Saturday, November 08, 2014

Dear White People

Last weekend I went to see the film “Dear White People.” Having seen all the trailers and promos on the internet, I expected to see a Spike Lee type film designed to put White people in their place because as a group Whites tend not to get this “race thing.” Instead I was surprised to discover the film to be a serious and intelligent look at what it means to be Black in the United States in 2014. If I were to guess the meaning of the title, it would be in essence to say “Dear White people, don’t put us in boxes and stereotypes. We want the freedom to shape our identities in any we want, just like you.”

In her ground breaking book, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Beverly Tatum points out that developmentally the college age years are a time of exploring, experimenting and eventually shaping one’s adult identity, and for many Black young adults this means joining in Black fraternities and other social clubs to explore the meaning of being Black in 2014.  She convincingly contends that Black kids stick together not primarily out of resentment of hate of Whites, but because they are trying to navigate the ambiguous and often hostile terrain of racism in U.S. culture. I could not help but think about this book, along with Spike Lee’s “School Daze” as a backdrop to this film.

One of the precipitating events in the film is the election of Sam, an apparently militant Black Power
anarchistic biracial feminist as head of the all Black dorm at prestigious Winchester University. While on the outside she seems to have her stuff together, as the film progresses we learn that she is as confused as her peers wanting to express herself, but sneaking off with a white boyfriend while simultaneously worried about the health of her desperately ill white father whom she loves deeply. While this is going on internally, outwardly she leads a campaign to exclude all White people from the Black dorm’s cafeteria, and heads up a campus wide radio program called “Dear White People” in which she chides White people not to try and  "act Black" because they don’t get it.

In response, an all-White dorm decides to host a Halloween party where invitees are encouraged to “get in touch with their inner Negro.” Despite attempts by the president and dean of the school to stop the party, it happens anyway and white students come dressed up in the most demeaning and stereotypical black roles. As administrators are wont to do they shut down the party while insisting to alumni and donors that there is “no race problem at Winchester.” Denial and suppression have all too often been the tactics of the Baby Boomer generation when it comes to things racial.

What I appreciated about the film is how it depicts the current Millennial generation’s struggle to understand the dynamics of racism in the 21st century. I disagree with Roger Ebert who wants to avoid the whole focus on race “because it is so exhausting.” As one who spends a great deal of time with this generation and teach a class on Race and Ethnic Relations, I found that the movie helped me articulate some of the generational differences between my perspective on race and that of my students. Millennials have a cursory knowledge of the history racism in our country, and in my course when they are confronted with that history, they are blown away by the way that history informs interactions today.  They want to think of themselves as post racial, but when events like Ferguson or Trayvon Martin’s murder occur, they revert back to the angry activism of the 60’s, yet without a clear focus. While it is true this generation, especially those in higher education, have had far more casual interaction across racial lines than their  Baby Boomer parents, they feel no need to deal with or even talk about race issues. Yet below the surface, both Black and White students have many fears, questions and uncertainties, and don’t often know where to go for answers.

I would love to use this film as a starting point for discussion in my course, because it shows that the deepest power of racism is its influence on how we view ourselves and how we see the racial “others.” Some respond to this power to shape identity with denial, others with fear, others with hopelessness and others with anger. That is what comes through so clearly in this film.

Were I to have had input in the film I would have wanted to have more racial diversity than simply Black and White; Asian and Latino students make a temporary appearance, but the film does not break away from the Black-White polarity that shapes so many discussions around race. Other racial/ethnic groups experience racism too, but in ways unique to their experience and background. Secondly, I would have liked to have seen the same diversity portrayed among the White students as the Black students. Just like the Blacks in the film, my experience is that Whites have varying degrees of awareness and willingness to confront the reality of racism in our day. Like many Blacks they want to believe that we are past needing to deal with racism, yet when confronted with racism’s reality, they don’t know how to respond constructively.

However, I think the film’s purpose was to show that while in one sense civil rights for Blacks have come a long way (otherwise they would not have been at such a prestigious university), the spoken and unspoken barriers of racial discrimination still continue to confront this Millennial generation, and like those before them, both Blacks and Whites have their own challenges to overcome as we move toward Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community.

This is a  film I would like to see again. I felt the nuances and subtleties of racism in our era are beautifully captured, and as such, I am sure there is much I missed. However, what I did take from the film has had me thinking all this past week. So in my mind it is worth seeing again.


will said...

Hi Dr. Boyd. I enjoyed reading your comments about Dear White People. I saw it last week and I thought it was very well done. I felt similarly to you in in that I thought the film's extended title should be "Dear white people, there is no such thing as a singular black experience in the United States." Another thought I had about the movie centered around its ending. Did you feel like scene at the end of all the black students all getting along in their house suggested that it takes oppressive/racist events to create bonding and unity? Or do you think the tension between characters Troy and Coco on the steps together was enough to suggest that things weren't totally peachy?

I've included a link to a review that I thought was pretty good. It's from a sports and pop-culture website that I enjoy. The writer had a really great piece about his experiences in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed that you might be interested in.
-Will Summers

Gimenez5 said...

I went to see this movie with my daughter who is 14 years old. She pointed out that her generation may view race a little differently. She helped me see that some of this is about class and economic privilege. She pointed out that the title of the movie probably should have been named" Dear White and Black people who are confused about being Black". My daughter also pointed out there was a strong hint of homophobic behavior towards the only character in the movie who was presumably gay. Which was interesting sense the movie was primarily about race. My daughter began to say that you can be gay or straight but you can't hide from racism. To be honest I'm not sure how I felt about this movie. There was some parts that hit home. For example when the school president explained that racism was over. Which if was true then we would have not seen this movie in the first place. The movie left me asking okay what about after college. So maybe just maybe there will be a Dear White People part 2. I guess Colleges/Universities are suppose to me a microcosm of the real world around us however after graduation things can get a little more complicated. What was interesting is if you didn't catch it at the end when the credits were rolling there were pictures of white people in black face. I have been growing in my understanding of the gross ignorance around race/racism. The fact is people are generally ignorant on the subtleties and covert ways in which racism still plays a major role in our society. The movie at least gives us an opportunity to dialogue. said...

I did see the credits at the end and the white students in black face. So the premise of the movie - with regard to the party - was based in fact.

A few years ago at the college where i work, some white students left a noose on a black student's dorm door. Like in the movie they thought it as a "joke" (how they could ever think that I don't know) which shows (1) our lack of connection to history (2) an how shallow some white folks' understanding of racism really is.
BTW the white students were expelled.

Idalia Adan said...

Hey Dr. Boyd!

I really appreciated your blog on the film. I have been uncertain on whether or not I wanted to see it myself.. Reading your take on it as well as others has me intrigued. I am going to check out the film finally! I agree with your view points on how racism is viewed today. I have to say I am guilty of being naive at times about it. I am Puertorican and Cuban;being raised in Latino culture, the presence of racism can be very strong within our group. What I didn't realize growing up, however, is that my family is predominantly very white. (skin complexion) I have blue eyes and dirty blond hair with very light skin. I didn't realize that I have 'white privilege.' I thought that because I am Puertorican and Cuban I was a minority. Although, technically my ethnicity allows me to check off that box, when I walk into a store or speak to an officer I am treated differently than my friends or cousins who are darker.

It's just interesting to think about. I know people who still don't get it. Yea I am Latina, but this film is directed to me as well.