When Netflix announced that it would release a TV series based on the 2014 film Dear White People, a lot of white people freaked out, accusing the show and Netflix of being racist. All the freaking out didn’t really affect the popularity of the show, which managed to snag a 100 percent “certified fresh” ranking among critics on popular TV- and film-review site Rotten Tomatoes.
But next to that 100 percent rating is also an audience ranking, of what regular people who watched the series thought, and it’s a middling 57 percent. Now, is a lot of that just a bunch of white tears still crying over a show they think is targeting them? Sure. But—and I’m about to go with an unpopular opinion here—what if Dear White People isn’t the “stay woke” comedy of this era that we’ve all been waiting for? What if Dear White People is actually asleep—as in a dreamy, deep, comalike sleep—as a show for white people disguised as a “faux woke” comedy for black people?
Sure, Dear White People, the Netflix show, is funnier and deeper than the film, and it has some outstanding episodes (especially 4-6), but the faux wokeness is strong.
The 10-episode series has no problem poking fun and satirizing the failings, hypocrisies and conflicts among black activist college students at a PWI, or predominantly white institution, but it is afraid to take that same sledgehammer to “white allies” who are constantly hovering in that space, too. The result is a show that is barely worth an afternoon binge, when it could have been a classic Netflix and chill.
What is “faux woke” comedy? It’s comedy that is steeped in the politics of black life and pain but isn’t really for black people. Faux-woke comedy goes through great pains to use the black experience to appeal to white allies and not offend their sense of important “wokeness.” There’s money in faux wokeness now, so long as you can sell it to white audiences. (Think of the early work of W. Kamau Bell.)
These types serve up “black” consciousness with a creamy foam on top but make sure, if the topics get too thorny (sex, relationships, institutional violence), that they’re there with a hanky for all the allied white tears. By the finale, Dear White People devolves into a hat-tipping, cane-swirling, “Racism, AMIRITE????” instead of giving black viewers (the source of the comedy) real laughter and catharsis.
Any show’s “message” is shown through contrasting character voices; whoever gets the last word is what the show is really trying to say. Aaron McGruder’s critique of commercialized black culture came by way of Huey calling out Grandpa and Riley on their “nigga moments” in The Boondocks. Michaela Coel calls out racial fetishizing on Chewing Gum by contrasting Conner and Tracey with Ash and his bougie-but-assimilated ex-wife in “Replacements” (season 2, episode 2). Even though Earn is the main character in Atlanta, Donald Glover uses Paper Boi’s realness and Van’s work ethic to expose him for the smug, self-righteous underachiever he really is. In Dear White People, white folks almost always get the last word, either from their mouths or from black folks caping for them.
The students at Winchester aren’t just characters; they’re ciphers for certain black ideologies. Reggie is black male militancy, Coco is self-loathing but self-aware assimilation, Troy is respectability politics. The strengths and weaknesses of their beliefs are pointed out throughout the show, but what about Sam and, to an equal extent, Gabe, the key relationship that runs throughout the show?
Unlike Reggie’s, Coco’s or Troy’s behaviors, which are all poked fun at and are contrasted, Sam and Gabe run free, unchecked and unchallenged. Sam’s contention that black activism is burdensome is never challenged by Joelle or Reggie or anybody else on the show. If anything, it’s validated by Gabe constantly reminding her that she can opt out of her blackness by being with him. Gabe is never called out by the main characters for anything he does, no matter how egregious. His feelings are deemed just as important as the actual real-life experiences of black folks on the show. By. Other. Black. People.
Gabe sexualizes Sam from the jump (posting her post-coitus pic on Instagram), privately resents being a minority in black spaces, calls the cops because he feels threatened by an interracial scuffle at a frat party, and publicly requests that Sam attend to their relationship at a meeting to comfort Reggie, who was almost killed by the cops whom Gabe called. Sam blithely basks in her color privilege, which gains her favor with men of color on campus, lies about a relationship that makes her a hypocrite, puts her needs above Reggie’s trauma and, in the climactic scene of the finale, can’t even explain the purpose of protesting.
Are there any contrasting voices to their actions? Does someone provide a counter voice for how black folks really feel? Did Joelle step in to play the conscious Missy Vaughn to Sam’s flaky Lynn Searcy? Nope. Was there a Tim Wise to Gabe’s #Woke Ryan Gosling? Nope. Gabe and Sam get the last word. Worse, in the end, all of the black characters, from Lionel to Joelle to Sam, rush to remind Gabe, and white people like him, that calling the cops was OK and there’s still room for him at the barbecue. It basically takes the previous eight episodes of the show and throws them down a flight of stairs for Gabe’s white feelings.
Worse, in the era of Trump, when nooses are hung on campuses, and blackface parties and email attacks on black students are becoming the norm, Sam has no answer for Kurt’s challenge of “What is accomplished by marching?” The white man gets the last word, on love, politics and race, because that’s how the writers feel, too.
Dear White People had a wonderful comedic and dramatic opportunity to talk about the thorny issues of being a black activist while being partnered with a white person, and instead hid from it. Dear White People had all the materials for a funny, complicated look at the limits of white “allies” and whiffed. Or even a character study of “Rashida Jones vs. Tracee Ellis Ross” performative blackness by biracial activists like Sam. Nope. Dear White People had the chance to validate and legitimize black pain on college campuses and instead made activism look rudderless.
Faux-woke comedy requires that in the end, jokes about black pain are always sanitized so as not to offend white sensibilities. No matter how powerful the black community’s voices, in the end the writers want you to know that they’ll kneel in the Oval Office and pledge allegiance to white feelings no matter what. Even though Dear White People made me laugh, fight off a thug tear or two, and think, after 10 episodes it also painfully, obviously missed the mark. Dear White People isn’t great comedy or groundbreaking. It’s a faux-comedy love letter to white people written in the letters of black pain.