‘Dear White People’, Revisited

On Thursday morning, I woke up to the media detailing the ways in which the second autopsy report corroborated all of Officer Darren Wilson’s, the man responsible for the murder of an unarmed black teenager, account of the altercation that transpired between himself and the aforementioned teen, eighteen year old Michael Brown. Brown was many things. He was college-bound. He was devoted to his mother. He smoked weed. He may even have robbed a local convenience store. Who knows? What I do know certainly is that he was poor. Being poor and black is perhaps one of the greatest crimes you can commit in this country. It means that everything you do is criminal, that you are threatening in every space and a redundant citizen in the Great Capitalist Society in which worth is ascribed based upon one’s productiveness and one’s lifetime income potential (usually contingent upon the economic status of one’s parents). Therefore, when the white liberal media rushed in to gawk at Ferguson, an ensuing bedlam of the riots in the aftermath of the shooting death of Mike Brown, an incessant flow of aspersions and attempts at character assassinations by the police and the media to paint the picture of a boy who was “no angel,” and thus deserving of death went into full effect. On Thursday morning, I woke up to a world where people would rather subscribe to the notion of a villainous and bestial black body threatening a white life, à la the blacks of “The Birth of A Nation” than to see a young man, full of promise, flawed, with his whole life ahead of him who was the victim of a pattern of young, poor, black men being murdered by white men on a regularly and continuing basis in this country. So, I decided to gather up my nickels and go see Justin Simien’s debut, “Dear White People”.

“Dear White People” intrigued me because it is so germane to my current station life. And it was novel. There is no film like it. The film chronicles the lives of four black students at a fictitious, Ivy League school who try to survive in this space as best they can. The film touched on the issues of biracial identity, internalised racism, homophobia in the black community, socioeconomic status, the denigration of black women, the fetishisation of black militancy by white people, interracial dating, and a whole host of others. The most prominent issue, however, was the issue of building communities within white spaces. The movie is lauded because it demands the recognition of the multiplicity of blackness. Often times, black people are essentialized to stereotypical cultural touchstones which are taken as the entirety and truth of the black experience for every single black person. The film confronts and shatters this narrative through the lives of its four main characters. “Dear White People” then is important not because it conclusively shatters the illusion of a monolithic black culture, but because it gets to the deeper business of talking about how we build community within these spaces so that all black voices, with varying intersecting identities, can be heard and have room to be nurtured.

Perhaps the one and only spoiler I’ll give in regards to the movie is that “Dear White People” is about white people in only the most tangential and secondary way. It’s a story of people whose identities pivot around their blackness and the ways in which white supremacy influences their experiences on campus. From a hip-hop themed party completed with fried chicken and purple drank, to the microaggressive comments about certain character’s hair or deviation from essentialized ideas of blackness (“You’re only technically black”), the movie brings us to understand that the creation of black enclaves in white spaces is essential. The idea of black communities as a survival method is as old as black people in America. The first Africans who came to the New World were people of varying nations and ethno-religious backgrounds who found themselves in bondage owing to their Africanness, and the necessity of cheap labour in the development of the plantation economies of the Americas. The history of the black collective experience, as a form of asylum and as a home for the production of black intellectual thought, is a long one in the Americas and remains to be so, even, and perhaps especially, today. Today, little black boys and little black girls and little black people of a non-binary, or no gender, are brought up in integrationist spaces which promote the idea of color blindness. We are taught that racism looks specifically and singularly like the Ku Klux Klan terrorising black communities and we are taught that racism is no more. Color blindness, then, becomes the guise behind which white supremacy hides. It allows for white people to receive benefits at every social, political and economic moment of their lives and be socialised to think that whiteness is normative and correct. And, albeit we don’t say it, all other racial identities, particularly blackness (which stands in antithesis to whiteness owing to racist ideologies substantiating slavery) are deviant and deserving of punishment. We never acknowledge this phenomenon. We never understand the material consequences of white supremacy on black people’s lives because we live in a society where noticing race at all is a faux-pas, and downright racist. Mike Brown’s death does not follow a pattern of police violence against communities of colour. It was a random act against a random thug that says nothing about society as a whole.

To argue, then, for these black spaces is radical. The film’s message is that even in the great diversity of persons that comprise Black America, we are all united in a singular struggle. Everyday, we either have to fight for our rights to be treated as human beings, to want things, to be viewed as beautiful, to have to defend the validity of our intellectual expressions, to want agency in our own lives, or we have to apologise for wanting them. In my own experience, it is one of the most emotionally exhausting exercises I’ve ever undertaken to be viewed not as an idea, a fun Facebook presence, a representative of black struggle, or as the latest thing white people like, but as a person who is layered and nuanced and fully human. The reason that black spaces are so important is because in black spaces, we can stop fighting. You never have to work to convince black people of your humanity. We understand and see the humanity in each other.

“Dear White People,” I am hoping, starts a conversation on how to rebuild black community. In a colorblind world, all the black people shouldn’t be sitting by themselves. They should be out in the wider campus, fulfilling their purpose of helping white students learn to function in a diverse environment, all the while holding their tongue every time a Kanye song comes on at a party and the whitest kid you know rushes to exclaim “NIGGA” like it’s their job. But it is necessary to be around people who affirm you, who can empathise with you, and who really see you. The creation of a community, in these white spaces, is the first step to justice. It’s letting black people center themselves in conversations about race, it’s developing a sense of kinship among the oppressed, it’s about grieving and healing and growing among people who intimately understand what it took for you to get to a place like this, and what is takes for you to stay here. It’s about seeing the effects of white supremacy not just on your campus, but in the wider world and its about solidarity to the all people who have ever been called pretty for a black girl, and all the people who are shot and killed by police. We’re stronger together, and only together can true healing and growth begin.

Article originally published on October 10th, 2014, date has been modified for republishing purposes


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