Last weekend I went to the cinema to see Justin Simien’s Dear White People, a hip satire on the theme of student “race” relations, set at a fictional Ivy League university in a “post-racial” America. The film was praised by American critics as sophisticated, incisive and relevant, presenting an array of contradictory characters struggling to find their places as Black students at a historically White institution. The storyline unfurls between two key events: on the one hand, the launch of a new radio show entitled “Dear White People”, intended to educate the college’s majority White population about their everyday racial gaffes (petting Black students’ Afros; dating a Black guy to get back at your parents, etc.); on the other, the announcement of a blackface theme frat party to be held on campus, attended overwhelmingly by White revellers.
Sound a bit far-fetched? Apparently not. Simien was inspired to make the film through his own student experience at a predominantly White university, and in the closing credits to the film, viewers are treated to newspaper clippings of numerous “Black” themed college parties held over just the last few years in different parts of the country. Meanwhile, the “Dear White People” radio campaign echoes a number of recent social media movements led by Black students to highlight daily “micro-aggressions” perpetrated by unthinking or even well-meaning White students.
Perhaps the most successful of these has been the visually arresting I, Too, Am Harvard photo campaign, which began early last year as a spin-off from a campus play, and soon became a trending topic on Twitter. The strength of the campaign (which has since seen the emergence of various sister projects in the US and the UK) has been its clear, visual message. Black students stand head-on for the camera, holding handwritten messages on whiteboards. Some cite ignorant or insensitive comments from fellow (White) students:
“Are you all so fast because you spend so much time running from the cops?”
“You don’t sound black… you sound smart”
“Don’t you wish you were white like the rest of us?”
Others deliver cutting retorts to offensive approaches and off-colour witticisms:
“Please don’t pet my hair… I am not an animal”
“I’m not ‘pulling the race card’. You’re just being racist”
“No, I did not immigrate to receive HIV/AIDS treatment!”
The message of Dear White People and I, Too, Am Harvard is clear: we might talk about the US being a “post-racial” society, but racism is still alive and well in Obama’s America. What’s more, most of the perpetrators of this current, insidious brand of prejudice don’t even seem to realise anything is amiss. Far from it: many of the worst offenders in Dear White People are avid hip hop fans who might conceivably see a blackface party as a tribute to their musical idols, and are cognisant of the current social significance of identity politics to the point of honestly believing that “the hardest thing to be in the American workforce is an educated White guy”.
I applaud Simien’s attempt to approach the subject with humour. Dear White People‘s biting satire lights up the contradictions of a society in which “probably Mexicans” are the only people who still worry about race, yet a straight line can still be drawn between the jokey, “harmless” antics of its White protagonists and the blatant racial injustices that made human zoos and minstrel shows popular forms of entertainment in Europe and America right up until the mid-twentieth century. The implication is that all of these gestures – from hair touching to blacking up – are part of a sliding scale, ending in tangible violence. While protesting college micro-aggressions may seem like small fry in a year that has witnessed the violent deaths of numerous Black men (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott, to name but a few) at the hands of White police officers, we should not overlook the fact that both ends of the scale are rooted in the same American history of racial injustice.
If Dear White People paints a grim picture of the White mentalities found at top American educational institutions, their Black counterparts are not left unscathed either. From the nineteenth-century Sambo, Jack and Nat stereotypes used to characterise Negro “types” in the American South, Simien ironically offers a new range of caricatures, targeted at twenty-first century Blacks searching for a niche in White society. There is Troy, an academic high-flyer who seems ready to risk his perfect credentials to get in with the editors of the college satire magazine (the masterminds behind the blackface party); Coco, who is in denial about her “ghetto” roots, and openly aspires to blend in with the college’s rich White kids; Lionel, a gay nerd who rejects social labels, and consequently is rejected by everyone around him; and Sam, the brains behind “Dear White People”, who overcompensates for her “mixed” parentage by her militant stance, despite secretly dating a White teaching assistant.
For all its clever rhetoric and astute mocking of White disingenuity and Black hypocrisy, Dear White People seems to offer little hope for future conciliation. Each character is trapped by their racial category (which is portrayed as clear cut in practically all cases), to the point where every “cross-racial” friendship or romantic relationship either falls foul of fatal misunderstandings, or turns out to be merely a front, hiding underlying social aspirations or unhealthy racial fetishes. This theme is epitomised by the character of Sam, whose main struggle revolves around her Hobson’s choice of whether to remain loyal to her Black heritage (as dictated by the one drop rule), or to follow her heart – and her penchant for Taylor Swift – and openly date her compassionate, racially-aware White boyfriend. There is no middle ground for Sam, and either option implicates an irreparable betrayal of one “racial” group or the other.
