One of Netflix’s most controversial endeavours into original programming, Dear White People takes an unflinching look at campus culture. Set at Winchester University, a fictional private Ivy League institution in the US, the show not only showcases issues of racism, prejudice, and ignorance that are prevalent on university campuses, but also explores the presence of controversial voices on campus.
The first several episodes of the series revolve around a ‘blackface party’ thrown by the school’s satirical magazine, Pastiche. Racially insensitive parties like these are not limited to fictional shows on Netflix, but are rather emblematic of actual events that have transpired on actual campuses.
Winchester University’s Ivy League distinction is a veiled reference to recurring issues of racism at Yale University, including a fraternity party that was advertised as “white girls only.” At Queen’s University last year, several photos surfaced online of students attending a costume party that became the subject of controversy as pictures emerged of students dressed as insensitive cultural stereotypes.
A student at Queen’s University told Vice that “this isn’t an isolated event at Queen’s… All these things are brewing and adding up and it’s pretty frustrating and it’s pretty disappointing to see from the student body here.”
It is equally disappointing to see this type of behaviour from the student body at the University of Toronto. In December of 2016, St. Michael’s College Students’ Union (SMCSU) was subject to controversy over a series of Snapchat videos that were leaked online, depicting former and then-current SMCSU executive members reading aloud and laughing at Islam for Dummies and singing along to Estelle’s “American Boy” — replacing the word “American” with “Muslim.”
In this way, Dear White People tackles an issue that is not sufficiently discussed: that even ‘liberal’ campuses can perpetuate racism and disenfranchise their students of colour.
But what makes Dear White People a remarkable show is that it goes one step further, exploring the difficulties that outspoken, controversial voices on campus face.
Two of the show’s main characters, Samantha White and Lionel Higgins, are active in campus media. Sam hosts a radio show called Dear White People, while Lionel writes for the university’s student newspaper. Both use their voices to speak out against the issues of discrimination prevalent on the Winchester campus. As a result, they are the targets of numerous personal attacks and threats.
Personally, I found it easy to relate to Sam and Lionel’s experiences based on my own experiences writing for The Varsity. This past year, I served as a columnist for the Comment section, offering my views and opinions on campus culture, politics, and issues on a tri-weekly basis. When asked about my strangest experience with reader responses, I usually tell people about the time I angered the CEO of an American security firm with my piece on Kim Kardashian and the trivialization of violence against women.
These are not unusual reactions to opinion journalism. However, the hyper-locality of student journalism adds a discomforting element: on campus, you are surrounded by your readership all the time. The person who sends you a personal attack on Twitter might be the same student who sits next to you in a class lecture the next day.
Dear White People questions whether it is worth enduring personal attacks and criticisms in order to bring important issues to the forefront of public discussion.
At one point in the show, Pastiche‘s Editor-in-Chief confronts Sam. “Has anything that you’ve done actually made things better?” he asks her.
Here, we see Sam at her most vulnerable, confronted by the question of her own ability to affect change. This is a feeling experienced by activists across all university campuses — the feeling that, despite their efforts, they have not changed anything.
I too have felt this way before. I’ve questioned whether my column for The Varsity has actually inspired change. Regardless of any writing in The Varsity, we may still experience incidents of rampant racism and Islamophobia on campus.
The question of a student’s ability to affect change is not given a conclusive answer in Dear White People. But it’s explored in a multitude of other television shows. One of the most inspirational quotes about change comes from the television series Angel, a show that explores the concepts of change and redemption: “If nothing we do matters, than all that matters is what we do.”
If we feel that what we’re doing is important, then it shouldn’t matter whether or not we make a difference. Sam and Lionel’s activism is fueled by their mutual investment in combatting anti-Black racism at Winchester; despite the adversity that they face, they continue to use their voices to speak out on the issues that are deeply important to them.
This isn’t to say that we aren’t able to make a difference — we are. But perhaps affecting change is not the sole importance of activism. Despite personal attacks and vulnerability, we should continue to speak out about issues that are important to us, not only in the hopes of making a difference, but because the attempt itself matters too.