Lee: Dear White People

BY ASHLEY LEE | OCTOBER 20, 2014 5:00 AM

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Dear White People premièred in select theaters this weekend. Set at a fictional elite institution, the satiric film explores the lives of four black undergraduate students before and after an “African-American theme” party is thrown by members of a historically white fraternity.

Writer and director of the film Justin Simien creatively places racism, stereotypes, cultural appropriation, colorism, internalized oppression, and white supremacy in conversation with one another. In the tradition of School Daze and Higher Learning, Simien has allowed for my generation to witness a genuine depiction of black student lives.

The film is an open letter to white people, documenting what is or is not appropriate when communicating with black people. But more importantly, the work is made for black people by a black person to both celebrate and validate our stories being told on the big screen.

We have a film sharing alternative, worthwhile stories about black people and the intersections of our identity while simultaneously educating white people about the absurdity of their micro-aggressions and the entrenched institutional racism in higher education. Even though it is done in a playful manner, the work’s serious truth and social commentary is meant to be explored.

After seeing the film, I have to admit that it still has been difficult trying to make sense of the central characters’ private and public motives and how they align with their black identity.

Perhaps this is Simien’s point.

We are introduced to Lionel Higgins — a socially awkward journalist who is only “technically black.” He begins somewhat unsure of what to make of his identity as a black gay male, but he grows much more comfortable as he learns to resist the recurring racism on campus.

Then there’s Samantha White — a “radical,” pro-black, militant, biracial black woman who is a leader of the black community and hosts her own radio show, “Dear White People.” All the while, she has a white partner.

Colandrea “Coco” Connors has dreams of making it big as a reality-show actress. As a dark-skinned black woman, she chooses to wear blue eye contacts and style her hair with a blonde and black-colored weaves, suggesting her desire for Eurocentric features.

Last, we are presented with Troy Fairbanks. The son of the school’s dean, he has tremendous pressure to not only please his father but to be a distinguished black male figure.

Simien does a profound job in providing black characters that express their black identity differently. Certainly each character is not perfect, and in many ways, their public and private personas seemingly contradict one another. However, it is the messy, multifaceted, and complicated intricacies of their identities as black people that give the film so much power.

Dear White People is explicitly directed at white people for mere shock value and to include them in the discussion of racism. But they are not the priority.

Rather than educating white people on racial etiquette and cultural competency, the film is more so about self-identified black students trying to make sense of themselves as marked, racial beings.

The film is implicitly directed at black people — urging us to not only be unapologetic about our black selves but to also not be afraid to assert our idea of blackness in white spaces — no matter how we choose to express it or with whom we choose to express it with.

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