Our college experience should encompass the most life-changing four years of our lives. It’s a time when we got away from our familiar surroundings for the first time and were given the freedom to truly find ourselves. But for many students, particularly those from marginalized backgrounds, there come challenges with the newfound freedom.
Dear White People doesn’t shy away from the twists and turns of identity and self-expression. It stays true to the trends of our generation, citing the cutting humor of Black Twitter and the hilarity of Bossip headlines. But it also doesn’t shy away from the self-interrogation, trauma, and grit that many students of color have to endure just to exist and succeed on a college campus. While 2017 brought us the show’s first season, which flourished amidst plenty of initial pushback, the second season allows us to truly delve into the characters and their evolution.
“The writing was so good this year, and the writers forced us to expand in our characters,” DeRon Horton, who plays the nerdy gumshoe exploring his sexuality, Lionel Higgins, tells CASSIUS. “There was so much pressure to uphold the reputation built by the first season.”
The show’s creator Justin Simien has developed a world within Winchester University’s Black Caucus where race doesn’t exist in a monolith. Each Black character has a multi-faceted identity with complex foundations that are built upon with each life event they experience. In short, Dear White People is a show where we can see our nuanced selves represented.
[The characters] are so multidimensional and we’re not monolithic … you’re seeing so many hues of Blackness within this one television show.
“[The characters] are so multidimensional and we’re not monolithic,” Antoinette Robertson, who plays campus Queen Bee Coco Conners, told CASSIUS. “Given that fact alone, you’re seeing so many hues of Blackness within this one television show so it’s nice to have a mindset of a Coco, a Joelle, and a Sam so the world can see how alike we are, but how different we are. Understanding the differences we have further humanizes us when being held face to face with all the negativity that’s being thrown in our directions.”
Season 2 picks up just weeks after the campus’ shattering protest that concluded the first season. We find the characters grappling with the events of the season finale, such as Troy breaking a window in Hancock house, Reggie’s traumatic run-in with campus police, and Lionel’s leak of the Hancock family’s conspiracy on The Independent. But while the campus is still ringing from the aftermath of these hyper-climactic events, much of the aftershock occurs on a deeper level. Sam White, Winchester University’s leading campus activist, is forced to reckon with her identity demons which are triggered from the worst way possible — alt-right Twitter trolls.
Actress Logan Browning tells CASSIUS that her character’s obsession to defend herself and her mixed-race identity online demonstrates in itself a larger issue in how social media can manipulate our lives and our self-perception. She says her most powerful line of the season comes in Episode 8 when Sam’s ex-boyfriend Gabe (who happens to be white) accused her of trying to quell her white guilt with her radio show. Sam turned to him slowly and said, “Guilt is too simple to describe what a girl like me in a world like this feels.”
“It illustrates how a lot of people in this country exist in the middle of this Black and white spectrum,” Browning explains. “As a person who is on that spectrum, you want to be proud of all sides of you. Especially someone who is an activist and speaking out against the injustices of Black people, you want to feel accepted and seen as such, but you also want your personal experience to be heard. Just as you hear about the issue of colorism and you add to that conversation, it’s just as important to also be heard.“
As a person who is [mixed], you want to feel accepted and seen as such, but you also want your personal experience to be heard.
The show also demonstrates how our identity undeniably shows us where society places us in the world, another unfortunate reality that exists in a microcosm on college campuses. This season we see Winchester’s tech kid and activist Reggie Green struggling after having a gun pulled on him by campus police at a house party. Marque Richardson, who plays Reggie, said he feels grateful that the writers stretched his healing and coping process across the second season.
“Reggie deals with the PTSD and parses through his trauma, trying to find healing,” he said. “Some people use prayer, some people use liquor, drugs, food or sex — Reggie has a mixture of all of them. He’s just trying to get back to who he is. He has people who love him and support him, but his friends and family still have no idea what he’s going through. They couldn’t, the gun wasn’t on them.”
Respectability politics are shattered in the world of the Obama-esque Dean’s son, Troy Fairbanks. After his stint breaking the window at the campus protest, he realizes how he now has to grapple with his identity as a Black man dealing with authorities and campus backlash, even struggling to do so.
“There’s a really defining line for anyone who has followed Troy’s journey,” actor Brandon P. Bell explains of his character. “He doesn’t know how to navigate his newfound Blackness in that he doesn’t have the guard or the privilege of a picture perfect image to protect him. He no longer has the protection of the guise of a Black man who has money, and he’s open to exploring it, but it’s scary all the same.”
But the beautiful thing about DWP is that through these moments of self-discovery come the most significant breakthroughs. Sam snaps out of trying to prove her Blackness and stifle her whiteness, and therefore is able to be a better friend to Joelle (masterfully played by Ashley Blaine Featherson) and stand up to Alt-Right personality Rikki Carter. Coco takes control of her body and moves forward confidently towards opportunities that are rightfully hers. Lionel stops worrying about what everyone else thinks about his journalistic pursuits and cracks what could be his first award-winning story. The Netflix hit tells young people that when they step out of the simple molding where the world tries to confine them, they are able to emerge as complex forces ready to change the world. This is where true activism begins.
When they step out of the simple molding where the world tries to confine, they are able to emerge as complex forces ready to change the world. This is where true activism begins.
“I think you should always veer towards your most authentic self while also knowing there’s going to be spaces that you might not feel safe enough to fully be yourself in,” Robertson said. “Once you start to take all the positive traits of someone and align it with a race that oppresses another, it starts to have this mindset that when you aspire to be better, you’re selling out and that’s not true.”
So the advice that the cast leaves young people on college campuses with is pretty simple but equally as complex — your genuine self is the voice that’s so necessary for the world to hear. We have enough fake news, minstrel shows, and hoteps in this world.
Go be great.
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