http://www.oaklandmaroons.com/blog/dear-white-people-the-timeless-futile-plea Dear White People: The Timeless Futile Plea
The movie Dear White People is currently enjoying the latest Black popular culture buzz. It is paradoxically a film about the complexity of black identity in a contemporary Ivy League college setting but designed to address a white audience. First time director Justin Simeon has created a movie that brings the form, syntax and locale of Spike Lee’s Reagan era films (School Daze and Do the Right Thing) into the highly contentious Obama era post-racial mythocracy.
Because of Dear White People’s ambitious attempts at addressing the complexity of Black identity in an era that both wants to deny its specificity and subsume it in an image of Blackness fashioned by the white gaze it deserves to be taken seriously. Mostly because it actually raises some very good points about Black identity in its narrative and because it is no easy task for a Black filmmaker – even one so obviously genuflecting to the white gaze – to get a first time film screened nationally.
Dear White People deploys some varied characters in its narrative but they seem to have been sighted elsewhere in different configurations. Writer-director Simeon is aware of this and makes it apparent by characterizing the main character Samantha White as a combination of Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Huey from Boondocks and Lisa Bonet. Dear White People is the name of a student radio show hosted by the main character Samantha White. She broadcasts edgy critiques of white privilege on the fictional campus of Winchester College. Of the four main characters, Samantha is the most problematic because of her central position in the narrative and because she is portrayed as the only Black person endowed with the initiative, articulation and leadership skills to critique or challenge white entitlement. It becomes problematic because she is also the only “biracial” person amongst the main characters and as such – even in her conflicted state – she is in keeping with stereotypes about Black folks of light complexion being more intelligent and suitable for leadership. In contrast to Samantha, the dark skinned black woman named “Coco” is portrayed as having self-esteem issues in regards to her Black features. She wears blond wigs and seems to have a sexual fetish for white men – a characteristic that she shares with Samantha – more on that later.
In one particularly edgy cafeteria dining hall scene Samantha confronts a white student who is using the facility even though he isn’t a resident at that student house. She seems to be the only assertive personality in this scene where in several Black men not only attempt to quiet her challenge to white entitlement but can be seen slightly bowing their heads, averting their eyes and giggling at the white student’s brazenly racist joke about the type of food served in their predominantly Black residential house. The Black character Troy Fairbanks, who despite the fact that he is the son of the school’s Dean, seems incapable of asserting any support for Samantha’s authority. The not so subtle emasculation of Black men in this film is evidenced in that scene and in the way the narratives about Samantha’s romantic inclination’s play out. Evidently Troy is Samantha’s ex-boyfriend. As the narrative unfolds we watch the character Reggie – a Black male student assisting Samantha with her endeavors as the newly elected president of the residential house – become romantically involved with her. However, she has been secretly having intimate relationships with a white student named Gabe. Gabe is portrayed to be the only character that empathizes with Samantha as an ‘individual’ in an intimate way. He challenges her conflicted identity as the child of Black and White parents but is portrayed as the only character that connects intimately with Samantha as an individual personality. The not so subtle message is that the Black men relate to her as a trope for Black self-determination and the white male relates to her universally recognizable humanity without cultural identity politics coming into play. The final result is that the white man walks away with the Black woman and this is supposed to be a victory of sorts for the complexity of Black identity – when in reality it is yet again the cultural erasure of the Black male figure in Hollywood film as a viable partner for the Black woman.
The notion that fully identifying with the specificity of Black identity - without the internal conflict of double consciousness - will somehow destroy our individuality is a false notion. It seems that the white status quo and their familiars have maintained a type of divide and rule by convincing the naďve amongst us that to identify with a group defined notion of Blackness is to trade one’s individual ontology for group think – when in reality Blackness as a trope has a long history of cultural pluralism. Africentricity prides itself on the anti-binary ideology of “both and…” Our maroon histories here in deepest darkest Babylon show evidence of societies formed with women as leadership (Nanny of Jamaica) and communal enclaves formed of African peoples speaking different languages and practicing different religions. Western faux multi-culturalism has absolutely nothing to teach African diasporic people about pluralism.
Reducing racism and cultural identity formation to individualist personal decisions successfully hides the efficacy of history and its legacy of maintaining white power through hegemonic and systemic forces. Individualism and the myth of meritocracy is the perfect vehicle for denial about unearned white privilege. The privileged have an imperative to forget and the disempowered have an imperative to remember. Thus the privileged encourage the disempowered to forget a Black cultural identity formed by historical continuity and to embrace a contemporary pathologically individualist constructed fiction of Black identity. It’s passive aggressive coercion. This film is the result of such coercion.
There is a certain cottage industry that some Black artists are trafficking in with the white status quo Hollywood and publishing industry. The creation of Black culture fashioned for consumption by white audiences is the Obama era’s legacy to complicating double-consciousness. The notion of post-black identity, the phenomenon of Shonda Rimes’ TV shows and the trivializations of our traumatic experience partially in service to entertaining white people in a non-threatening manner ala the smirky “irony” of Kara Walker’s artwork are all examples of the white status quo’s endorsement of Black culture artifacts produced by artists that are profoundly alienated from Black identity. Alienated in that they do not conflate Black identity with Africanity and African consciousness in the prescribed cure for so-called double-consciousness.
WEB Dubois clearly explained the type of conflicted self-image that makes Black folks perpetually propitiate white sensibilities in our efforts to explain ourselves in the world.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. – WEB Dubois Souls of Black Folks 1903
The similarities to Spike Lee’s early classics School Daze and Do the Right Thing cannot be viewed as purely coincidental. Lee’s insightful commentary on the diversity of Black identities at an HBCU finds far more depth than the sensationalist novelty negroism of Dear White People. And, Lee’s Do the Right Thing is now famous for its cathartic climactic rebellion scene – which can be viewed as prophetic now in light of the illegal chokehold murder of Eric Garner by New York Police. The character Radio Raheem being choked to death by the Police sparked Lee’s rebellion scene in Do the Right Thing. However, Dear White People signifies on these now iconic scenes in ways that ultimately neuter and render impotent the notion of collective Black rebellion. The Black gay character Lionel who prior to this scene worked with the white campus newspaper kicks off the rebellion. After trashing the sound equipment at a racist campus Blackface party he gets into a verbal confrontation with the school president’s son Kurt. During this verbal exchange Lionel aggressively mouth kisses Kurt in what is supposed to be an act of defiance and assertion of his gay sexuality. However, the scene ultimately only serves to neuter the power of the rebellion by sending the not so subtle message that Lionel’s rebellion is only in service to his lack of acceptance by the white status quo – both sexually and racially. The scene also conflates the notion of Black power with predominantly white LGBTQ politics as if the two were in some way symbiotic. This scene elicits the loudest applause in the predominantly white audiences viewing Dear White People.
Dear White People is a visual letter addressed to a group with no intention of opening the envelope. And even if they did it is doubtless that the author’s are incapable of a coherent message - so completely mired in their conflicting quests for personal identity formation that their efforts at asserting Black identity amount to cultural entropy masquerading as individualism. This visual letter deployed as a Hollywood film makes for a profitable product that elicits “…amused contempt.” Just ask black folks who’ve sat in the predominantly white audiences that this film is directed towards.