Remember in February when people were boycotting Netflix over a supposedly controversial show? Well, the show in question, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, was released on April 28. Unsurprisingly, both Netflix and the show are unbothered. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE perfectly captures what it is to be black in  America and provides different stances on how people of color navigate a society rampant with white privilege. While I had some initial issues with recasting some of the main characters and how that affected their growth from the movie, the show nevertheless earned its high praise and its 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Good

The Episode Everyone Is Talking About

Admittedly, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE had a notably slow start. The plot was stuck in the mire of the blackface party from the 2014 movie and its aftereffects. Not to mention each episode had to backtrack to show the perspective of each character leading up to the party. For new viewers, this would’ve been great, but for those who already saw the movie, not much new information was provided, and there were slight continuity differences that only movie viewers will catch.

Everything escalated rather quickly at the end of episode five, titled “Chapter V,” when a seemingly benign party takes a turn for the worse. One of the main characters, Reggie, was partying with his white friend, Addison, who got a little too friendly and casually dropped the N-word while singing along.

We’ve faced these types of micro-aggression many times with the other person asking,

“Why is it okay for you to say it but not me?”

Find out if you can say it by clicking here.

Addison then gets extremely defensive instead of being receptive to Reggie by trying to explain how he is not racist, which brings me to my next point. Dear White People, you do not have to be KKK Grand Wizard levels of racist to still commit micro-aggressions against people of color, like dropping the N-word. Nor is anyone implying that you are when someone asks you not to use it in social situations. There are different levels of power at play that would make us uncomfortable.

The N-word has a history of being used as a derogatory term against black people and has finally been reclaimed to be used in social situations. A white person saying it in any context is just further reinforcing that history. We can apply that to the history of the word “queer” as well since that term has also been reclaimed and repurposed into a valid label used by the LGBTQ community when before it was utilized in a derogatory manner.

There Cannot Be Open Dialogue If One Side Refuses To Listen

Even after Reggie tried to explain why it was inappropriate, Addison did not back down, and it did not help that he was being egged on by the leader of the racist frat house, Kurt Fletcher. The situation escalated to a physical confrontation, which resulted in the campus police being called.

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Addison was ignored while the campus officer focused on Reggie and questioned whether he was a student at all. Despite everyone, including Addison, vouching for Reggie, the officer still decided to pull his gun on Reggie. Actor Marque Richardson deserves all the acting awards for perfectly portraying the fear, humiliation, and vulnerability of being powerless in the face of a corrupt officer and the barrel of a gun.

It was the most intense 60 seconds of the show as Reggie slowly reaches towards his wallet to prove his humanity. For that minute, all people of color were in Reggie’s shoes. We almost forgot it was a show, as an all too real fear was playing out before us in a social situation that any of us could end up in. There was no concept of plot armor since our expectations based on real world experiences led us to believe we’d lose Reggie at any moment if he made too sudden movements or took too long to find his I.D.

Dear White People
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, “Chapter V.”

That Escalated Quickly

Thankfully, Reggie managed to escape the situation physically unscathed, but the following episodes focused on him trying to process what happened. Speaking from personal opinion, I had to stop watching after episode five just so I could process the range of emotions I felt. A show that had a slow buildup suddenly escalated into very surreal territory that I, and possibly other people, needed to take a break from to process properly.

The scene with Reggie resonated with me since I had been harassed by school security, who then asked if I was a student, all for the crime of sitting. Thankfully, it did not escalate to the point of guns being used, and it begs the question of how many campuses out there have armed security. For New York City, according to Article 2, Section 27 of the New York Criminal Procedure Laws pertaining to campus peacekeepers, officers do not usually carry firearms, but it’s up to the discretion of the school’s administration whether to allow armed security.

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The Show’s Portrayal Of The Importance Of Hair

Besides the obvious politics and power dynamics at play, one of the more subtle plotlines in DEAR WHITE PEOPLE was the importance of hair, and beauty standards in general, and how they are ingrained in the identities of people of color.

Two of the characters that represent these standards are Coleandrea “Coco” Conners and Lionel Higgins. These two characters have had different life experiences struggling with their identities, and their hair was an important factor in that fight. Lionel sports a giant afro that draws too much attention for his introverted personality while Coco wears a straight laid weave instead of embracing her natural hair.

Colorism In Coco’s Childhood

What the movie didn’t show was that Coco grew up in an environment that continually reinforced her dark skin and her hair as being unattractive features. Episode four, titled “Chapter IV,” showed Coco’s background and gave some context into how she and Sam knew each other.

It was revealed that Coco was subjected to colorism from a very young age when she would be forced to play with the “ugly dolls,” which were really just the black dolls. Coco grew up believing that her features were unattractive, which contributed to her trying to assimilate by having a weave and not calling out micro-aggressions that her white friends commit. She tried everything she could to assimilate even though there was no way she could ever run away from her skin color.

