The Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X dichotomy has been played out over and over again between various characters in movies and on television. Whether it’s Xavier and Magneto battling it out about mutant rights, Dumbledore and Voldemort debating on whether or not to expose magic to the non magic, or Carlton and Will wondering if they should play to the system or against it, the basics of this ideological battle is still in our national consciousness. However, this fight, like most, has been a predominantly male one. Even stranger, or less strange depending on how you look at it, this conversation has also been a predominantly white one. It’s not until I watched Netflix’s Dear White People that I finally saw this dilemma being played out with two strong black female characters. After seeing it, I’m so glad it exists. There are so many layers you don’t see when talking about civil rights when you don’t include women of color. The show illustrates the sexism within a minority community, the bodily objectification of women in that community, and the different kinds of racism one experiences as a black woman that isn’t the same as a black man. Women tend to get pushed aside when talks of racial justice ensue because what does one fight for or identify with first? Their race, or their gender identity? It’s a fine line that many women must navigate, and we must see that represented in the media in order to understand those individuals, or else we risk overgeneralizing the black female experience.
Samantha (Sam) White and Colandrea (Coco) Conners start out as friends and roommates their freshman year at the prestigious Winchester University. Winchester is a made up Ivy League college that tries to cover up the racism that still exists in their mostly white school with “diversity” photoshoots and allowing the students to self segregate and protest as long as they do it “the right way.” Ring a bell? Anyway, Sam is a light skinned biracial woman, whereas Coco is a dark skinned black woman who grew up in the south side of Chicago. Coco was plucked out of her neighborhood by rich white scholars who funded her education and thus, she became as “white” as possible. She grew up hating her hair and skin color, seeing her friends and family members get shot by police in her neighborhood, and never wanting to rock the boat and risk losing the affection of her white benefactors and peers. Coco believed, as a woman of color, that she had to stand behind a strong black man, and that a public position of power wasn’t meant for her. We don’t know much about Sam’s upbringing, but we can see that she does enjoy the privilege her light skin affords her. She has the privilege of being loud and speaking her mind without being called a “crazy black woman.” At the same time, her fighting for racial equality puzzles and even angers Coco because what does Sam, a light skinned socioeconomically privileged woman, know about being black? In the end, the two split because of their ideological differences. Sam believes that the best way to be heard is to protest and fight the power, whereas Coco wants to fit in and create change from “within.”
As their college years go by, Sam becomes the creator of Dear White People, a radio show where she roasts the administration and her fellow schoolmates for not giving a damn about racism, while Coco becomes invested in a relationship with Troy Fairbanks, a black man who is also the son of the Dean of Students. Coco believes that she’s meant to be the great woman behind the great man that is Troy. However, she soon realizes that she can be so much more without Troy. She doesn’t need him to be a powerful and successful woman, she can do it all on her own. She doesn’t need a man to lift her up, because it turns out, they only weigh her down. She dawns her natural hair for the first time at college, and goes on to host the Town Hall meeting about racist cops at Winchester.
During the Town Hall meeting, Sam protests outside. Though Coco and Sam don’t fully makeup at the end of the season, they do end on speaking terms.
Overall, the show does a great job at showing how hard it is to not only be a woman, but a black woman. We see that the MLK and Malcolm X battle isn’t only between men of color, but women of color too. And through a woman’s eye, we see that the battle is so much more complex than we had thought.
Dear White People is also a progressive without being queer-phobic or sexist. The jokes don’t come at the expense of women and queer people, but rather at white people and just regular jokes that don’t have anything to do with trivializing someone’s existence and experience. There is one cringeworthy Asian American character named Ikumi who says, “I’m your catchall Asian friend” when first introducing herself to the gang mid season. Ikumi, who doesn’t get that many lines or screen time (understandably since the show is about the black experience), at least points out that black people at least have some movies and shows about them, as opposed to the minuscule amount of movies about the Asian and Asian American experience.
24 year old English major and ESL Teacher. Currently living in Fortaleza, Brazil. Feminist and kill joy with a cause.