When Dear White People premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, director Justin Simien, introduced every screening with, “For all the white people in the audience, on behalf of all the black people in the world, you most definitely have permission to laugh.”
A playful satire about “being a black face in a white place” the movie centers on four black students at Winchester, a mostly white Ivy League college. Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is the fiery host of a campus radio show called “Dear White People” where she doles out snarky and pointed advice like, “Dear white people, stop dancing” and “Dear white people, stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?” Her fellow classmates are Troy Fairbanks, the overachieving son of Winchester’s Dean of Students; Coco Conners, who is seeking fame via a spot on a reality show; and Lionel Higgins, the lovable nerd with a big fro that is, “a black hole for white people’s fingers.”
Simien’s film pulls no punches and makes no apologies for exposing the subtle forms of racism that people of color deal with on a regular basis. In the face of the post-racial America narrative and the proclamations by pundits that racism is over — to stand up, wave your arms, and shout, “Hey America, you’re just as racist as ever” is a brave and righteous act. Dear White People goes even further, it tells America right to its face that every time a white person says racism is over, that very act itself is racist. That one little sentence, “Racism is over” in effect negates the entire experience of all people of color who live in the United States.
To stand up, wave your arms, and shout, “Hey America, you’re just as racist as ever” is a brave and righteous act.
“You’re just being too sensitive” is the likely rebuttal. “They’re only words. Don’t let it bother you” is another one. The fact is that as a person of color in this country, you deal with subtle forms of racism on an almost daily basis. Yet, the perpetrator rarely thinks they are racist. It might be something like, “Where are you from?” (subtext: you are not white so you certainly can’t be American) or “You talk like a white person” (subtext: your ability to use correct grammar is surprising. I thought everyone that looked like you had a poor education.) It’s these undercover digs, these micro-aggressions that are at the heart of the movie.
I will admit that when I entered the theater at a screening held exclusively for press, I scanned the room and did a quick survey of what the racial makeup was. It’s no surprise that a room full of film critics was occupied by mostly white men. I wondered if they would laugh as much as I would. They mostly did. But, at the climax of the film — when Lionel, Troy, Coco, and Sam are confronted with a party where white kids are donning afro wigs, blackface, grills, gold chains, and eating watermelon — the theater went silent. There was some quiet murmuring as the closing credits scrolled past. Then, images of real life press clippings appeared on screen of several dress like your favorite ethnic stereotype parties that have taken place at colleges across the U.S. There was picture after picture of students wearing sombreros and fake mustaches or gold chains and in blackface.
When I walked out of the press screening, two men were standing outside the theater discussing the film, one was white, the other black. I walked out just in time to hear the white critic, in a loud bombastic voice say, “Those parties where people dress up are terrible. I mean, it’s one thing to have a Mexican party and wear hats but it’s another to dress up in blackface without understanding the history behind it.” Wait, what? I honestly could not believe what I had just heard. When did it become okay to dress up like any ethnic stereotype?
This guy missed the entire point of the film: that racism is much more insidious now then it was in the past.
Herein lies the real issue. A film critic, a person whose profession is to analyze films, walks out of Dear White People and his biggest concern is that people are dressing up in blackface? Are you kidding me? Yes, blackface is terrible but this guy missed the entire point of the film: that racism is much more insidious now then it was in the past. That even if mainstream America looks down at donning blackface or that using the n-word is no longer socially acceptable, it doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist. These parties just happen to reveal, for a brief moment, the racist beliefs that are bubbling just below the surface.
Problem # 2: this film critic guy seriously thinks that white kids throwing a Mexican party is no big deal. Newsflash: dressing up like any ethnicity is flat out racist. Let me break it down for you. Imagine you are the only Mexican in the room (i.e. me at the press screening) and all the other people are dressed in sombreros, zarapes, wearing fake mustaches, eating crunchy tacos, and drinking tequila. What in fact is happening is that the people dressed like “Mexicans” are sending a clear message of what they think being Mexican is.
Dear white people, when you dress up in a Mexican costume, you are denying me the opportunity to have a complex and layered notion of my own ethnicity. You are in essence forcefully putting all of us in one box and you are saying that somehow I am less Mexican because I don’t fit your stereotype. The most disturbing thing about your ridiculous parties though, is that they are a direct reflection of how people in this country see race and ethnicity. My own life experience has proven this to be true.
Just like the black Ivy Leaguers in Dear White People I have spent most of my life as a person of color in a mostly white world. I went to a private, Catholic elementary school in a suburb outside of San Francisco. From the first through the eighth grade, I was 50% of the Latino population in my class. There were 43 of us and I, plus my friend Anna, were the only two Latinas in our grade. Not until I left that white suburban bubble did I realize how much covert racism I endured.
In college, amongst a group of friends, I was called Mexico as if it were my name. “Hey Mexico, how’s it going?” I felt powerless to stand up for myself. I never spoke up. Sadly, I was complicit in their racism.
On two separate occasions I got an apology from my white friends. One guy earnestly told me, “I’m just kidding when I make fun of you for being Mexican. You know that right? I mean, you speak better English than I do.” Another guy, who I truly believe was trying to right the wrong explained that, “I’m sorry we make fun of you. We don’t really mean it. It’s just that I’ve never met a Mexican like you before. Back home all the Mexicans barely speak English and work in the fields.” Somehow, the apology was worse than the insult.
At the time, those kind of comments just felt normal. I couldn’t yet articulate what I was feeling and rarely responded. My decision to quietly endure their offensive remarks is a reflection of a society that teaches people of color (and women) that they are just being “too sensitive.” As if the majority has the right to tell minorities how they should feel. I’m sorry white people but that’s just not the case.
Frankly, the white film critic’s opinion on whether it’s offensive to dress up like a Mexican is 100% irrelevant. His inability to recognize the racism that exists before his very eyes is a result of his privileged place in our society. No man has a right to tell a woman whether something is sexist or not, and no white person has the right to tell a person of color whether something is racist or not. Sorry white folks, if we are offended you just have to take our word for it.
Dear White People opens in theaters on October 17.