In 2014, audiences were greeted with Dear White People for the first time. Although the movie reflected the frustrations that Black students have at predominantly white institutions, Dear White People fell short by not diving deep into these nuanced experiences.
The Netflix adaptation promised to remedy those shortcomings, but my biggest frustration with Dear White People is that it so narrowly defines Blackness and queerness. For instance, Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) storyline revolved around the assumption that queer folks constantly pine after straight people. The biggest inner challenges to Lionel’s character are his struggle to be open in his identity as a gay man, and his crush on his straight roommate. If the show had allowed Lionel to explore the blackface party at Winchester through the lens of a gay Black man, we would have gotten a more nuanced experience.
Lionel is uncomfortable in his skin and unsure of exactly who he is. He’s portrayed as a Black nerd who was rejected early on by other Black folks. Yet Lionel finds that his Blackness casts him as “other” with the white students at Winchester University. It would have been fine if this were the only tired marker in Lionel’s characterization before we see him develop, but Lionel’s sexuality is only valid when it is centered on a straight person. He never really moves past his crush on his roommate, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell). Though Lionel feels perpetually left out of the Black community on campus, Troy shines as their prodigal son.
Troy is the first person that Lionel comes out to, but he’s oblivious to the fact that he’s the object of Lionel’s affection. Lionel’s unrequited affections become so centralized that it seems out of the blue when he becomes the object of someone else’s affections—his newspaper editor, Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff). Dear White People does a disservice by hyperfocusing on Lionel’s crush rather than allowing him to explore his sexuality in ways that are mutually beneficial, consensual, and rooted in pleasure rather than struggle. This storyline sends a harmful message. Instead of allowing sexuality to be individualized, nuanced, and varied, Dear White People others queer Black people by telling them that their identities are too “niche” to be included on a show that is supposed to include all Black people.
This is quite common within media. Like whiteness, straightness is seen as the norm, so to appeal to a wider audience, Dear White People descaled the emphasis on queer identity. The show’s only other queer-identified character is professor Nika Hobbs (Nia Long). Her queerness reads as an afterthought, though it is the most interesting detail the audience is given about her. Hobbs is introduced to Troy by his father, the dean of students, at a party hosted by Winchester’s elite donors and administration. The conversation quickly goes to the topic of Hobbs and her fiancé, Monique, picking a wedding date. A few scenes later, Hobbs and Troy are seen being intimate in a boathouse. It’s clear they’re having an affair that has been going on for quite some time.
Hobbs is seen solely as the adulteress professor sleeping with her student. Troy’s “she’s not gay when she’s with me” remark further reinforces the narrative that we are supposed to see Hobbs in this way. She’s simply “Troy’s lover” or “Troy’s lesbian lover,” which alludes to biphobia, femme erasure, and an overall invalidation of Hobbs’ identity as a queer Black woman. We know that queer people are more than cheaters and unrequited lovers of straight people, but Dear White People fails to show us the depth beyond these stereotypes.
Is it possible for Dear White People to show Black sexuality in a nuanced way? Yes. The show only includes a few sex scenes, but there are empowering images of Black sexuality. Sam White (Logan Browning) and Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) are shown experiencing sexual pleasure, usually through the moment of orgasm. Coco is often smoking marijuana while Troy performs cunnilingus on her, showing us the epitome of female-controlled pleasure. Yet, it becomes disheartening and harmful that we only see pleasure portrayed through a heterosexual gaze. Lionel has one masturbation scene where he fantasizes about Troy as Troy is having sex with Coco. However, this scene add to Lionel’s crush rather than emphasizing his agency as a gay Black man.
Dear White People is a much-needed addition to the narrative of Black identity amid race-based violence. However, the way it portrays and tackles sexuality leaves more to be desired. Queer Black viewers are left with the unfair messaging that our sexuality is only a footnote in the weight of carrying Blackness, which leaves no room for other identities. It’s important that Dear White People gives complex, nuanced, and interesting portrayals of queer Black people.