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Dear White People – A study of Meta Comedy in Episodes 1-5

I need to throw up a disclaimer here. I’m white. This review is from a white perspective and I am going to talk a lot about what I felt and experienced watching this show. It may be a difficult for other white people to read, and it may be unsatisfactory for black people. I am going to talk about how this show affected me, but I want to acknowledge that I can only be experiencing this because of the work that was done by the black people creating this art. If this post offends or is inaccurate in some way, please message me on the suggestions page. The work I’m doing right now is a continual process and I want to know any way that I can improve. I also want to mention that this show uses a word that I’m not comfortable with, so I will always abbreviate it, even when quoting the show. We all know what n– stands for, and I’m going to leave it as that, you don’t need me to spell it out.

Disclaimer #2: this is full of spoilers.

Alright, let’s get started.

The word “meta” when used as an adjective means that something refers to itself. For instance when a bar is named “The Bar” that’s meta. When it’s applied to creative work, it means that the work refers to itself. In my opinion making meta art can be a fine line to walk. It can be WAY overdone, and painful to experience (I still shudder at “The Big Short” and most recently, “The Laundromat”). When it’s done right, though, it’s magical.

Dear White People is in my opinion, the essence of all that meta should be. It’s a show created by, and performed primarily by, black artists. As a white person attempting to educate myself on racial issues, I am eternally grateful that media like this exists because in certain ways shows like this and Black-ish are made to educate white people as well as entertain. I can’t just be asking the black people in my life to educate me, it’s exhausting and they’ve been exhausted by racism for their entire lives. But when someone takes the time to produce content that will help me understand, I’m appreciative. They address things that I need to understand, and Dear White People speaks my language with its comedy but they don’t waste the opportunity to show me the reality of racism and what it means to be black in this world.

It opens up with a narrator who proclaims himself to be an “ethnic, non threatening voice” which comes out of the gate letting me know that this show is a comedy, and that it’s going to be super meta. If one of the first lines is explaining to me why a narrator was chosen, the show wants you to think about it because the show is thinking about itself and how it’s perceived. In the opening scenes Sam, the primary character, is singled out in class when the professor asks if anyone who identifies with slavery would like to explain it to the class. I’ve been woke for about six months now, and even I’m rolling my eyes already.

Sam has her own radio show on the college station, called “Dear White People” and the radio show is a representation of the television show. It’s a show within a show, which is telling the story of not just the show within the show, but the show that the show is within. In the first episode Justin Simien is laying it on for an audience that may have started tuning out when Sam delivers the line “I get it, the realization that you contribute to a racist society can be unsettling, but you sound like a grown ass woman to me.” That line caught me off guard because it was like they were talking to me. “I’m sorry, ma’am, that you’re drowning in your white guilt over there, but if you could grow up real quick and see that there’s a bigger issue at hand, that would be great.”

The show quickly introduces the black caucus, a group comprised of the many different black student groups and they’re immediately arguing with each other. A white group on campus has hosted a blackface party, and all of the groups are arguing not only about how to address the party but also racism on campus as a whole. Half of them are acting like they are completely shocked that racism is alive and well in 2017, and the other half is rolling their eyes, clearly jaded because they know intimately that racism never died. While this conversation is taking place between all black students, it’s impossible not to draw the lines between the arguments we see about racism in our society today. Half of our facebook feed is screaming for change and the other half is begging for a “return to normal” when what we fail to realize that “normal” wasn’t a time when race wasn’t an issue, but rather a time when racism was more palatable. When it was hidden in jokes and innuendos and white people could deny that they had ever been racist. A blackface party is a joke to white people, just like telling a story that starts with “how many black people does it take to (insert activity here)” or “so a black guy walks into a bar” is a joke. It’s just a joke, guys, lighten up. Right? Why do you have to take everything so seriously? I’m not racist, I told that joke to my black friend last week and they laughed so hard.

As the black caucus is discussing the party, Sam jumps on her soapbox and she’s saying things that are borderline graphic, specifically about how black people get killed on a daily basis and no one pays attention. During her speech her voice starts to get muted as an Instagram notification makes its way around the group. This is the first time the show really speaks to the horror facing black people, and the focus is an Instagram post. If that’s not holding up a mirror to our current society, then I don’t know what a mirror even is anymore.

