Our society offers white people affirmation in all facets of life — economic, political, social and even personal — that it doesn’t accord to black people. And racism is simply a phenomenon that us white Americans will never fully understand.
This is the well-supported thesis of “Dear White People,” and explicating racism to white people is the arduous feat that the film attempts to achieve.
The 2014 movie, written and directed by Justin Simien, comes off as a pop-college comedy, where students melodramatically vote for the head of their resident housing on their iPhones — but it interrogates some lofty ideas. Among them is the concept of late sociologist, historian and author W.E.B. DuBois regarding a “double-consciousness” felt by black people, which, as he describes it in “Our Spiritual Strivings,” is “this sense of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels this two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two unreconciled strivings.”
Simien’s movie revolves around the story of a few black college students at an overwhelmingly white Ivy League school who are forced to navigate this “two-ness.” The main character, Sam, runs a radio show called “Dear White People,” which is just a small part of the militant Black Nationalist work she is involved with on the campus. Sam’s radical politics serve mostly as a way by which to affirm her black identity — a show of resistance to the awkward, childhood stares felt by her and her white biological father.
She is juxtaposed with her archenemy, Troy, a successful, well-dressed, seemingly ambitious political science major who heads the black resident house on campus. Though Troy appears content on the outside, he is locked in a father-enforced mission to combat the stereotype of the “lazy, unsuccessful black man,” rather than following his true passion for comedy.
The audience also meets Lionel, a gay, adolescent, isolated freshman who gets picked up to write for the student newspaper because he’s black. He is caught between the fiery rhetoric of Sam — which makes him feel not black enough — and the not-so-subtle racism extolled by his editor — which is, well, utterly dehumanizing.
While they are all different and more complex than their designated roles may suggest, they have this much in common: they are all in an identity crisis pigeonholed to oversimplified images of black people created by the white world that surrounds them.
Thus, though the film doesn’t grant Sam’s Black Nationalism, for example, superiority over any of the other identities presented, it does take a militant stance against the caricaturization of black people.
The culmination of the film, in fact, occurs when an all-white campus comedy club throws a black-face party — a party at which white guests come dressed as black stereotypes. The party is crashed, and our once-soft-spoken Lionel breaks out of his mold in a violent uproar, destroying a great deal of property. Both he and Sam are able to disown their oversimplified, externally-designed identities and actualize what DuBois described as the resolution to this two-ness: “[Black people] simply wish to make it possible for a [person] to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows.”
Simien, however, does well in not resolving this two-ness for all characters. For instance, the audience is left with Troy still locked in his father’s scheme, running for student body president. This two-ness, one imagines, remains a serious struggle for many black people today, living in a society that, on one hand, has dubbed itself as “post-racial,” yet, on the other hand, treats black people as disposable.
Indeed, amid a time when racism has been thrust to the forefront of the American political and cultural discussion, this is an open letter to white people that should not fall on deaf ears.