When Netflix’s Dear White People made its debut in April, 2017, the show immediately impressed viewers with the complex emotional multitudes it contained—showing its characters to be what author Cheryl Strayed once described as “flawed, and capable of redemption.” The plot focuses closely on the inner lives of black students at Winchester University, a fictional, predominately white Ivy League school that originally was brought to life in a 2014 film of the same name. Creator Justin Simien, who also wrote and directed the film, demonstrates that there is always more to people than what meets the eye.
Coleandrea “Coco” Conners is a young woman who adds weave to her hair and shortens her name in order to become accepted into a Black sorority. Is this an affirmation of black pride or the upholding of European beauty standards? Or both—or neither? When confronted by another student about showing up to a party where white attendees wore blackface, Coco says, “This might come as a shock to you, but these people don’t give a fuck about no Harriet motherfucking Tubman. They pay millions of dollars on their lips, their tans, their asses, Jay-Z tickets, because they want to be like us. And they got to be for a night. I’m not about to go out in the streets and protest a fucking Halloween party.”
Reggie Greene is a fierce activist for his people, and is constantly challenging them to fight for their rights in the face of injustice. But does that mean every white person he encounters who disagrees with him on race issues is a racist? What if a white friend uses the N-word—but does so in reference to a popular rap song in which the word figures prominently?
The main character is Samantha White, who is shown to be the most politically passionate character—but also, it turns out, the most contradictory. When she’s not in class, Samantha hosts a radio show called, yes, Dear White People, a platform she uses to endlessly call out the transgressions of white people. She courageously derides the white-run campus satire mag (Pastiche) for throwing an offensive party and exhibiting insensitivity to the black community. She attacks police brutality, telling listeners that “kids are getting shot by cops for being black,” and that “voter-rights are still being suppressed.” And yet Samantha White, black-power advocate extraordinaire, has a white boyfriend. It’s the sort of reveal that shows up the complexity of what it means to live in the real world as an actual human being, with all our glorious and ironic contradictions—not as the stereotypical black person of the public imagination.
But this send-up of simplistic stereotypes arguably could be applied to Dear White People itself. For all its self-examination (and self-satirization) of African-American campus subculture, the show never truly extends the same attitude of awareness to its white characters. For the most part, the white people in the show are just stale cookie-cutter political abstractions who fulfill the expectations of their peers of color. In other words, they’re just caricatures—which has made the show’s first two seasons (a third is on its way) frustrating to watch.
Thane Lockwood, a popular white student-athlete on campus is a doofus drunk who kills himself after getting drunk at a party. No explanation, no deep insight into his character, his fears, his shortcomings, his strengths. Thane is simply a placeholder for how we imagine white people to be. Even the name is ridiculous—the white equivalent of calling a black character “Shaneequa Jackson-Motombo.” Indeed, the closest we come to a white person with depth is Samantha’s boyfriend, who calls her out as a fraud who is “more Banksy than Barack” (an admittedly good line) but who nevertheless has been “co-opted as some sort of revolutionary leader or something.”
All this makes the title of the show—Dear White People—something of a lie, since it suggests good-faith outreach to white people who, according to the show’s implicit message, don’t seem capable of much depth or self-reflection. One cannot get a political abstraction to change. Stereotypes do not change. Objects do not change.
In this way, the show acts as something of a stand-in for the larger incompatibility between high-end pop culture with intersectionality—the faddish critical framework now commonly used by progressives to describe how racism, sexism, homophobia etc. act upon people in interconnected ways. Intersectionalists tend to make bold, doctrinaire claims about society, which, when drawn to their logical conclusions, result in essentialism: the rote ascribing of human behaviors, thoughts and reflexes to people according to their demographic categories.
For example, anyone can feel a sense of “entitlement”—which, in intersectional jargon, often acts as a fancy word for jealousy. If I’m feeling envious of my neighbor’s new iPod X, I might exhibit a sense of “entitlement.” Yet a reading of intersectionalist texts would suggest that entitlement is the exclusive reserve of old white men, or white women, or whites more generally (in which case, it often is lumped in with the equally vague concept of “white fragility”). This level of analysis is as useful as claiming there’s such a thing as “blonde-haired-women entitlement” or “taller-than-6-feet-tall-men entitlement.” It’s a rhetorical game that allows anyone to take a person they don’t like, pick out something related to their physical appearance, and then confidently assert that it correlates with some negative behavior that, in fact, every human being has felt or experienced at one time or another since the dawn of our species.
