Satirizing racial tensions in the so-called post-racial America, Justin Simien’s film, Dear White People, follows the lives of several students at Winchester University, a fictional, mostly-white Ivy League college. As it explores the topics of racism, white privilege, affirmative action and interracial relationships, the film almost serves as a rebuttal to everything claimed by people who deny that racism and white privilege exists.
At Winchester, students live in dorms fashioned as houses, with Armstrong Parker House being the house where black students have traditionally chosen to live. In the beginning of the film, Samantha White runs for head of house opposite her ex-boyfriend and son of the dean of students, Troy Fairbanks. Samantha wins. When Kurt Fletcher—son of the university president—picks an argument in the Armstrong Parker dining hall using thinly veiled racist comments, Samantha kicks him out, and strains begin to simmer.
Samantha hosts a radio show called Dear White People, using her platform to dole out bits of advice to fellow students. Some of them are funny: “Dear white people, the number of black friends required in order to not be considered racist just been raised to two.” While others point out backhanded bigotry: “Dear white people…dating a black guy just to make your parents mad is a form of racism.” Her radio show is a kind of public service, offering a glimpse of racism from a black person’s point of view.
To some it may seem like, because black bus passengers are no longer relegated to the seats in the back and we no longer have separate water fountains, racism is over. But to blacks, the quips from Samantha White’s radio show represents the myriad ways in which we still encounter racism today.
Inspired by real events, the climax of the movie is a Halloween party thrown by white students. The invitation calls for students to come out and “liberate their inner negro.” The theme? Dress up as a black person. White students don blackface and dance haphazardly to rap music. They pose for pictures contorting their fingers in what they think are gang signs. It’s offensive, but perhaps the most offensive thing is that this part isn’t fictional—several colleges have dealt with white students throwing parties just like this. When black students get wind of the event, they crash it and the racial tension on campus finally boils over.
But the most important moment in the film is when Samantha White, defines racism: “Black people can’t be racist, she says. “Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a systemic advantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.” The treatment of white rioters and black protesters by the mainstream media is an accurate reflection of this definition.
In the wake of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, Dear White People is a cultural assessment that arrived right on time. Look at how Ferguson protesters were labeled as “rioters” and “thugs” while white students who rioted at a pumpkin festival for no apparent reason were simply “unruly” kids. That’s but one of many forms of the systemic privilege the Samantha White character is referencing.
Of course, screenwriter and director Justin Simien didn’t need Ferguson to make Dear White People timely. Systemic white privilege and the language of racism is an American tradition as old as the republic.
One doesn’t need to look any further than the vitriol spewed at President Barack Obama. Conservative pundits never miss a chance to claim that Obama is not a real American (see: white). He’s been called the food-stamp president, the affirmative-action president, and has been accused of giving free stuff to black people. (Six years into his presidency, I am still waiting for my presents.)
Undoubtedly, there will be people who continue to pretend that white privilege is a myth. They will decry the movie as “reverse racism” but Dear White People has a response. “How would you like if someone made a Dear Black People?” asks a white student in one scene. Samantha informs him that there’s no need, because media outlets, like Fox News, have already made it very clear how white America feels about black people.
Dear White People is a fresh take on being black in a white world. While the film leaves a bit to be desired in terms of deeper exploration of the issues at hand, it’s still a must-see—especially for white people.