How Insightful Is Dear White People?

Four Atlantic staffers discuss the Netflix show’s portrayal of a group of black students at a mostly white elite university.

A still from Netflix's "Dear White People"

Dear White People is not about white people. The show, Netflix’s adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 critically acclaimed film of the same name, is in some ways both a continuation of the source material and a radical departure. The original film’s satirical portrayal of race relations and black identity at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University followed a group of black students, led by Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), and a budding campaign against the predominantly white humor magazine Pastiche that culminates in a blackface party and small-time race riot.

The 2017 incarnation of Dear White People picks up where the original left off. With some holdovers from the original cast, the first four episodes of the show reconstruct the party and backlash that ended the film, and begin a story on a campus—and within a racial climate—that’s much different than the one viewers last saw at Winchester. But does the show, also written and co-directed by Simien, exceed the expectations set by the original? The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk, Adrienne Green, Gillian White, and Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss the whole first season, so spoilers abound.

Vann Newkirk: I enjoyed the show, and that’s an accomplishment because I didn’t like the film at all. I think this incarnation did a lot to flesh out characters in ways I found satisfying, and its use of multiple angles on the same basic events worked pretty well. But one of the things that sat in the back of my mind for all 10 episodes was that I have no idea whether Dear White People is primarily a commentary on race or a college sitcom. The use of different directors for different episodes makes it hard to tell sometimes, and it’s unclear whether the moralizing elements are sincere or played for laughs (see: the show’s incessant use of the word woke).

Adrienne Green: I would argue that Dear White People juggles aspirations to be both a scripted commentary on race and a sitcom about college students, and fails mildly in both regards. It’s a better show for assigning full episodes to the perspectives of each of the five black leads—Sam, Lionel, Troy, Coco, and Reggie—an obvious attempt to remedy critiques of the film’s lack of character development. Where this method falls short is the show’s use of the love triangle between Sam, the biracial activist leader of Winchester’s Black Student Union; Gabe, the white graduate student she’s dating; and Reggie, another member of the Black Student Union who has pined for her since freshman year, as the throughline for the season. At times of heightened tension, it felt like Gabe’s feelings, perspectives, and anxieties were centered in a narrative that could have spent a lot more time unpacking the trauma experienced by the other main characters.

As a sitcom about college students, Dear White People isn’t good comedy either. Even when employing obvious satire, especially when dealing with subdivisions in the black community, the jokes are outdated (so many uses of the word hashtag). Many of the supporting characters seem more like hollow stand-ins for ideologies than they are members of a cohesive cast: There’s a token African student, another student whose only references are to religion, and an Asian student whom viewers are forced to assume is “down.” Joelle, another black female student who’s best friends with the insufferable Sam, received glaringly little development despite having, I’d argue, the potential to be the most well-rounded character on the show. All in all, I think the series, while a detailed improvement on the film, struggles with its intersecting identities as much as its main characters did. I did laugh a little at the Scandal parody, though.

Gillian White: I think the archetypes of black students at prestigious, white institutions were limited and somewhat flawed, even in their obvious hyperbole. The bifurcation of the black campus population between the “woke” students—their dress, their speech, their plans of action—and the preppy, weave-wearing, non-agitators they deemed to be decidedly less worthy of that title, was clearly an intentional exaggeration of what kinds of black people exist on the campuses of Ivy League schools.

But that bifurcation still leaves out some important players in the black student space on such campuses: Caribbean and African students (they only get a small nod via one character, as you mentioned, Adrienne), who often make up a large portion of the black student population on such campuses. Because many are from overseas or have families that immigrated in recent decades, their experiences are often very different than black American students’, which brings with it its own set of differing viewpoints on what progress should look and feel like. Though the show has Troy and Coco, who don’t agree with agitation but still show up for conversations about race, it leaves out the black kids on campus who choose to not participate in such conversations or engage socially with other black students at all. And those stories, too, are an important part of the experience and dynamic on campuses like Winchester’s.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I should say, I didn’t see the movie, and I didn’t see it almost entirely because of the title, Dear White People. There’s a long tradition of black folks pleading with white people. It’s a tradition that emerges from political necessity, so I get it; I’m just not very interested in it. Maybe the movie isn’t part of that tradition. Maybe it was everything I would have loved. But my prejudices kept me away. Make of that what you will.

There is some of that in the show, as it’s concerned primarily with racism, and only secondarily with black people. What I mean is that blackness in Netflix’s Dear White People is largely a mode of protest. Nearly everything revolves around racism and the pariah-like feelings it inspires. The show is much less concerned with the interior lives of black people. Is there a single scene of a black party in the series? There is a black sorority, but is there a single step show? Even the communal amusement—like the parody of Scandal—revolves around the relationship with white power.

