This Time, 'Dear White People' Is Not So Much About Them

Apr 27, 2017
Originally published on April 28, 2017 9:20 am

Don't be distracted by the title of Netflix's latest, button-pushing TV series, Dear White People.

Because, one look at this insightful, irreverent examination of race and society at an Ivy League college reveals it really doesn't focus much on white folks at all.

Indeed, the title Dear White People is a bit of a head fake. This slyly assembled series is really about how a wide range of black and brown students at the fictional, predominantly white Winchester University deal with race, sexual orientation and other identity stuff in the modern age.

The show begins with a focus on the curiously-named Samantha White, head of the Black Student Union at Winchester. She's also host of a provocative, socially-conscious campus radio show called Dear White People, which often speaks out on how students of color feel marginalized at the school.

"Dear white people," Samantha says in one broadcast, "here's a little tip. When you ask someone who looks ethnically different, 'What are you?,' the answer is usually, 'A person about to slap the s--t out of you.'"

If you think these young people have a better handle on racial issues because they live in a more multicultural world, think again. One example: Samantha's struggle in a conversation with her best friend Joelle, who is black, when word spreads on social media that Samantha is seeing a white man.

As someone murmurs caustically about "Miss Black Power with those white boys," Samantha tries a half-hearted explanation: "You know I'm biracial, so technically..."

"Don't," says Joelle, who isn't hearing it. "You're not Rashida Jones biracial, you're Tracee Ellis Ross biracial. People think of you as black."

The show, which debuts Friday, is based on the award-winning 2014 indie film of the same name. It's one of those rare film-to-TV translations where the series might be better than the movie — which was awfully good to begin with.

The film's director, Justin Simien, also crafted the TV show, and it is a triumph, with one storyline telling the events of a single, scandalous party from different points of view over several episodes. As wry narrator Giancarlo Esposito explains, it was a "racially insensitive party" – an event where white students dressed in blackface.

But Dear White People doesn't just satirize white cluelessness. Shy student journalist Lionel, who is black and gay, encounters a succession of black people who use homophobic slurs around him, unaware of his sexual orientation.

Then his editor at the student newspaper, who is also gay, asks Lionel if he is attracted to men.

"Let me guess...you're in the crush on your straight roommate phase?" the editor asks. "How can you hope to arrive at a truth when you can't find your own? Trust me...find your label."

But for students — especially students of color — college can be a perfect time to question those labels. It's a moment to challenge all those things friends, parents or society dictate about what it means to be black. Or gay. Or anything else.

Dear White People is a pop culture-savvy, sometimes explicit, always entertaining look at that process. It's the perfect series for young people negotiating a world where struggles over identity grow more complex every day.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Netflix debuts a new series tomorrow based on the award-winning indie film "Dear White People." In a few minutes, we'll talk to Justin Simien: he wrote both. But first, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says it's one of the rare film-to-TV translations where the TV show might be better than the film.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Dear White People" - don't be distracted by the title of Netflix's latest series because when talk turns to the show's insightful, irreverent look at race and society at an Ivy League college, it really isn't about you - this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

LOGAN BROWNING: (As Samantha White) Dear white people, here's a little tip. When you ask someone who looks ethnically different - what are you? - the answer is usually a person about to slap the [expletive] out you.

DEGGANS: That's Samantha White, the curiously named head of the Black Student Union at the fictional, predominantly white Winchester University. She's riling up the campus with her socially conscious radio show, "Dear White People." But the title of Netflix's "Dear White People," like the 2014 film it's based on, is a bit of a head fake. This slyly assembled series is really about how a wide range of black and brown students at Winchester deal with race, sexual orientation and other identity stuff in the modern age. For example, Samantha struggles in conversation with her best friend, who's black, when news breaks on social media that Samantha is dating a white man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

ASHLEY BLAINE FEATHERSON: (As Joelle Brooks) I have to unpack my best friend having a secret bae.

BROWNING: (As Samantha White) Secret or white?

FEATHERSON: (As Joelle Brooks) Both.

BROWNING: (As Samantha White) You know I'm biracial. So technically...

FEATHERSON: (As Joelle Brooks) Don't. You're not Rashida Jones biracial. You're Tracee Ellis Ross biracial. People think of you as black.

DEGGANS: The series is crafted by Justin Simien, the director of the film, and it's a triumph. One technique the show uses is to tell the story of a single, scandalous party from different points of view. The show's narrator, a wry Giancarlo Esposito, explains that event, an on-campus party where white students dressed in blackface.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As narrator) The racially insensitive party, a chance for the majority to celebrate marginalized communities by reinforcing the very stereotypes that oppress them.

DEGGANS: But "Dear White People" doesn't just satirize white cluelessness. Shy student journalist Lionel, who is gay, encounters a succession of black students who use homophobic slurs around him, unaware of his sexual orientation. Then his editor at the student newspaper, who's also gay, asks Lionel if he's attracted to men.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")

DERON HORTON: (As Lionel) I really don't subscribe to those kinds of labels.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Labels keep people in Florida from drinking Windex. Let me guess. You're in the crush on your straight roommate phase?

HORTON: (As Lionel) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How can you hope to arrive at a truth when you can't find your own? Trust me. Find your label.

DEGGANS: For students of color, college can be a perfect time to question those labels, to challenge all those things that friends, parents or society dictate about what it means to be black or gay or anything else. "Dear White People" is a pop-culture-savvy, sometimes explicit, always entertaining look at that process, the perfect series for young people negotiating a world where struggles over identity grow more complex every day. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.