white people—but that’s the point. Sometimes, it doesn’t have all the answers. That’s also kind of the point. This conversation is hard to have, but it’s about time we started having it. While this may be just a show, it’s also a reflection of our reality—of the fight against injustice and inequality that started long ago, but that is still very much needed today. What is vital now is that we don’t become desensitised to all of the hatred and racial violence. This is real. It is dangerous. And it is imperative we play a part in it—all of us.
So, to answer my sister’s question: no, this show isn’t shit. It’s highly addictive, brilliantly written and totally relatable for a millennial audience (plus, it’s refreshing to see an all-black cast and an original take on narrative-telling). Did we stop watching it because it was too much for our limited white experience? Perhaps. To be honest, I didn’t give it enough of a chance to really let its ideas get to me in the first place.
But, it’s a reminder to “stay woke”, as the show’s characters say. Sometimes there’s more sinister shit lurking beneath the surface of our utopian-egalitarian façade than we would like to believe … you just have to keep your eyes peeled.
Season two of Dear White People premiered on May 4 and is available on Netflix now.