Coco calls out Sam when Sam judges Coco for her choices since Sam is biracial and is a noticeably lighter complexion than Coco. Due to Sam’s biracial status and her lighter skin, she has the luxury of being a voice on campus as well as being generally more accessible to everyone. Coco, by contrast, has spent her life being isolated for her blackness. Despite being a female equivalent of an “Uncle Tom” throughout the movie, we are under the impression that it is a façade due to a falling out between her and Sam.

Coco Embraces Her Curls

Episode nine was a crucial point in Coco’s development as a character. When she spent a night with Troy, he accidentally yanked off Coco’s weave, and we saw a moment of vulnerability as she tried to hide her hair with a head wrap. In response, Troy put on a do-rag so their appearances could match and they shared a tender moment. The next day, Coco decided to wear her natural hair and gave everyone life while doing so.

As the episode progressed, Coco’s confidence begins to grow as she tried to get more involved in the political aspects of the campus. Her motivations before were to get closer to Troy for his connections and to use him to climb the political ladder. By the end of the episode, Coco’s character comes full circle when she realizes Troy doesn’t want the same things as she does. So Coco finds her self-worth and declares that she won’t need to rely on Troy or any other man when she can take power for herself:

“I’m smarter than you. I’m more ambitious than you. 30 years from now, when I am the second black, female president, all you’ll be able to do is think about me. And I won’t remember your name.”

Unfortunately, she was still trying to silence protestors on campus well into the season finale. Hopefully, next season she will come around since she is starting to find her self-worth that is not defined by another man.

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The Intersectionality Of Barbershops And Safe Spaces (Or Lack Thereof)

Lionel Higgins’ character starts off as the typical story of white people having the compulsive need to touch big hair. One criticism for Lionel’s character is that he never really got the chance to stand up for himself or his hair before having it cut. At first, it was disappointing to see Lionel be so eager to cut his hair as if he was surrendering to the harassment. If I didn’t watch the show BLACK-ISH, I would’ve forgotten how important a barber shop is for black youth.

A barber shop is a place for interactions and life lessons to be shared. BLACK-ISH and LUKE CAGE both captured the importance of these spaces for young black men. Lionel was never able to fit into these places due to the homophobia one would encounter in a space occupied by straight men.

Nobody wants to talk about rampant homophobia in seemingly innocent places. While BLACK-ISH and LUKE CAGE presented a positive image that showed the importance of barbershops for young black men, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE showed that not all places are like that and how Lionel missed out on forming meaningful bonds and even just an average haircut. Him asking Troy to cut his hair symbolized how he finally has a safe space to have these interactions. Though some of that may have been motivated by his crush on Troy…but, who can blame him?

The Bad

Continuity Issues With Its Queer Characters

Despite how well the show captures the grievances of people of color, there were still a few continuity issues, especially in the development of its queer characters. Lionel struggling with his identity was a focal point in the movie, and any progress he may have made in the film seemed to have relapsed in the Netflix show since Lionel has to come out of the closet all over again. At the end of the movie DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, one of the actions that sparked a fight at the black face party was Lionel kissing Kurt as an act of defiance, which led to Lionel being assaulted.

After the party was broken up, we see Troy approach Lionel and tell him that if he knew Lionel in high school, he would’ve defended him from being harassed for his sexuality. It seemed from there that Lionel would go further in his development and embrace his identity, especially since the kiss mentioned above was in front of a large crowd, so that would have been his unofficial coming out moment.

Fast forward to the show where the black face party was reshot with all the new actors in place of the original Sam, Coco, Kurt, and Lionel. One stark difference was the omission of Lionel’s kiss and assault as well as Troy’s obliviousness to Lionel being gay even though he knew by the end of the film.

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Find Your Label

Lionel’s character arc then revolved around him finding his identity all over again. Even though it gave us everyone’s favorite line for 2017, “Labels keep people in Florida from drinking Windex,” it was still strange to see Lionel trying to navigate alternative crowds, only to end up with his editor, who was also re-cast and had a complete change of character.

Lionel’s former newspaper editor, George, was played by Brandon Alter and was a walking tower of micro-aggressions, who led Lionel on by flirting with him to get his way, and even went to the black face party and saw nothing wrong with it. Now we have the witty and sassy Silvio played by D.J. Blickenstaff, who guides Lionel in his own way towards coming out as well as improving his writing. Most likely, the character from the film was omitted altogether and rebranded. Or the school got a new editor in the blink of an eye.

Season 1 Cliffhanger

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE ended with a failed town hall meeting and Troy getting arrested. Whether the town hall was a complete failure or not depends on season two. Troy’s father, who spends most of the time sucking up to white people to ensure a future for Troy, has his eyes opened again when he felt his son’s life was in danger when an officer was about to pull out a gun on Troy.

Reggie’s situation was no longer a one-time event, and it was something that could happen to anyone, even to Troy who was constantly put on a pedestal as “one of the good ones.” Season one ended with the consensus from both sides that nobody had the answer to easing racial tensions, whether it was through assimilation or activism.

Hopefully, Coco and Sam will be friends again and work together like they used to. If they do, we might see a lot more action next season, since one thing DEAR WHITE PEOPLE shows us is that black women are a force to be reckoned with.

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