The acclaimed Netflix-original series Dear White People deals with racism in the most elite place: a fictional top Ivy League university. Following the discrimination faced by a group of colored students, the show uses full-frontal satire, like an alarm on Monday morning, when the narration is broken in the first opening sequences noting the producers’ use of an “ethnic, but non-threatening voice.” The exposition of much of the show rests on the narration, breaking the oft-cited rule of show don’t tell.
A trying-too-hard vibe of the show consistently comes up in how it handles its main characters: Ikumi, a token, unnecessary Asian character, Rashid, an international Kenyan student, and Lionel, a gay student reporter. The character Rashid, described by writer Hannah Giorgis as “a ridiculously quirky, sage young man who has no identity beyond his Kenyan-ness”, Ikumi shows up almost randomly one night to join the characters and is inserted into the storyline without sufficient development. Lionel is the stereotypical confused gay character who has a secret crush on his straight roommate. One of the only accurate portrayals in the show is the conflict of Coco and Sam over light-skinned privilege and colorism. Coco has never been able to ignore her black colored skin, but Sam had the privilege of disregarding her skin color up until elementary school when she was deliberately excluded by another girl. At the end of the first season of the show, Coco and Sam resolve their differences by having a discussion about how and why they were pitted against each other.
My personal favorite dynamic in the show is the tension and discussion between the different black student organizations: the Black Student Union, African American Student Union, Black American Forum or Black AF, and Coalition of Racial Equality. Perhaps one of the only places that the show acknowledges its self-aware satire, each organization is stereotyped with the militant BSU, credit-taking AASU, rhyming poets of BAF, and son-of-the-dean CORE. Often, POC are portrayed as having a universal opinion on how to deal with race, but the multitude of voices and various organizations meeting in Black Caucus show even in the “struggle” there is a range of opinions.
Much of the show has a performative aspect that makes it feel forced, as though it is trying to check off multiple boxes of wokeness like a different TV show, The Bold Type, which revolves around feminism. Nothing ground-breaking or radical is expressed in Dear White People; its vague references mimic just about any university or racist happenings in the real world. The lack of specificity is a weakness creating not a universe that draws me in, but rather a pale reflection of the one we live in. Reggie’s police confrontation and the black face party are stories anyone paying attention to campus news will see. The show is meant to start a conversation, but society has been having these conversations for a while now, making Dear White People feel a little bit too late. Although the show is meant to be a satire, the characters take themselves too seriously for the show to have any serious comedic value.
However in a technical sense, Dear White People is an astonishing production. The shots and lighting make the TV show feel like a softly-lit feature length film, which isn’t surprising as the show is based on a 2014 film of the same name. Not to mention, episode five is directed by Barry Jenkins, the acclaimed director of Moonlight. The texture of the show is consistent despite the large roll call of directors for this first season. Music, supervised by Morgan Rhodes, is subliminal in the show as it harks to well known songs such as “We the People….” by Tribe Called Quest, but also includes orchestral pieces and more indie acts like “Bougie Party” by Chloe x Halle.
Dear White People is a show that is not supposed to take itself seriously but does, making it a show that requires and draws in critical viewers. In the peak age of television, there are definitely other shows out there that critically handle a “post-racial” world better than the generic college campus Dear White People presents. That being said, I still binge-watched Dear White People for its fun soap opera quality because, despite how these type of controversies constantly flood the internet, not every TV show is meant to be a racial dissertation.