My husband and I went to see Dear White People Sunday evening. First, I want to say that we both thought it was a wonderful movie in every respect and we fully recommend it to everyone. The second thing I want to say is this. It was not about race.
Don’t get me wrong. Race was a very heavy and present backdrop. The plot centers around a growing discontent between the black and white students on a fictional ivy league campus. It deals fully with the kinds of issues unique to African Americans and it takes a critical look at white privilege as well as those senseless acts and comments white people do and say without thinking.
But it’s not about race. What struck me as I left the theater, still savoring all the complex characters and their relationships with each other, was that it’s about people trying to find their place. It’s about people not fitting in and then not being true to themselves in an effort to fit in. It’s about internal and external conflict of character.
Yes, race was an important part of that discovery. What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be biracial? How must a person act to fit in with his or her black classmates? What if a black student wants to fit in with the white classmates instead? What if a person is black and gay? And a nerd? What if they can’t fit in with the black students and also can’t fit in with the gay crowd? What about the rich legacy black kid whose dad has strong expectations of him? What if he’s hiding part of who he is? What if a woman finds herself in an angry/defiant black revolutionary role but is in love with a white man and is afraid her friends will find out? If a white woman is dating a black man just to make her family squirm is she using him? Is it any different than him sleeping with a black woman that he’s not really interested in?
These characters were so rich and engaging. Each was striving for something he or she didn’t have. And in some cases, couldn’t have. Their struggles were real and oh-so believable.
Now… I’m not black. I am ignorant of most of what black people in this country have to deal with. I have spent a small amount of time over the years talking to black friends and acquaintances so I have a secondhand sense of some of it. A secondhand sense is wholly inadequate but it’s about the best I can ever get. I understand from an academic sense what institutional racism, white privilege, and micro-aggression is about. I say this so that my next statements will not be taken to mean that I think my experiences are of the same magnitude.
What often makes a book or movie engaging to a reader or watcher is the ability to relate to one or more of the characters. One reason Hollywood appears to use in not making many movies with all black or nearly all black casts is the fear that white people will think the movie will not relate to them. Boom, just like that, they lose a large chunk of the potential audience. Black people? Well, they are used to only having a handful of black characters and most of them stereotypes at that. So no need to worry about them.
Here’s the deal with Dear White People. I related to these characters. And, no, I’m not talking about the clueless white people, although I admit to seeing me in some of their actions too. I mean that I was able to relate to the black characters. Not their struggles with being black, but with their struggles with being alive in this world.
A dilemma of sorts was presented in the movie. It went something like this:
You walk into a restaurant and to the waitress, you look like a black customer that didn’t tip her well in the past. She only takes your order after taking everyone else’s in the room. You wait 45 minutes before your food comes out. Now it’s time to tip. What do you do?
1) Leave the standard 15%. It’s what’s expected.
2) Don’t leave a tip! The service was terrible! A tip is to reward good service and she didn’t provide that.
3) Recognize that she expects you, a black person, to not tip well. Leave a generous tip to try to change her perspective.
Obviously, I’ve never faced racism in a restaurant. I still got excited at the familiarity as the dilemma was presented though. Why? Because I’ve experienced the same dilemma. Families with young children are often assumed to not tip well. So some waitstaff are not as attentive as they should be. Should I confirm their invalid assumptions by giving them the lower tip that they so richly deserve? Or should I tip them handsomely in the hopes that they will drop their stereotype and treat the next family better? Been there.
Then there’s trying to fit in with the group that I’m not actually part of. A black woman in the movie tried so hard to fit in with a particular group of whites. If she played her cards just right, she could get some pseudo-acceptance, but she was never fully part of the group. And in her attempts to be part of the group, she left behind her black friends.
Likewise, when I was fourteen and trying to show the older boys on the hiking trip that I could keep up with them – indeed, be one of them, I abandoned my girlfriend who wasn’t as strong or as fast. I didn’t dare walk with her at the back, where I could have enjoyed her company, because I was afraid the boys might think I couldn’t keep up. I threw away what I had to chase after something I couldn’t.
There’s plenty more examples that I won’t elaborate on. Let’s just say that this movie did a terrific job in making these characters accessible to everyone. I believe it proved that a movie can have all the main characters be black and still be something non-blacks can relate to. It wasn’t poking fun like a Tyler Perry movie. It wasn’t a gut-wrenching portrayal of slavery or pre-Civil Rights era.
No, it was just a story of ordinary people trying to find their way in the world. And those people just happened to be black. It added to my understanding of the rich diversity of black perspective. It proved (although it sadly shouldn’t have needed to) that there are as many different perspectives among black people as there are black people. Same as whites.
I don’t want to minimize the important analysis of the complexity of race in America that the movie engaged in. There are a lot of lessons for both blacks and whites, plenty for us to ponder on how we relate with the each other, both within our race and without. But I truly believe the bigger lesson was that we all face the same most basic struggles. How to find our place in the world. And how to be content when we find it.