This reductionist aspect of intersectionality doesn’t have a label yet. “Caricaturism” might come close. But it also might be seen as a subset of demagoguery: presenting someone, or even an entire community, as purely malevolent. The truth is, of course, that we are all imperfect—which is why, as a society, we usually sneer whenever human nature is presented by pop culture in a superficial way.
The best examples of pop culture —whether in the form of books, film, TV or music—typically are lauded when they provide depth. If the show Dear White People had been written about stale, one-dimensional, superficial Black characters, cultural critics would have (rightly) called it out for this flaw. The show wouldn’t have gone into a second season, let alone a third, and Netflix would have been called out for its insensitivity.
We gravitate toward art that has layers because that art tends to teach us things about ourselves. When Pulitzer Prize winning artist Kendrick Lamar says, “I got power, poison, pain, and joy, inside my DNA,” he is rapping about himself. But he also is rapping about every single one of us. We all have these contradictory, imperfect emotions, vulnerabilities, and capacities pulsating through our veins—black and white, rich and poor, young and old—for good and for evil. Recognizing this depth within oneself enables us to acknowledge depth within each other, paving the way for empathy, which is the seed of true human connection.
These truths lie outside the simplistic rhetoric we hear in the political arena—which allows no room for shades of gray. So we must find it in art, which finds its inspiration in human flaws and nuance. The true artist eschews caricature, at pain of announcing herself as a mere hack (or even bigot). We rightly acclaim the artist who probes the paradoxes of life, who goes beneath the surface, who works tirelessly to reveal hidden truths.
One catches glimpses of this artistic quality even in those pop-cultural productions that may not qualify as true art, but borrow enough from the artist’s soul to inspire the viewer, listener or reader. We cheer Disney’s Aladdin in part because we believe the words in the opening scene uttered by the street merchant: “Do not be fooled by its commonplace appearance. Like so many things, it is not what is outside but what it is inside that counts.” Likewise did the 1996 film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame instruct, “Here is a riddle to guess if you can sing the bells of Notre Dame. What makes a monster and what makes a man?” Similar lessons may be found embedded in Shrek, Frozen and a hundred other popular stories.
The point is to remind the viewer that it is impossible to answer moral questions about a person simply by judging someone’s physical appearance—a lesson that has as much aptness for schoolchildren who tease a kid because he’s fat, to Ivy League gender-studies postgrads who make breezy statements about “entitled white men.” You cannot tell the sum of a man’s experiences by how he looks. You cannot tell a person’s worth based on the colour of their skin any more than you can tell if Quasimodo is bad, good, generous, entitled, poor or rich, based on the shape of his spine.
This is a heavy sort of knowledge—because navigating the world without seeing each other as caricature is hard. It is easier—indeed, instinctive—to dismiss, scoff and condescend based on tribal identity. And it is especially easy to do this when we encounter someone who is acting badly toward us. It is easy to assume that everyone who looks like this person is that person, and are locked into that state, with no capacity for change. But of course even children are taught that this is wrong: One of the main lessons from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, captured in a popular song from the film, was the that you can “find you can change.”
Media Mogul Jay Z touched upon this in a 2017 interview with New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. He spoke about how after going through therapy, he realized that some of the racist people he encountered were likely being racist because of something that had nothing to do with him per se: “You know, you realize that if someone’s racist toward you, it ain’t about you. It’s about their upbringing and what happened to them, and how that led them to this point. You know, most bullies bully. It just happen. Oh, you got bullied as a kid so you trying to bully me. I understand…And once I understand that, instead of reacting to that with anger, I can provide a softer landing.”
Award-winning filmmaker Deeyah Khan, who’s spent time speaking with members of American white-nationalist groups, discovered a similar truth. In a 2018 interview with comedian Russell Brand, she spoke at length about how her realization that “prejudices cannot survive in an environment of human contact,” and that “extremism is neither exotic nor monstrous…that in fact most of those who join extremist groups are operating out of basic human needs—like a feeling of significance, purpose, and meaning—that are not being met by family or by society.” If this is true for members of the most extremist communities in our society, how much more must it be true for the rest of us?
Pop culture has something to teach us about ourselves, something we cannot get in a post-structuralist textbook about intersectionality. If we want to empower our communities, uplift each other as we navigate hardships in life, and greet each other in a spirit of generosity—the same way we’d want to be greeted even in our worst moments—we must lead with love and empathy. We must remember that as human beings we are layered, multifaceted, complex and contradictory. And we must remember that we are all equally capable of both good and evil. That would be a fitting message for a television show to send not only to white people, but to all people.
Writer Chloé Valdary is the founder of Theory of Enchantment, a company that uses pop culture and mass media to build connection within and between previously polarized communities. You can follow her on Twitter @cvaldary