Spoilers ahead for the first season of Netflix’s Dear White People.
In the fictional, predominantly white, Ivy League school of Winchester University, Sam White (Logan Browning) hosts the controversial campus radio show “Dear White People,” in which she “articulates the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority.”
In protest, the dudebros at the university’s humor magazine Pastiche conceptualize a “Dear Black People” party, which the student body takes as permission to wear blackface, setting off the chain of events that Dear White People unpacks as a microcosm of race relations in present-day America.
While the show is intimidating in scope, deftly exploring racism, colorism, and interracial relationships among a list of social issues, part of what makes Dear White People so effective is how unapologetically youth-oriented it is: its lead cast are college juniors who get “white girl wasted” at college parties and build apps that decide if someone’s “woke or not woke,” for example.
The script is loaded with quick quips, razor-sharp observational humor, and pop culture references that further propel the show’s commentary forward — communicated, of course, in millennial-speak.
In this way, Dear White People is able to humanize issues surrounding race — introducing us to characters we can easily root for, as they grow up with the reality of racism in America bearing down upon them. Not only does it appeal to the socio-politically conscious youth whose language and culture it evokes, but also to anyone who’s ever had to grapple with identity in an oppressive environment.
It also works because of its specificity, honing in on rarely explored views of institutional oppression: for one, what racism looks like in an Ivy League university, where the assumption is that everyone’s a little more “progressive.” Sam even takes to her radio show after the party to point this out: “It was fascinating to see what was under the surface when you were allowed to suspend your polite, passive liberalism.”
So what happens to Winchester University’s black student populace after “Dear Black People” and its instigators — their fellow students — emerge as flesh-and-blood adversaries for them to rail against within the previously “polite” confines of their elite private school? They seem to break down into factions.
Some of them, like local provocateur Sam, choose to be vocal in their dissent and outrage, f*** what everyone else might say. Sam organizes protests, demands that the school administration address black issues, and refuses to be tone-policed by her oppressors. Others, like politically savvy Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Antoinette Robertson) and Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), opt to work with the system to, as they say, dismantle it from the inside. Both agree to play the long game with the white folk that run their campus in the interests of gaining enough political clout to push for minority rights causes later on.
And still others, like school paper journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), operate mostly in the background, but are buoyed by a sense of duty to expose instances of injustice: it’s Lionel who uncovers and subsequently publicizes the school’s intentions of screwing over the historically black house Armstrong-Parker, holding the administration accountable for bending to the whims of their racist benefactors.
Through its characters, Dear White People doesn’t legitimize just one “type” of youth activism. Instead, it shows us that there are many different ways by which we can fight for social justice, especially today. . We’re not all Sams; some of us are Cocos, Troys, Lionels. Some of us even oscillate among the four.
Over the course of Dear White People’s first season, its main characters are challenged to come-of-age in the context of revolution. They’re made to decide what role to play in a movement that fights for them, and we watch as they arrive at their own conclusions after much painstaking introspection.
But the show isn’t satisfied with an audience of mere bystanders, so when the finale comes, it seems to challenge us in the same way it does its characters, posing the crucial question: “So, what are you gonna do?”