The show continues on its first episode and we get to learn more about the characters and their relationships and the episode peaks when we discover that Sam herself sent out the invite to the blackface party. The student group Pastiche had been planning it but cancelled when the administration told them to shut it down, and then Sam hacked their facebook and sent the invite out anyway. Speaking in her defense on her radio show, Sam explains that while she did send out the invite, people still actually came out in blackface. The invite was not the issue, the problem was that people came out dressed in blackface for a halloween party.

As she continues speaking, she offers a powerful monologue on her radio show. Up until this point, I was laughing along with the show. I’m in the most open mindset because I’m relaxed and enjoying myself, and when the show turns from comedy to serious in this moment, my mind is open. I’m already in love with this show and I really hear her words for the first time. I’m sure I’ve heard them somewhere before but my discomfort with my own privilege caused me to get defensive and shut it down. This time, I listened.

“Dear White People. Wow. Ya’ll really trying it. I get that being reduced to a race based generalization is a new and devastating experience for some of you. But here’s the difference. My jokes don’t incarcerate your youth at alarming rates, or make it unsafe for you to walk around your own neighborhoods. But yours do. When you mock or belittle us, you enforce an existing system. Cops everywhere staring down the barrel of a gun at a black man don’t see a human being. They see a caricature. A thug. A n–” She repeats the word three times, each time louder. “So, nah. You don’t get to show up in a halloween costume version of us and claim irony or ignorance. Not anymore. Before this party a POC on this campus couldn’t even think the word racism without being accused of crying wolf. But just like it took a Sandra Bland, a Trayvon Martin, and a Philando Castile to wake some folks up, this party is what it took to wake this campus up.

I stay in this mindset as the next episode starts (thank you Netflix continuous play feature) and it’s back to comedy. The “ethnic, non threatening” narrator is speaking over clips from racist parties in a light hearted tone as we see white people dress up as Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Cinco de Mayo. My mood doesn’t yet match the new tone. I’m looking at these parties and I see them for what they really are, what they’ve always been –

Racist.

Pretty soon, masterful creative Justin Simien has me sucked back into the comedy again. I’ve been able to shake off my discomfort and get sucked back into the show as he takes each episode from a different character’s perspective. I love this, because episode two gives us the full run down on Lionel who is perhaps the most interesting character in television history and masterfully portrayed by DeRon Horton. He somehow manages to be both meek and powerful, nerdy yet sexy, and capable of processing his feelings about his burgeoning sexuality in record time (that last one might just be TV magic). As we learn more about him and the rest of the cast, the comedy turns up loud once again.

The next few episodes present us with the characters and their histories with each other. We learn the origins of the phrase “Dear White People” come from Sam and Coco talking about their white friends, my personal favorite is the first line “Dear White People, having a black vibrator does not mean that you are in an interracial relationship.” We learn that Reggie is in love with Sam but she’s not interested, that Sam and Troy used to date, and that Joelle has a mad crush on Reggie. In episode five, we’re focusing on Reggie who until now has been a B Plot, the guy who is most offended by Sam’s new white boyfriend but still he doesn’t have much depth to him before this. Now we start to see that Reggie has always wanted to be on the forefront of the fight for racial equality. He is woke AF and he’s going to change the world with his skills in coding and computer design.

Episode Five is when the meta comedy reaches a major peak. Reggie, spinning his wheels trying to figure out how to bring about the next stage of the revolution, needs a break and his friends take it upon themselves to show him a good time. They cruise through a few lame campus promoted dinners and go tailgating where they pick up Ikumi who describes herself as “the girl you’re about to share your weed with and your new catch all Asian friend.” And then comes quite possibly my favorite scene in all of television history. Reggie and his friends (including Ikumi) start breaking down racial stereotypes in films, and they break the fourth wall so hard it’s almost unheard of. The characters are nearly crawling over each other so that they can make eye contact with the camera as they explain that Tarantino shouldn’t get any accolaids for racial justice just because he made Django, when “we’re pretty sure he just puts Samuel L Jackson in his movies so he can call him a n– for three hours.” Ikumi looks directly into my eyes through my computer screen as she says that they should be grateful to be typecast twice a month in movies, because asians have only had “joy luck club or crouching tiger” for the last twenty years.

