An Updated Guide to Understanding Casual Racism

Oppositional Gaze Blog

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After hearing about the many positive reviews and the interesting discussions that have come out of the film, I have chosen to analyze and write about “Dear White People” for my oppositional blog post. The film directly tackles some of the issues many black people are still facing regarding race relations and racial identity in our “post-racial society” through the stories of four black students who attend a pre-dominantly white university. We have Sam White, the outspoken new head of the university’s historically black residence hall and the voice behind the school’s sole radio show, “Dear White People”; Troy Fairbanks, the Dean’s ambitious son and closet comic who aspires to be a part of the all-white college humor magazine; Colandrea “Coco” Conners, an aspiring reality television star who downplays her “blackness” in pursuit of mainstream success; and Lionel Higgins, the gay journalist and recent recruit of the school’s most popular paper who struggles to find acceptance amongst both his white and black peers.

Initially, I was intrigued by how directly the film seemed to address it’s audience and presented its message. At its outermost layer, “Dear White People” does appear to be made for its titular audience with the purpose of informing them of the countless cases of microagression black people are subjected to everyday. From the hair touching to the condescension to the shame associated with your own name, the message is clear—it is hard to be black. From another race’s perspective, however, it is more interesting to watch how each of these characters responds to these inconveniences. From the earlier parts of the film we see that Sam is the only one of the four main characters who actively takes a stand to oppose the prejudiced system subconsciously upheld by the student body and more actively upheld by the school’s president, while the other three attempt to assimilate into the mainstream culture. The strongest example is provided by Coco who refuses to admit she grew up “in the hood” and even shoots a video of herself mocking the efforts of Sam in order to gain approval of her white peers and attract the attention of a reality show producer. From her fashion choices to her name, we watch as Coco purposefully tries to create a distance between her and popular black culture. And though it may be easy to criticize Coco and label her actions as ignorant or traitorous, I would be lying if I said I had not once been there myself

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One of the earliest things a person of color will learn is that the media will rarely be on their side. As Bell Hooks stated in the early 90’s, “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (Hooks, 117). From reality television to Fox News, it is clear that not a lot has changed. Black people are still given so little space in television and film, and are often only represented in ways that recycle the awful stereotypes that they’ve already been stuck with for decades. Expressions of anger and discontent with the status quo are often dismissed or used to further reinforce the idea that black people are whiny, violent and inherently evil. The social alienation that follows is lonely and discouraging, and plays a large role in why people of color lash out and become ashamed of their own culture. One of the most difficult things a person of color can learn is that they do not deserve this.

There are truths I think all black people, and to a certain extent all people of color, experience that I had not truly understood until I had watched this film. They are as follows:

  1. There are very few people who are outright racist, but there will be plenty of subtle hurtful remarks or actions to go around. Most of these will come from people you love and others whose approval you seek.
  2. White people never grow up fantasizing about being a person of color.
  3. Sometimes others will expect you to laugh at jokes that aren’t funny; some days it’s less tiring to tolerate them.

In an earlier part of the film, Sam explains to a fellow member of the Black Student Union the three ways a black person can survive in a pre-dominantly white community. The “oofta” modulates his or her blackness depending on his audience and what he wants from his audience, the “nose job” attempts to recreate his or her identity and blend in by using his or her blackness for self-deprecation, while the “one hundred” refuses to conceal his or her racial identity and participates actively in black culture.

Again, using Coco as an example we can analyze how her peers react to her attempts to assimilate into the dominant culture. Throughout the film, Coco, a “nose job”, refuses to criticize the system of power, which does nothing but harm people like her, and even aids the Pastiche club’s staff in coordinating the club’s blackface party. At the party we see an even more prominent manifestation of the racial injustice that exists today and the complete commodification of black culture. There are partygoers wearing afro wigs and masks of famous black figures, pointing fake guns at each other and pretending to shoot each other. Coco is disturbed by the blatant display of racism but continues to shoot her video until she spots a girl making fun of one of her videos. It is at this point that she realizes nothing she does to please the members of Pastiche will ever earn her their respect. Although she does not choose to join the Black Student Union in their efforts, for a moment she gives up the illusion that the reduction of her culture into a fad is acceptable. As Hooks stated, “While every woman I talked to was aware of racism, that awareness did not automatically correspond with politicization, the development of an oppositional gaze” (Hooks, 128).

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It is important for white people to realize that for black people, the discussion on the rights and treatment of people of color is not merely a political one. As seen in the film, taking a political stand can make you a target of racism, seeking acceptance can invite condescension and pursuing success can lead to the neglect of your cultural identity. When black people call others out on cultural appropriation or their use of derogatory terms, they aren’t doing it to trample on others’ freedom of speech. They are calling them out because others’ words and actions have personally hurt them before. Unlike white people, black people do not have the option to walk away from this debate because they are forced to live with it.

The film ends on a rather open-ended note, allowing the viewer to come up with his or her own conclusions. There is a point in the story where Sam’s TA tells her that to create a meaningful piece of art you have to hold up a mirror to your audience rather than drop an ideological piano on their heads. In directing this film, Justin Simien, sets an excellent example by presenting to us the reflection of what society has become. Although the Black Student Union was successfully able to draw attention to the internalized racism in the school and repeal the house randomization act, the students who hosted the blackface party walked away unpunished. Sam steps down from her position as leader of the Black Student Union; Lionel becomes a writer for another of the school’s papers, “Ebony & Ivy”; and Troy asks Coco to keep their past relationship a secret as he campaigns for an election he might not even want to be a part of. Simien refuses to grant us the closure we’ve grown accustomed to; he does not tell you what to do or pretend there is a simple solution that can fix this broken system. Instead, he asks you to look into the mirror. I hope you like what you see.

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