Yet, once again, Simien’s plot does not stray far from the dilemmas and preoccupations of current generations of young Americans. A recent CNN documentary instalment, Who Is Black in America?, followed the story of Nayo, a “biracial” teenage poet struggling to define her identity, despite her peers’ constant demands to know who, or what she is. Having grown up with her White father, Nayo expresses her unease at identifying fully as either White or Black, preferring to situate herself somewhere in between. This rejection of racial labels, however, is interpreted by the documentary makers as a sign of Nayo’s pathological reluctance to embrace her Black roots. After numerous creative exercises in which Nayo and her fellow poets are instructed to align themselves with various identity labels, Nayo eventually takes her place among a group of self-identifying Black teenagers, much to the delight and relief of her mentors. In the land of liberty, “racial” abstinence, it seems, is simply not an option.
So, in a society where racial identities are still largely dictated by notions of appearance and descent, but must also be conformed to via cultural codes and linguistic cues, is there any space or mode in which Americans can leave their racial baggage behind? Can Black Americans temporarily cease to be Black, without being accused of “acting White”? Can White Americans ever learn to think and act beyond their subconscious privileges and prejudices? Can “cross-racial” relationships ever exist without raising suspicions of some ulterior motive?
It would be an oversimplification to imagine that American culture and society can be neatly split into two polarised camps. The dividing line has been blurred for some time now by new generations of Americans, hailing from various parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, who straddle the historic colour line, introducing new cultural overtones to American understandings of “race”, or rejecting the system outright. Yet, if we imagine that a clear line does exist, then current orthodoxy would suggest that altering White attitudes and behaviours is the key to improving “race” relations in America.
To this effect, Robin DiAngelo has proposed that the first stumbling block to overcome is sensitising White Americans to their own racial status and experiences, allowing them to place themselves within the racial hierarchy that has become ingrained within the very fabric of American society. DiAngelo notes that White Americans are generally insulated from the daily racial stress experienced by their non-White counterparts, and as a result are extremely averse to being made to discuss the presence and consequences of racism in their social environment – a phenomenon she calls “White fragility”. In DiAngelo’s words:
The antidote to white fragility is on-going and life-long, and includes sustained engagement, humility, and education. […] If you are white I urge you to take the first step — let go of your racial certitude and reach for humility.
DiAngelo makes a significant point: in order to challenge the endemic racism that pervades American society, it is important first to recognise its symptoms, and then to understand the role that each of us represents (even if we don’t always actively play it) within the system. This was the aim of I, Too, Am Harvard: to highlight normative expressions of prejudice against Black students, which might otherwise be shrugged off as jokes or gestures of affection. Dear White People takes things one step further, inculpating all White students by default for their presumed daily acts of bad faith.
Yet there is a danger to these blunt approaches. Social and visual media provide powerful tools for protesting injustices of all magnitudes, but they also risk escalating tensions, making any social incident liable to be judged and condemned out of context, with no room for constructive dialogue. For concerned White Americans, the most obvious route to appeasement is censorship: simply avoiding the phrases and behaviours that have been marked as offensive. Others may simply refuse the validity of these complaints, instead seeking vindication through counter-protests. In any event, cultivating a true sense of racial awareness is not as simple as learning when to check your privilege, or memorising a list of faux pas and politically correct terminology in order to steer clear of future breaches of racial etiquette. Furthermore, humility and education alone cannot possibly bring about social conciliation unless they are strengthened by relationships built on love, humour, and patience, that are not constantly hampered by considerations of “race”.
Building these relationships requires something that is, arguably, harder than the work done by I, Too, Am Harvard and Dear White People. It requires a sustained commitment from individuals on both sides of the colour line, to holding difficult conversations face-to-face, and not via hashtagged platitudes; to taking racism seriously, without losing a sense of proportion (or humour); and to trusting others to have the capacity to act and think beyond their “racial” attributes. Perhaps, when all this is achieved, then we can start talking about a “post-racial” America.
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