If this sounds like criticism, it isn’t. I think Dear White People, the show, is a tremendous artistic achievement. It’s always hinting that there is something beyond the pleading and wokeness, something that the show’s more militant characters can’t see. Sometimes it comes in humor—Joelle’s interrupting Sam’s broadcast to figure out how to get “waist-thin and ass-thick.” Other times it comes in moments of deep pain—Coco’s confrontation with Sam over colorism after being autotuned. I couldn’t really handle a Dear White People that was literally “DEAR WHITE PEOPLE!” But this show feels like it’s more about what happens when your sense of being is married to people who don’t much like you.

Newkirk: Having attended a historically black college (Morehouse), I agree with Ta-Nehisi’s not-criticism that racism was the star of the show, and not the black characters. My own college experience wasn’t defined by how it clashed with whiteness, and I know that even on real-life campuses like Winchester’s, it’s a lot more than dealing with racism. There’s so much drama within black college communities that needs unearthing, too. Hopefully in Season 2 we’ll get more frat calls and step shows and fried-chicken Wednesdays. Hopefully.

To Gillian’s point, I can say the show’s depictions of its characters is kind of how black students at elite, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) are viewed by many people who don’t attend such schools. All the characters on Dear White People are different shades of—can we say bougie here? Yeah, bougie. And it’s sometimes funny watching the students of Winchester struggle over their own particular slice of bougieness, although the heavy moments still feel heavy. I’ve always approached the dialogues about race and flare-ups on Ivy League campuses with a sort of detachment, because in my mind there’s still some of that stereotype of bougieness left. (Also, the Scandal parody was golden, as was the Iyanla Vanzant knock-off. I died.)

Green: While I wouldn’t necessarily say I connected to any of the characters in the show, I did attend a PWI (Ohio University) at a time when issues of race and brutality against black people were at the forefront of discussion after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown. Factions of students dealt with those tensions in different ways, and I think the rift between Sam, an agitator, and Troy, the obedient son of the dean, was somewhat a true reflection of how multiple approaches to talking about race and flare-ups on campuses play out in real life.

White: As someone who also went to a PWI (Columbia), I get that the perception of the black student body at PWIs might align closely with what’s presented in Dear White People. In reality I think the black students who wind up going to PWIs are incredibly varied, just like the black students who go to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). That’s true not just in background, but also in views on racial issues that arise, be they external (like those Adrienne mentioned) or internal campus relations (the main kind the show deals with).

The presumption of bougieness is actually why I found the Coco-Sam dynamic to be so interesting. Of course there are black kids who grew up in nice neighborhoods with lots of privilege. But there are many black kids at these very affluent institutions who are certainly not from affluent backgrounds, who are there in hopes that their four years will give them access to a better life. I also think that black kids who go to PWIs have the additional task of trying to navigate the differences within the black community, while coping with the realities of being black in America, while also trying to find a place at elite, white institutions that have histories of being inaccessible, hostile, and discriminatory. I think that can be a complex space to navigate, especially for young adults who are still trying to figure out where they stand absent parental influence.

Newkirk: I thought the show’s attention to detail helped illustrate the students’ efforts at navigating those complex spaces, but it takes an eye and familiarity to make sense of those details. The little things like Troy and Coco’s conservative-leaning Congress of Racial Equality are hilarious if you know the history behind the real-life CORE, and its transformation from a mainstream civil-rights organization to a radical black-power organization in the ’60s, then to a right-wing, climate-denying think tank after Nixon. The style cues also fit in here, and watching the characters’ transformations from freshman year to their adult identities (especially Sam’s adoption of an impressive accessories collection) are fun if you’ve followed black popular culture and aesthetics over the past few years.

Coates: Yeah. I’m intentionally avoiding learning too much about who wrote what in the show, but Vann, you are dead-on in terms of the show’s deep knowledge of tradition. I feel like that’s all through the show too. And maybe that is what lends itself to the kinds of generalizations you guys didn’t like. The whole thing felt like satire to me, though. In a good way. None of these black people really resembled any I knew—with two exceptions, Joelle and Coco. The latter gets more screen time, and I think there is a strong argument that Coco is the grounding of the show. (Maybe an argument for Lionel too.) But I thought Antoinette Robertson’s performance as Coco was so spot-on, and the character so sculpted, that I found myself rooting for her even as she sold out. It felt like she’d earned a break.

White: I totally agree with that sentiment. I thought “Chapter 4,” where we learn more about Coco’s backstory and her relationship with Sam, was one of the most compelling episodes of the series. The splintering of their friendship and views about how to carve out a space for themselves on a campus where neither feels immediately accepted set up perhaps some of the show’s most interesting and illuminating relationship dynamics. The revelation that Coco is, in fact, keenly aware of her blackness and that her lack of acceptance of her skin, hair, and upbringing comes not only from white people but also from other black people was critically important.

Similarly, her assertion that Sam’s experience of searching for acceptance is drastically different, since her upbringing, light skin, and hair give her the ability to move more fluidly between crowds, brought some necessary history and context to a plot that could sometimes feel a bit narrow. (The plot felt especially limited for how it centered on the response to the blackface party while so many other issues swirled around the main characters.) I think the backstories explored in that particular episode really helped inform viewers about the choices that characters made when responding to racial tensions and discrimination at an institution apparently eager to turn a blind eye.

