This post contains spoilers.
If you haven’t seen Dear White People, you should. It’s the first film in years to really confront black identities, of which there are many, in a sharp and funny way. The social commentary is meant for a large audience (despite the title) but is written, directed, and produced by black people on their own terms. It’s an important film because it examines the scale of racism that exists, from overt to subtle.
But the movie’s plot draws more heavily on conspicuous racism at a time when we need to explore casual racism. With race relations at the forefront of political, economic, and social discussions, the film under-emphasizes less apparent racism when it really should be treated equally with more blatant forms of race intolerance.
Dear White People follows several students attending Winchester University, an Ivy League school where all of the characters are painfully aware of their racial differences. There’s Troy, an all-American boy who must straddle the line between black and white students, in order to make his father proud. Then there’s Coco, a girl who wants to be famous, refuses to be defined by her blackness, and goes out of her way to disassociate herself from her black peers — which has larger repercussions as the movie progresses. Lionel is a lost, gay student who wants to be accepted by anyone, but can’t figure out where he belongs. And then there’s Sam, a vocal, blunt student leader hell-bent on exposing white people’s race crimes on campus.
Those racial incidents take many forms throughout the movie. On one hand, contentious interactions between Sam and Kurt — the white, privileged, and arrogant son of the school president — and their respective friend groups play on standard racial stereotypes. Racial hostility isn’t sugar-coated or disguised as anything but, from an early scene in the film — when Sam pointed out that Kurt and his friends were white and shouldn’t eat in the historically black dorm, and Kurt brought up fried chicken, waffles, and race riots — to a hip hop-themed fraternity party where white students don blackface and “urban” clothing.
On the other hand, there are a number of less obvious, casual forms of racism. Psychologists and scholars actually created a word for those subtle acts — microaggressions — which come up in the film but aren’t as rousing or flagrant as the frat party.
According to psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” Microaggression is assuming someone is only accepted by a school because of affirmative action. It’s assuming a person of Latin American descent wasn’t born in America. It’s asking a student to speak on behalf of an entire population of people based on their racial or ethnic background.
Dear White People identified common microaggressions that black people encounter every day. A white student asked if she could touch Lionel’s hair (and then proceeded to do so). The same girl told Lionel that he was only “technically” black because of his skin color. Troy’s girlfriend wanted his “big black cock,” perpetuating the common hypersexualization of black men and women. One student thought it was ok to say things like “YOLO, my nagga” and use the n-word because black people do.
It’s clear that director Justin Simien wanted to hold a microscope to varying degrees of racism, including seemingly harmless acts. And he did it well. But undisguised bigotry really drove the film. The central plot followed the escalating tension between Sam and Kurt, white students and black students. Less obvious acts of racism contributed to that racial tension but didn’t incite a race rumble at a party. They were treated as secondary.
The film would’ve been more interesting if microaggression carried the same weight as explicit racism, given the nation’s ongoing discussion of race relations. Many argue that we live in a post-racial America, and that argument is largely predicated on what racism looked like in the country’s past. No, slavery doesn’t exist any more, and Jim Crow laws no longer keep black people from occupying public spaces. But to say that racist attitudes no longer color American society, a microaggression in and of itself, ignores casual acts of racism that occur every day. The purpose of the film was to highlight the experiences of a lot of black people, but aggressive, in-your-face racism overshadowed — and minimized — the profound effects that microaggressions have on them.
Blatant racism exists; several fraternities have held race-themed parties. Nooses are hung around college campuses. But for productive discussions of race to occur, we need to talk about the less obvious ways people inflict harm. Dear White People had a chance to do that, but didn’t take it far enough.