Every "The More You Know (About Black People)" video released over the past few months accomplished exactly what Justin Simien wanted: It made me increasingly anxious for the release of Dear White People. Each advertisement showed that, finally, on the big screen, Simien was going to lay out preeminent racial issues in a "colorblind," "post-racist" era.
I knew that, for some, this was a show of solidarity in mass media: Yes, people recognize the struggle of being "a black face in a white place" and how young adults handle this differently. For others, it was a rallying cry: The fact that so many people can identify with these issues shows that something must be done. Yet for the majority of the U.S. population, Dear White People is an aggressive title falling on uninterested ears; Dear White People is too confrontational for a large portion of the target demographic.
As with every film, I knew I would interpret the story and its characters uniquely. I expected to find it relatable to an extent (though I'm not black, and I don't go to a Winchester), but I felt one of the roles playing out in my own life.
A biracial junior majoring in media arts at a predominantly white institution (PWI) makes films about race and calls out her fellow classmates on their unintentional racism. Often derided or dismissed by her white classmates, she is supported by fellow person of color -- but not all of them. Outspoken, critical and passionate, she is described as an anarchist and is encouraged to grab the bullhorn by the handle.
I just described protagonist Samantha White, the heroine who both inspires and infuriates the students of Winchester.
Eerily enough, that description describes me as well.
Protest in Ferguson, Missouri
I don't have my own radio show, but the majority of my Facebook and Twitter posts may as well be prefaced with, "Dear White People." I don't have a consistent friend group to fuel a political campaign, but I'm part of a #brownpower clique in addition to various allies across campus. And yes, I'm ready for the rest of LSU to get as pissed off about discrimination as I am.
Though it lacks the uppity Ivy League snobbishness, LSU is not as far from Winchester as it may seem. The campus is over 70-percent white, Greek parties have blatantly racist themes (such as the "Around the World"-themed event last year that had way too many white boys in sombreros and fake mustaches), the Greek system looks like Alabama's, Yik Yak shows what white kids really think of black kids, and some people even wave purple-and-gold Confederate flags. The hair touching, the awkward class discussions on race, the perception that it's an accomplishment to score a white guy or girl -- this happens not only at LSU but at every PWI across the country. Realizing that this place and these situations are borrowed from reality makes Dear White People that much more unsettling.
Samantha is one of four major characters. The others -- Troy, Coco and Lionel -- all have different experiences and embrace their identities differently. From assimilating to succeed to feeling "too black for the white kids, too white for the black kids," each character struggles with a complex identity that is never fully understood by fellow characters. Why does Troy continue to fulfill his father's wishes? When will Coco accept where she's from? More than about race, this film is about identity: Despite our shared experiences, we all react differently to racial discrimination and societal disadvantage. Sadly, all four characters are aware of being ostracized at some point, but few are as consistently vocal as Sam -- and even she loses her voice.
One can only speculate on why Sam is so passionate and articulate, but I know why I pinpoint the errors in miscommunication between racial groups. I can't speak for Sam, but I can say that being biracial lends itself to an understanding of two cultures as well as a misunderstanding by both. There is always the question of overcompensation ringing in my mind: If many Indian Americans are trying to pass as white, I was running in the opposite direction. I know what's at stake in assimilation, which is why I roll my eyes at behaviors I consider assimilationist. Because I realize these things, I speak loudly to both white and non-white people due to seeing both sides. That's something biracialism affords you, but it means your identity issues are trivialized or misunderstood (e.g., the "tragic mulatto" comment).
Yet I also fear being made a de facto ambassador of Indian culture, a title I never wanted thrust upon me, because I actually talk about being Indian with non-Indian people. And after a lifetime of assimilating to fit in with white people, I, like Sam, am sometimes embarrassed to admit to my whiteness. Biracial people are forced into a binary construct that they never fully fit into; we will never be one thing or the other. For me and perhaps Sam, it's not about standing up for yourself; it's about standing up for anyone who might feel like you do yet hasn't found the words.
But it's exhausting to constantly fight against a strong current of traditional thinking. It involves fighting against yourself, your family, your friends -- and you lose a lot of people in being true to who you are. I believe what Sam does is brave, but few in the film share the same sympathy. Sam's messages and meaning are lost on people who haven't even begun developing their own identities. The T-shirt/Nike shorts/Chubbies style and regurgitated Republican dogma at my own university shows that a lot of people haven't changed much since what they were told to be in private school. Perhaps they are better-dressed, but most Winchester students would presumably become the same aloof, affluent donors seen at the end of the film.
I empathize with White's struggles, down to uncomfortably having to explain your white parent to people. I know what white people think of minorities because I was the "model minority" friend who was "basically white" and sat in on covertly racist family discussions. I know what people of color think because people will talk to me in a way that requires trust and compassion. My skin color betrays that I understand in some capacity, so the trust is more readily there.
And because I've heard both sides, I'm tired of white people telling me racism is no longer an issue. I'm tired of people of color being slighted by a system that doesn't work for them. Most of all, I'm tired of being tuned out -- by people of all colors.
So when you hear "Dear white people," are you turning it off or turning it up? The Samantha Whites of the world are trying to reach you, and they understand both types of people. Perhaps you should give them a listen.