Newkirk: I will advance that this season was the most useful addition to the campus free-speech debate in years.  So much of the media freakout over “safe spaces” and “political correctness” comes from 50-year-old columnists and seems strangely disconnected from actual campus life today. Dear White People attempts to complicate that by illustrating both the destructive ends of bigoted speech and the usefulness of speech in advancing marginalized causes. And it shows the debates over free speech in the midst of students actually navigating the marketplace of ideas and coming up against the differences between the ideal and real life. I thought the fact that Lionel’s reporting at the fictional Independent newspaper was stonewalled by moneyed, racist interests helps put the debate back into focus too. The real power to dictate speech and ideas still comes from circles well beyond those of liberal students.

Green: For sure. It felt like the broadest goal of the show was to emphasize how the grievances of black students on majority-white elite campuses are often discounted, manipulated, or ignored by the administration (and in the case of Lionel and Independent, the donor interests associated with them). The series succeeded in highlighting the imperfections in the strategies students use to cope with identity politics, and the challenges that will likely stay with them once they leave the campus.

For example, Sam and Reggie relied on a much more militant approach than Troy and Coco, who advocated for engaging with the university administration, and Lionel, who chose to process his experiences as a black Winchester student via his reporting. These differences were most apparent in their responses to Pastiche’s blackface party and Reggie’s encounter with police in episode five. However, I was disappointed by the times the show meditated more on the strained relationships that resulted from the Reggie party scene (Sam/Gabe, Troy/his father) than on how Reggie dealt with his own trauma on a personal level.

Newkirk: That’s pretty spot-on. While I personally appreciated the focus on those strained relationships, I think Dear White People missed a golden opportunity to dig deep into Reggie’s psyche and make a commentary about the psychological effects of activism and involvement in policy brutality, as well as the line between activism and experience.

White: I found the episode that starts with Reggie agreeing to try to break out of his shell and have a fun time hanging out with both his white and black peers—only to end in a racial brawl and a cop pulling a gun on him—to be the most heartbreaking of the series. I loved that the episode ended with Reggie, who has been shown to have no problem sticking up for himself, and even goading others into tense encounters, crying on the floor of his dorm room as he tries to process what just happened and the powerlessness that he feels. For a show that’s ostensibly trying to grapple with these very complexities, Dear White People wasted its chance to delve into a devastating moment that so many black Americans, and black students, could surely relate to by not building on that raw emotion in the next episode.

Green: Agreed, Gillian. The fallout from Reggie’s encounter with the police felt more like a buildup of passion between Sam and Reggie, and minimized what, as Vann said, was a golden opportunity. The poem that Reggie performed at the open mike could have been the sole outlet for him to vocalize his pain, thus offering him and viewers some catharsis after a very emotional fifth episode. Instead, it was treated as an effort to spark intimacy with Sam. The deflated reread of the same poem on her radio show, that he performed halfheartedly while watching Sam plead with Gabe to take her back, only underscored how mismatched this thread was for the gravity of the situation. Oddly, Coco delivered the most direct line of the season about race at Winchester: “As soon as you double down on your blackness, they will double down on their bullshit … Who cares if you’re ‘woke’ or not if you’re dead?”

Newkirk: If I hear the word woke again, I’m gonna vomit. I’m a fan of the comedy in the show iteration of Dear White People, but the dialogue at times felt it was written by a parody statement T-shirt generator. The “woke or not” app made me want to fight people. I get that it seems exactly like something college kids actually do and look back on as adults and groan about, but I really can’t tell if the show is serious about it or not. I can’t tell if a lot of the things that I laughed about with Dear White People were intended as knowing jokes or were actually just written on a slam blog from 2014, but the “woke” stuff was just especially bad.

Coates: I liked “WOKE OR NOT”! Come on! It was satire. All kidding aside, I take your point, but I thought the writers were very self-aware. Wasn’t the whole idea of that app to pan the self-righteousness of its creators?

One thing that is perhaps shading my view, for the better, of the show is I don’t watch that much TV. I’ve seen, and liked, Insecure and Atlanta. But I have a hard time situating Dear White People in the larger universe of black television. Also. It is incredible that one can now say larger universe of black television earnestly. I remember when no one in my city had cable. And it was, like, three channels. Damn, I’m old …

Green: Having seen and enjoyed new shows like Insecure and Atlanta—shows that came out in 2016, widely regarded as a “banner year” for black television—what stood out to me was how many of them not only advanced the conversation about the potential for diversity in television but also supplied nuance to stories that represented specific iterations of the black experience.

While I found Dear White People to be somewhat relatable and filled with many cultural references that could resonate with its black viewers—my favorite being the quip about why nothing Stacey Dash did after Clueless matters—it might lack the intentionality around making characters both flawed but well-rounded that made these other shows so appealing. This first season ends with the apparent dissolution of the love triangle and a final gut punch, with Sam unable to answer the question of whether protesting accomplishes anything at all. The season has come full circle in a way that I think gives the second season a lot of room to work on its missteps.