WORDS: ALONZO VEREEN | ART: FAYE ORLOVE
Evette Dionne’s recent critique of Dear White People functions the way liberal white folk function: it takes one glance at a marginalized character, says, “Yes, I know your story,” and then proceeds to conflate that character’s story with whatever stereotype is used most often when discussing said character’s experience in America.
In short, Dionne’s critique is problematic because it fails to analyze, over the course of Netflix’s entire 10-episode adaptation, the carefully crafted development of the show’s leading characters. Rather, Dionne hones in on specific character traits, and by analyzing these traits and these traits alone, she manages to align each leading character with a stereotypical figure in the African-American community. This strategy allows her to conclude that “majority of [the show’s] characters fulfill static – and tired – stereotypes.” Such heavy-handed manipulation of content, however, one that waves certain details high in the sky while holding others firmly behind the back, is questionable.
How could Dionne not see that this type of analysis works the same way the creation of stereotypical characters works? To create a stereotypical character one must ignore the character’s humanity – his or her contradictory actions and words, for instance – and focus, almost exclusively, on the stereotypical traits the character exhibits. Unfortunately, this is this same conscious or subconscious selectivity that Dionne employs in her critique.
This bit of information makes Sam’s character round and complex, not flat and stereotypical.
But let’s be real. Can one argue that many of the leading characters in Dear White People say things and do things that may be classified as stereotypical? Yes. These statements and actions, however, would only make the leading characters stereotypical if their words and deeds never venture beyond the confines those stereotypes place upon them. The fact of the matter is that no leading character in Dear White People operates under such restriction. They’re breaking chains in every way.
Take, for instance, Sam, the biracial, light-skinned militant who falls in love with the liberal white man. As Dionne highlights in her critique, this storyline – this relationship – is a predictable one. It might even be stereotypical in that it doesn’t “complicate the conversation around the role proximity to whiteness plays in believability.” But what if that decision was intentional? What if the show’s creators wanted to find a different way to complicate that conversation, a way that didn’t offer the liberal white voice a seat at the table?
To make Sam’s relationship with Gabe the center of a conversation on “the role proximity to whiteness plays in believability” is to work within a stereotype that suggests that the black person with the white spouse must be reliable, believable, right. This stereotype perpetuates the falsehood that white people – and if not white people then certainly their gaze – must be present when black folk convene if any conversation is to lead to a meaningful, productive resolution.
Sam’s experience urges one to reconsider the experiences of other prominent, light-skinned women: Solange, Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross, Angela Davis.
Such was not the purpose of Sam’s relationship with Gabe. Such was the purpose of Sam’s complexion and biracial identity. Not only are Sam and her crew the only people granted access to these types of conversations, the show’s creators make it clear that they can handle these conversations by themselves. Just look at what happens to Gabe when he attends Defamation Wednesdays. His presence is met with hostility, and Sam isn’t left with much credibility either. It is at this point that the show skirts the “predictable storyline,” making Sam’s light-skinned privilege and biracial identity integral not only to her character but to the ways in which her character interacts with other Black characters.
Conversations about light-skinned privilege and the proximity to whiteness biracial members of the African-American community have access to are difficult conversations, but Dear White People faces these conversations head on. The heated exchange between Coco and Sam during their freshmen year is one scene – absent of Gabe – in which one of these conversations plays out. At the height of their argument, in an attempt to mark the difference between her and Sam’s upbringing as indelibly as she could, Coco reminds Sam of the fact that Sam learned she was black when an elementary classmate didn’t invite her to a sleepover because she thought of Sam as different. Coco, on the other hand, had been reminded of her blackness each and every day.
This bit of information makes Sam’s character round and complex, not flat and stereotypical. Here, viewers learn that Sam isn’t just some militant, light-skinned woman demanding that white people respect black bodies. She’s also a biracial woman demanding that darker-skinned black people respect her body; her wokeness; her blackness. Sam’s experience urges one to reconsider the experiences of other prominent, light-skinned women: Solange, Beyoncé, Tracee Ellis Ross, Angela Davis. The conversation between Coco and Sam – not Sam and Gabe – urges one to consider to what extent, if any, does her advocacy, and the advocacy of other woke light-skinned women, arise out of a need to assert their identity within their own community? The quiet power of Dear White People’s subtle, yet masterful, characterization is what causes such pause and speculation.
Suffice it to say that developing round characters is no small task.
One must certainly pause to think about Lionel. Whereas Dionne suggests he’s a “stagnant” character of “no dimensions,” I argue the opposite. As she does with Sam, Dionne views Lionel’s sexuality and the stereotypical ways homosexuals are received – or rejected – in African-American communities as the only important part of his character, thereby working within the very stereotype she seeks to see dismantled. But Lionel is not just a homosexual character. Lionel is a fully realized character. Despite the fact that other black students at his high school rejected him, black men in spaces as intimate and communal as barbershops rejected him, and fellow residents of the predominately black dorm Armstrong-Parker say nothing to him as he eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner in isolation, Lionel still feels it necessary to not only inform the BSU of Pastiche’s blackface party, but to also lead them there, where he pushes the speakers onto the ground.
Nothing about these actions speaks to Lionel’s sexuality; these actions speak to his deep commitment to a community that, arguably, once silenced him. His characterization deepens, even more, when he defies his newspaper editor, thereby ruining his own scoop, and tells Sam he knew she broke into Pastiche’s Facebook account and sent out the invite. The decision to give up that story, a story that, as his editor said, “no other paper on campus would even think about letting [Lionel] print,” could not have been easy. But it’s a decision he makes for the good of his community. It’s a decision he makes because he cares about being on the right side of history. Such conscientious decision making is not “designed to generate laughter,” as Dionne suggests, and it’s certainly not stereotypical. Though his community did everything it could to imprison him – mentally, emotionally, sexually, spiritually – Lionel still felt it important to stand beside the woke members of his community and fight for what was right, so strikingly similar to the way Bayard Rustin operated.
There are cases to be made for Reggie and Troy, too. There’s even a case to be made for Jo, but I won’t bore you. Suffice it to say that developing round characters is no small task. It’s hard; it’s demanding. Using a stereotype as a springboard is not a crime; failing to realize the fullness of your leading character – his or her humanely complex and contradictory nature – is the crime. That the leading characters of this episodic version of Dear White People began as stereotypes may very well be true. That they remained locked within the confines of those roles is not.