What “Dear White People” Gets Right (and Wrong) About Social Justice
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The Netflix show "Dear White People" (DWP) has gained much critical acclaim for portraying marginalized students at an Ivy League university. The fourth and final season, released this past Friday, sparked many conversations.
Largely due to its re-formatting as a musical, and because of how it handles sensitive topics both from the new season and those past, fans and critics are chiming in on how season four of DWP fails and succeeds — and how it depicts marginalized communities on college campuses.
A brief warning: There are spoilers ahead.
While all of the show's flaws cannot be accounted for in this post, here are a few things season four of the show gets wrong.
"Dear White People" does not hold consistently problematic characters accountable, even for actions that are truly detrimental to the marginalized. These characters do not show growth or genuine willingness to change themselves.
For instance, let's look at the show's only main white character, Gabe. Because of his wealthy family's bankruptcy, he claims Native American ancestry to win a grant that funds his last semester and thesis film project. Only out of guilt does he distribute the check to others that are more deserving — but this plot point is never presented as anything more than a minor flaw and is only addressed in passing in the last season of DWP.
In reality, people like Gabe block the rightful passage of resources to marginalized groups, who have suffered generations of systemic poverty instead of brief and inopportune stints. Gabe's character is merely a left-leaning caricature of people who do not understand the value of programs like affirmative action until it applies to them.
"Dear White People" does illustrate some of the perils of bigotry. For instance, when the show reveals the former editor of the university's primary news source to be an alt-right figure and when it depicts the school shooter's distaste for the "inequality" in programs that are meant to give marginalized groups a boost.
But ultimately, what DWP does very wrong in its final season is label overt racism as dangerous and not take the time to call out how subtle racism can also threaten community safety.
Problems aside, the show also does many things right. Most viewers of the show denigrated season four for its musical format. However, DWP is likely being self-referential.
The most explicit themes of this season are minstrelsy and the idea of performing for "the system." Students in the show protest and co-opt the main event of season four, the annual variety show that symbolically and traditionally upholds whiteness. The most obvious reason for the musical formatting of the final season is the self-referential aspect — it's an undesired musical about an undesired musical.
There is a valid fear about addressing hefty topics through the medium of song, as musicals are often characterized as light-hearted. Yet, the last season of DWP puts genuine effort into creating songs and dramatic dialogue that still addresses "the hard stuff."
Aside from a few scenes involving poor singing and tap dancing, the show still manages to handle the most significant themes with the appropriate weight, showcasing the tension between working within oppressive systems and breaking them down from the outside.
Throughout season four, each character deals with the issue of being a "sell out," whether by engaging in problematic behaviors or by reinforcing the oppressive system that their peers are trying to disassemble.
The character dynamic that shines the brightest in season four is between the main character, Sam, a senior who has become a fixture of social unrest on campus, and Iesha, a freshman devotee of Sam. Iesha is determined to pick up the slack that she feels the upperclassmen have willingly put down. Presenting this tension without a clear resolution is part of how the season redeems itself.
DWP could have ended with Iesha as a caricature of an angry Black woman and Sam as a participatory Uncle Tom figure. But their final confrontation includes a moment of clarity that illuminates the Black binary struggle — Black change-makers are either seen as non-threatening bystanders (and informants) or unreasonably and invalidly belligerent.
How the Show Applies to Social Issues on Campus
"Dear White People" easily translates to the real world, mainly because actual events continuously inspire it. The topics explored in the show are present in colleges and universities across the nation.
Commentary on Affirmative Action
The issue of affirmative action that surrounds Gabe's character was also a topic of debate in a recent supreme court case, Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, sought to tear down the university's affirmative action program because she was rejected from the school. Though affirmative action benefits white women the most, Fisher was convinced the national policy worked against her. However, it became clear during the trial that the case was deeply entrenched in racism.
Students Want More From Their Universities
Iesha's character is also very representative of people in the real world; students are invested in social justice and want their colleges to be as well. Her character constantly demands more than the bare minimum from her peers and university.
Michael, a character who is a well-developed depiction of a gay sex worker, also has a narrative centered around the demand for change on campus. His goal is to advocate for the rights of sex workers in the variety show, but his act is eventually rejected by the producers.
Michael's narrative depicts an institution's willingness to accept socially acceptable change over more controversial initiatives, even though both are equally important in the fight for civil rights.
Dealing With a Corrupt System
In "Dear White People," students deal with having to perform in a building named after a person who once enslaved African people. a slave owner. This is, unfortunately, common in the real world as well. Frequently, spaces on campus that are meant for student expression end up excluding marginalized students, not just because of institutionalized discrimination, but also because of the racist legacy of their namesakes.
The reality of being a marginalized student in college theatre means performance critiques can easily involve racial stereotypes. A Black student actor at Ithaca College faced criticism from his professor on how he was not inarticulate or dispassionate enough when portraying a formerly incarcerated man in the college's rendition of "The Brothers Size."
It's these parallels to current campus issues that make the show feel very real. "Dear White People" hits on several poignant dilemmas that students continuously grapple with. As Sam expresses in her and Iesha's confrontational resolution, "How do you navigate a system that you are gaining power within but deep down you want to destroy?"
Though some portions of the show adhere to modern problematic practices — like not making its harmful characters accountable for their actions — season four showcases many of the burdens that students carry with them throughout their years in academia.
Feature Image: Vladimir Vladimirov / E+ / Getty Images