Black Realness In The Mainstream, But Is Everybody Watching?

05/22/2017 08:33 am ET Updated May 23, 2017

My recent binge-watch of Dear White People on Netflix sure did bring up old memories. Things I hadn't thought about in years.

CHAPTER I: “Homeboy, I came to par-ty..”

Like that one time in grad school. A woman in my class named “Lily,” was a bit of an enigma to me. She had both European and Hispanic ancestry so on our Southern, predominantly white campus, she was one of the more culturally diverse students. But Lily’s ambivalent attitude towards ethnicity earned her a side-eye from me. She used the "ethnic" label when it suited her, depending on her audience; and when it no longer served her, she would distance herself from it immediately. That aspect of her personality, coupled with her desperate need for attention, really irked me about Lily.

At the annual fall formal one year, a group of us formed a circle on the dance floor. It was one of those events where folks dressed all the way up to get all the way down. No holds barred, for sure. The deejay had the hip hop in heavy rotation. It was shaping up to be a great night. At one point, the distinctive opening chords to "Nothin'" by N.O.R.E. came on. We all went a little crazy. Everyone was feeling the beat and jamming and rapping. And I was right there with them...that is, until the chorus: “What you wanna do (beat) N----a?, What you tryna do?” Lily, who was dancing quite erratically at this point, had the nerve to shout the n-word -- which N.O.R.E. uses as a refrain within the chorus -- every time he said. With each scream, she would stomp her foot for emphasis. For Lily, the strategy worked; she got the attention she wanted. People stared at her, amused, and then nervously glanced over at me. Stunned and surrounded by only white faces, I said nothing. But my feet lost their rhythm for a moment. And that song has never felt longer.

CHAPTER II: “Don’t let me get in my zone/ I’m definitely in my zone!”

Or, there was that date with a French PhD candidate who I'd met at a gyro place on the lower East side. Since he was basically a tourist and I'm not a native New Yorker, a trip to the Natural History Museum was an excellent date spot for both of us. Once there, we sat through a video presentation on the solar system. Throughout the film, he interjected loudly with phrases like "Whooooa!" and "That's so cool!" At the end of the film, he turned to me excitedly, insisting that the presentation had been in 3-D. “Ha, no it wasn't,” I said hoping he was joking. He was incredulous at my response and asked someone on the museum staff to back him up. I won't soon forget the startled employee's face, or the way she simply shook her head when he said "Hey, wasn't that video in 3-D?!!"

At dinner, he mentioned a concert he'd recently attended. Kanye and Hov had both performed and he'd had a near-front row seat. He showed me a few pictures to prove it. I was impressed.

“Must have been an amazing experience,” I said.

“Yes, especially when they sang "N---as in Paris," he announced proudly.

This time, I decided to speak up. He was new to this country and it was time to bring him up to speed on a few things.

"I know you're not from here but to explain...that word has negative, insidious connotations. It's tied to a painful and violent history for blacks in this country so it's not something you should say."

"But this is the name of the song."

"Yes, I know. But that particular word is off limits to you."

"I have heard this and it is stupid. Why would they use this word if you are not allowed to say [it]? All of the street poems use this word."

"Yes, a lot of rap music uses that word. But these songs are written by other black people and the words reflect their experience and their culture. You do not share their culture."

The conversation completely unraveled from there. He got very upset, even cursing at me a few times. I left abruptly, hailing the first cab I saw. Hours later, I got several emails from him. One contained an apology. In another, he vowed emphatically: "I will never listen to the street poems again!!"

CHAPTER III: Mic Check, 1-2, 1-2...

Watching Dear White People transported me back to these moments. Moments that I had previously buried, or brushed off at the time as insignificant -- even when the feeling in the pit of my stomach told me otherwise. Watching the show and seeing the characters endure near-identical moments made me feel less alone and more justified in my disappointment, hurt and/or revulsion. I actually attained some healing through the fictional world of Winchester University. And I know I'm not alone.

Shows that accurately depict the black intellectual's experience are still surprisingly rare. As a black Ivy grad, I can tell you firsthand that a diploma from an elite institution does not grant you immunity from racism, colorism, the wage gap, or any number of ugly assumptions and stereotypes that currently exist in our society. So my heart leaps with joy that a show like Dear White People exists. It is actually educating people about yet another aspect of the black experience.

If a show like this had existed sooner, would I have had to endure that awkward moment at the fall dance? Or that strange "street poems" convo a few years later? Those are difficult questions to answer. Mainly because it sometimes seems that the people who could benefit most from a show like this, are the people least likely to watch. Case in point, I mentioned the show to a group of women who I was chatting with recently (none of whom are black). Only one had heard even of the show. Another seemed completely disinterested once she heard the title. And the third abruptly switched the discussion to a more "palatable" show.

Yes, we need more seasons of Dear White People, and other shows similar to it in their efforts to educate the masses (both black and white) and awaken them to their own prejudices. But we also need more people of all races watching. Not only to keep these shows afloat, but also to make sure that their purpose -- of breaking down stereotypes and educating those who need it most -- is being fulfilled.

When I first saw the trailer for the movie Get Out, for example, I thought it was a just horror movie. I knew that it featured an interracial couple and that race would factor into the plot somehow. But I had no idea how woke the film would be, or what a chilling and indelible political statement it would make. The marketing was ambiguous in a way that worked. The film was a box office smash. And the awkwardness in my theater (and in yours) was a beautiful thing. I am willing to bet that many who thought they were just going to see a feel-good horror film, ended up horrified for a completely different reason. And I want more of that from our entertainment.

That said, I wouldn’t want a show like Dear White People, with its in-your-face title and undiluted dialogue, to ever compromise in order to gain certain viewership. The show’s unflinching realness is its strength. I just wish that some would look past the title and actually stream an episode or two before deciding to lose interest.

EPILOGUE

The Frenchman and I did not stay in touch. Wherever he is though, I hope he does not give up on "the street poems" as his rambling email suggested he would. In that same spirit, I hope that when my grad school classmate finds the time, she'll watch Dear White People and catch that much-needed clue. To either of them, who may be reading this right now: (1) thank you for these profound experiences; and (2) to quote Reggie from Dear White People: “feel free to register your complaints in the comments section.”

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