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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

TV Review: Dear White People (2017-) and Character Studies to Understand a Show

"The paradox of education is precisely this: that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated."
Starring: Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, DeRon Horton, Antionette Robertson, Marque Richardson, John Patrick Amedori
Created By: Justin Simien
Streaming/Airing On: Netflix
Original Release: April 28, 2017
The cleverly titled Netflix original series, Dear White People, is a revamping of the 2014 film of the same name, but those were quick to condemn the film simply because of its name shouldn't do the same here. Though it follows the same characters from the original film, the show is both a continuation and a digression from its source material as it touches on social issues like police brutality and colorism, which were previously ignored. Its examinations of race and society are far more complex and dynamic not only because are they funnier and more well-written, but because they offer a wider perspective on different aspects of the black experience that its predecessor previously ignored.
Samantha "Sam" White (Logan Browning) is our main protagonist. She is not only the leader of the Black Student Union of the fictional college of Winchester University, but she also hosts the show's titular radio show, which mainly consists of her lecturing white people about how they contribute to a racist society. She is a revolutionary leader in many ways, but that does not mean that she is perfect. However, while she and the people around her use the word "woke" far more than I believed to be humanly possible, that is not the issue. This is because much of the show's witty dialogue is taken straight from the Twitter-verse. Slang terms like "bae" and "hashtag-this-and-that" are used ironically to promote the fact that this is a millennial-driven universe. Sam's character struggles with her own bi-racial identity while simultaneously struggling to fight racism. She preaches against sleeping with your "oppressor" to her fellow black female while secretly dating a white guy on the side. She really enjoyed listening to stereotypically "white" music, but will turn on some rap music to fit in with her black social group. She is ashamed of the white side of her identity, so she tries her hardest to appeal to her black peers by shunning her whiteness. Though a lot of what she does is hypocritical in theory, it plays into the extremely militant stance she has in accordance to battling racism because she's also battling herself as well.
Colandrea "Coco" Conners (Antionette Robertson) is presented to us first, as a villain, but we being to empathize with her as we learn more about her. Long, long ago, Coco and Sam were once best friends. They joked around and traded battle stories about how the rest of the world has treated them. And even when they're pitted against each other, their dynamic never revolved around a man. It did, however, revolve around their own deeply-rooted insecurities combatting one another while also being surrounded by a racist institution. Coco is also the one who sets Sam off on her journey to becoming "woke", but unlike Sam, she would rather perpetuate Euro-centric beauty standards to fit in than fight back against it by being content in her own skin. While it's Sam's whiteness that makes her feel out of place in the black community, it's Coco's blackness that makes her uncomfortable around other black people. For years, she has been taught to appeal to her white peers and mimic their attitudes and appearances by getting long, wavy weave and relying on the humility of her blackness to appease the white people around her to succeed. While she only does this to move up the school's social and political ladder, she truly believes that this is the only way she can achieve her goals in a white domineered society. Being darker-skinned comes with a lot more restrictions and Coco tells Sam this when she tells her to check her "light-skin privilege." She sees that Sam's complexion aides her in being so easily accepted within the black community in ways that Coco's cannot.
Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) embodies the essence of the Carefree Black Girl movement. The Carefree Black Girl is the embodiment of the kind of woman that is completely different from the many negative tropes that are supposed to symbolize black women (*see The Angry Black Woman trope*). The Carefree Black Woman is strong-willed and speaks her mind when she needs to. She's funny and intelligent and wears Forever 21 T-shirts with witty phrases like, "Black: No Cream, No Sugar" on them. She has hair that's to die for, wears brightly colored lipstick and stands up for social justice issues. Hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackOutDay will provide you make examples of the strong, black women that care to be highlighted for being themselves and fighting against what's seen as traditionally beautiful. However, she embodies this "carefree" notion to the extent that she's ignored by those around her for her light-skinned counterpart, Sam, which denounces the purpose of the movement. Carefree does not equate to careless. However, because Joelle's character is not fleshed out enough for her to stand apart from Sam, her characterization is written off as a mere stereotype whose job is to take care of Sam when she's in need. When Sam asks her lively, black best friend to "say something funny and specific," she's happy to oblige even though Samantha has just slept with the man she's in love with.
Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), Joelle's love interest, is a male foil to Sam. Like Sam, he also holds a very militant stance when it comes to combatting racism. However, he would rather revolt the system itself than directly punish the people that benefit from it like Samantha does on her radio show. Though he appreciates her efforts, he also sees some problems with her approach at times. This can be seen when he tells her that not everything they do has to include them berating white people. However, being more "woke" and so much more outspoken and passionate about his blackness than some of the other black, male characters on the show causes him to encounter racism on a much larger scale. From smaller microaggression that are more of an annoyance than a real hindrance to his cause to larger, more blatant acts of racism that almost get him shot and killed, Reggie is the character that embodies the everyday black man that's reduced to the "angry black man" simply because of his skin color. And even more importantly, he is the everyday black man that could so easily become the next Philando Castile because of this generalization.
Lionel Higgins' (DeRon Horton) experience is one that is quite different from those of the other characters. He holds not only one marginalized identity, but two. Though he has a rough time accepting the fact he is a gay, black man, the journey that he goes through to accept that side of himself is quite important. It's also important that we see he isn't the only one going through this struggle. Lionel doesn't label himself, or at least this is what he tells his boss when they discuss his sexuality earlier on in the show. When his boss invites him to a party, Lionel is introduced to a man who also doesn't label himself. However, this man turns out to be gay, just like Lionel. Lionel's fear of coming out lies in the assumptions and connotations that come with being a gay, black man. Lionel is shy and reserved and completely unlike how the media portrays what gay, black men are like (*see RuPaul Drag Race*). When he does eventually come out, some stereotypes about gay men are used as jokes here and there, but none are used are the expense of expunging Lionel's autonomy directly. They're used to expose the homophobia and toxic masculinity that have infiltrated the black community that Lionel must overcome to learn to accept himself.
Troy Fairbacks (Brandon P. Bell) is Lionel's roommate and, the dean's son. Like both Samantha and Reggie, he also wants to combat racism on campus, but he wants to do so by encouraging black people and white people to work together. He also encourages those around him to work with administration instead of fighting against it to solve the school's problems, but this is mainly because of the way his father has raised him to be. His father appeases to the administration who allow him to run the school to make themselves look and feel good about allowing black people into their fold. He wants to shield Troy from the truths of the world, so he molds Troy's life how he wants. However, in doing so, he's also inhibiting Troy from becoming his own person. Troy questions his entire identity when all the problems at Winchester University begin to go head-to-head and he begins to realize that he may want something more from life. Throughout the whole show, we really don't get many instances to see who Troy really is because every time he gets a chance to express his own opinions, he's shut down. In the finale, when he finally let’s go and smashes the town hall's window and seemingly breaks free from his father's authoritarian rule over him, he's almost shot and killed like Reggie just a few episodes prior. This is because when he's finally allowed to be himself and express his opinions about the campus' on-going race issue, he's seen as just another angry black man by the racist white people in power around him, which is something his father cannot protect him from.

Though Dear White People offers many more valuable insights that I have probably failed to touch upon in this post, these characters and their development throughout the course of the show's 10 episodes are what move the show forward. They symbolize the politically correct veil that has shrouded our very world and hidden who we really are as Black Americans. These people, instead of being themselves, project labels defined by the very unjust society that they're trying to combat. And because they're fighting themselves, it's harder for them to get their point across because they don't really know what they're saying. These characters are fighting for the same cause, but none of their approaches are effective because they're all trying to be heard at the same time. They're all trying to be louder, "woker" and blacker than the person before them when none of that is necessary if you want to be heard.

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