I think that scene is what really made me fall hard for this show. At first it was just puppy love, I had a crush on Dear White People but I didn’t think that they knew I existed. After this scene I was deep, head over heels, write their name inside my Lisa Frank trapper keeper in love with them. Breaking the fourth wall is a bold move, and it can go horribly, horribly wrong. When used in television it can either be artistic or it can make the whole show jump the shark. This, though, was comedy gold.

The show draws me as a white viewer back in when Rashid, a character from Kenya, stops them on their meta tirade and says “All you do is complain. Americans would have no identity if it wasn’t for their outrage. I know so much about what you don’t like, what do you like?” And everyone in the group agrees that if there’s one thing Americans like, it’s breakfast for dinner, because pancakes deserve better than to be regulated to certain hours of the day. In a less than five minute scene I was schooled on my love for Tarantino and shown how he perpetuates racial stereotypes, and then included again because I also love breakfast for dinner. I mean, who doesn’t?

They go to a party were Reggie is showcased as literally fucking brilliant. He nails tipsy trivia, saying “this game is culturally biased against me and I’m still whoopin dat ass.” (Another point for education – because how many white people have stopped to think about how pervasively white Trivia is? On Jeopardy, the last category chosen is “African American History”.) They all get a little tipsy off the game and the show cuts to a dance party where Reggie and his trivia partner are singing along when Reggie asks his white friend to stop singing the word n– when it comes up. His friend is angry, he asks Reggie why he would call him a racist while in his house, drinking his booze. Joelle explains that he never called anyone a racist, he just asked him to stop using “that word”. A fight breaks out, with white people on the side of “why is this a big deal” and black people explaining “because it’s a big deal to me, that should be enough”.

The campus police are called and they come in as Reggie and his white trivia partner are getting into a physical fight. The campus police immediately focus on Reggie, asking him if he’s a student and wanting to see his student ID. Everyone jumps in, even the person he was just fighting, and say that it was a misunderstanding and that Reggie is a student. Reggie doesn’t want to show his ID, he wants to know why he’s being singled out. That’s when the cop pulls out his gun.

In that moment, everything stops. The show that’s had me in stitches now has me in tears. Everything disappears and it’s just a shot from the cops perspective, seeing Reggie at the end of his gun. Nothing matters anymore. Not the jokes I’ve been laughing at in the show, not the protests or the movements the black students create. Reggie’s life is on the line. All the racist education he tries to spread and the education that white people are trying to absorb, it all evaporates. It’s a man at the business end of a gun. His death might start a revolution, but his life would be over. They leave the party and walk past a blackface lawn jockey and the story ties back to the beginning of the series. The jokes that seemed innocent have led to a society where a cop can pull his gun on a black man and turn that man’s life into a statistic on a whim.

I’ve been aware for awhile now that I have privilege, and because of that when I am told that something is offensive by the offended party I never question why, I just stop doing it. I have never stopped to wonder why it hurts. When Sam explains that racist jokes are not jokes, but a perpetuation of a racist society that demonizes and makes caricatures of black faces, I begin to understand. I understand that while I am not the cop or the man claiming “Stand Your Ground”, I am responsible for the society that permits it. Every time I thought a joke was funny, everytime I repeated one, I lessened the humanity of black faces. I did my part as a successful cog in the machine of racism.

It’s painful. I’m more ashamed of myself than I have ever been in my life.

From childhood white children play cops and robbers, it’s a game to us. When we grow up, they’re just fun party themes. Haha, you’re the robber and I caught you. Haha, I’m dressed like a sexy cop. Haha, if we were black kids playing with this toy gun in the street we would be murdered.

It’s not so funny now, is it? It’s not a game anymore. What I didn’t realize until now is, it never was.

There’s going to be more reviews on this show. I want to get into the privilege of individuality, code switching, and so much more. I wanted to do all of it with this one post, but I couldn’t fit it in and expect anyone to read a novel length review. More to come, stay tuned.

Categories: Television

nikkiraejensen

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