Dear White People should never have been a movie. Some scripts are meant to be birthed through television—given multiple episodes to develop plot, characters, conflict, relatability, and relevancy. Dear White People is one of them. The 10-episode Netflix adaptation perfected Orange is the New Black’s model by using individual episodes to develop the backstory of each core character—from militant Sam (Logan Browning) to conflicted Lionel (DeRon Horton).
The genius structuring helped Dear White People achieve what it originally aimed for in 2014—exposing the racism festering on college campuses. Both the movie and series follow a collective of Black students navigating Winchester, a predominantly white Ivy League university, in the aftermath of a blackface party. The film used Sam’s “Dear White People” radio show to expose Winchester’s racism, but the two-hour film stunted character development. The series makes up for this slight by zeroing in on the characters themselves.
Unfortunately, the majority of those characters fulfill static—and tired—stereotypes.
There’s Sam, an “any means necessary” campus leader who orchestrates the blackface party as a “sociological experiment” to show “what was lurking beneath the surface when [white students] were given an excuse to suspend [their] polite, passive liberalism.” Sam also happens to be biracial, which shouldn’t matter. However, the show’s creators make her mixed-race identity integral to her character when she begins dating Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), a white liberal who’s maligned by those within her student group. It’s a predictable storyline that doesn’t complicate the conversation around the role proximity to whiteness plays in believability. Instead, Dear White People offers throwaway lines like, “I’m not sure I could let a white man colonize my body, and I never thought Sam would either.” When Sam’s close friend Jo (Ashley Blaine Featherson) is asked if she feels betrayed by Sam’s decision to date a white man, she spews a line straight from Twitter: “It’s complicated. I know the heart wants what it wants and we’re all one and all that shit, but how many times have we been fed the narrative that Black men aren’t good enough and we need a white savior?”
Similarly, Lionel is a gay student journalist who’s purposely hiding his sexuality. He fears the judgment of his peers so much that he rejects the “label” of gayness. Does toxic masculinity prevent gay Black men from being able to embrace their sexuality? Yes. Does Dear White People capture the complexity of that struggle? No. Lionel’s character is stagnant. He has no dimensions. Instead, he and the other characters are designed to generate laughter, not deepen understanding of how Black students intraracially interact on predominantly white college campuses. Even Reggie (Marque Richardson), a stoic protester who’s portrayed as a Black man incapable of enjoying himself, isn’t fully realized. Though his arc is powerful, especially in the pivotal fifth episode that unpacks police violence, his seriousness is constructed in opposition to carefree Gabe in the quest for Sam’s heart.
We understand that it’s perilous to be a Black man in a white space, but Dear White People fails—outside of seven minutes at the end of episode five—to excavate the actual impact of his othering. Instead, Reggie’s seriousness is conflated with the Hotep trope spread throughout social media. Hotep men are harmful to Black women. They use the term “queen” to divide us into a hierarchy of who is deserving of respect. Reggie is not a hotep, but he’s constructed as one. After all, he creates the “Woke or Not Woke” app, which allows students to vote on the consciousness of fellow students. He even says, “We’ve gotta stay woke,” a line that’s stolen from 2014 and should remain there.
Within these flaws, however, there is one character that Dear White People gets right: Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson). Coco appears to be the antithesis of Sam—she wears a blonde weave, surrounds herself with white women, and attends the blackface party without hesitation. However, the fourth episode reveals that Coco’s aesthetics and allegiances have been shaped through the trauma of colorism. While Sam has enjoyed the privilege bequeathed to those who are lighter-skinned, Coco has been denied multiple opportunities because of her complexion.
Dear White People captures the impact of invisibility for Coco. She’s overlooked in every facet of her life. When she first encounters Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the golden-boy son of the dean of students, he immediately gravitates toward Sam. When Coco eventually begins sleeping with him, she asks him if she’s his Jackie Onassis or his Marilyn Monroe, since he refuses to be seen outside of his dorm room with her. The slights continue throughout the episode. During an annual kissing fest, all of Coco’s white friends are chosen, but she never is. Coco is eager to join Alpha Delta Rho sorority, but the current members are interested in Sam—simply because she has lighter skin. When Coco is accepted into the sorority, she overhears those pledging her saying that she isn’t qualified because of her skin complexion.
The colorism runs so deep that it divides Coco and Sam’s friendship. The radio show “Dear White People,” which began as a playful riff between the former roommates, reveals how hatred for darker skin has plagued Coco. “Dear white people, you made me hate myself,” she concludes. It is one of the starkest lines in the entire series because it so fully frames the impact of marginalization. Coco has been othered her entire life, so now she accrues power through the people she befriends.
She’s a complicated character. Unfortunately, her peers aren’t. Their dialogue, like “We didn’t land on Winchester, Winchester landed on us,” isn’t complex either. That’s one of the many ways the show has failed.
Dear White People has returned at the right time. In a hellacious political climate, the series offers a glimpse into one of the institutional spaces embroiled in racial turmoil. Ivy League universities, including Columbia and Harvard, are acknowledging and delving deeper into their investment in slavery while students from marginalized communities are holding those schools accountable for fostering hostile, racist, microaggressive environments. By coming alive in this moment, Dear White People offers a cautionary tale for predominantly white universities that avoid discussions about race in an effort to evoke a post-racial illusion.
The party itself pulls the curtain up on the charade of colleges as meritocracies. However, that’s specifically where the show begins to unravel. Dear White People’s 10 episodes never progress past the party and its aftermath. Rather than looking at how institutions—including prestigious universities—perpetuate and maintain white supremacy, the show turns inward to explore the large umbrella of Black characters who utilize different methods to achieve the same end.
However, there is some value in Dear White People. It captures communal experiences that most Black students can relate to. Everyone gathers in the Black student union to watch Defamation and Dereca, hysterical spoofs of Scandal and Iyanla Fix My Life. Troy hotboxes weed in his bathroom by placing a dryer sheet at the end of a toilet paper roll to camouflage the smell. There’s even a scene where Coco is getting her weave done in her dorm room. Scores of Black women can relate to the wincing and pain she endures afterward.
Dear White People has potential. A second season is warranted, though Netflix hasn’t yet renewed the show. The question, however, is will the show continue to play the small, inward game or will it use its characters to explore larger issues? The answer is, hopefully, forthcoming.