At first, the title of Justin Simien’s movie “Dear White People” sounds like a rebuke. Sam White (Tessa Thompson), the mouthpiece of black radicalism at the Ivy League facsimile Winchester University, has a radio show of the same name, a bully pulpit she uses to school white people on their ignorance. The dialogue crackles whenever Sam gets to drop such knowledge. For instance, when her film professor skeptically refers to her 15-page treatise on how “Gremlins” was actually a film about “suburban white fear of black culture,” she retorts, “The Gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken and freak out when you get their hair wet.” Sam is righteous and, better yet, always right. It’s hard not to become infatuated with her pedagogical sound bites — sharp, swinging ripostes designed to shift the frame and stick it to the Man.
The educational impulse of “Dear White People,” released this fall after rounding the festival circuit, has been road-tested for the life and times of the Internet. It’s charmingly self-reflexive enough to avoid being tiresome and dexterous enough to address audiences inside and outside the conversation — black or white — without alienating either. For those well versed in its progressive argot, there’s a tittering satisfaction from seeing these experiences represented onscreen. For others, the film is educational, a light-hearted corrective of the ways that ignorance manifests as racism. It has the sting of a BuzzFeed video.
I don’t necessarily mean that as a burn. “Dear White People” is arguably the culmination of a long-building groundswell in pithy, self-referential race humor that is good at pointing out casual racism and light on structural analysis. The field of microaggressions — the slights, insults and banal violence that marginalized people routinely endure — has become the foundation for much of this humor. And while the permutations are endless, the jokes stop short of being truly provocative.
Flipping the script
“Dear White People” started as a satirical Twitter account before becoming the beloved concept trailer that is in some ways better than the movie. Its influence has been disproportionate to the number of people who have watched it (it has brought in $4.2 million at the box office so far, which is solid but not dazzling for a buzzy independent), perhaps because it’s a film that’s more interesting to talk about than to actually watch. The movie itself is slightly underdone, a series of good jokes stitched together with some plot.
That’s why the movie’s strongest facet has been its accompanying viral video campaign. There’s the skit on racism insurance, “The More You Know” public service announcements, the one on how to pretend you’ve watched “Scandal.” They are punchy and brimming with charisma but still familiar — the sharper siblings of much of BuzzFeed’s race-forward video content, such as “What It’s Like Being the Only Black Friend” and “If Black People Said the Stuff White People Say.
BuzzFeed has been at the forefront of branding this kind of humor, which it has processed into every iteration imaginable. There are the videos on what it would sound like if Asian-Americans said the stuff white people say, one for Latinos, an explainer on the differences between straight guys and gay guys. The idea is simple: show how people on the “outside” (presumably white men) wrongly assume certain things about the “inside” group. It’s a way to assert a marginalized perspective while acting as an educational tool.
What is lacking with this jaunty race humor is that it doesn’t actually complicate racial hierarchies. It makes no demand of its audience.
While BuzzFeed has skillfully capitalized on this form of Internet race humor, it certainly wasn’t the first. It is reproducing something Franchesca Ramsey did with her viral video “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” in early 2012. The series worked off a simple but important assumption that flipped the script of power, that the viewer was, like her, a black woman (or at the very least, comfortable with taking that perspective). Before that, there was Issa Rae’s “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” one of the earliest Internet sitcoms that deftly pointed out racial microaggressions. The protagonist, J, navigated racial absurdities of the workplace with a gawky grace, handling her white boss and going to diversity workshops. “Awkward Black Girl” was the progenitor for the interest “Dear White People” has in stories about being a black face in a white space.
A gestural critique
“Dear White People” has been lauded for its edgy, biting satire, but it very much aligns with the current moment in media in which whiteness is able to be ironic and self-reflexive. This wry awareness became part of daily Internet fodder, with “Stuff White People Like,” a blog started in 2008 that poked fun at the things liberal white people like — “The Wire,” Japan, “Being an expert on your culture,” etc. This mode of humor is now doled out regularly. Funny or Die’s recent take on Hollaback’s “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” simply reversed the role with “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Man.” A nondescript white man walks through the streets of New York as various people give him sandwiches, footballs and high-fives. Yeah, whiteness!
In fact, there’s a premium for white people in pointing this out. In the post “The new privilege: Loudly denouncing your privilege,” New York magazine’s Maureen O’Connor mocks “elite populists” who say, “I’m from Harvard, but I’m not like those Harvard people.” She doesn’t pinpoint race or gender, but she may as well be. An ability to identify white or male privilege is the new way to prove that you’re down. It’s what separates Jon Stewart from Bill O’Reilly, Louis C.K. from Dane Cook. Examining whiteness is a popular topic too, from Whitney Dow’s PBS documentary “Whiteness Project” and Filipino Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ "Untitled Whiteness Project" for MTV.
“Dear White People” shares the conviction that it’s better to laugh at privilege than get angry about it, which is why its satire feels refreshing but not entirely subversive. It’s an almost entirely gestural critique that tends to focus on white people who do kind of racist things — running their hands through a black person’s hair, mimicking a black affect or saying ignorant things like “Racism is over in America.” Racism, in this construct, is the result of ignorance rather than malice or structural inequalities. Its humor never suggests that the cure for America’s postracial blues might require something more than bad people behaving better. The takeaway may best be encapsulated by another child of the zeitgeist, the shrugging kaomoji, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Getting beyond micro
The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown clarify what is lacking with this jaunty race humor: It doesn’t actually complicate — or trouble — racial hierarchies. While it attempts to address cultural misperceptions, it doesn’t make people uncomfortable or get confrontational. It makes no demand of its audience. It steers clear of the aggressions that are far from micro and are brutal, dehumanizing and ugly.
Its limits seem apparent in the climactic scene of “Dear White People,” in which some irate students of color break up a blackface party on campus. The showdown culminates in a brawl that ends when the police arrive. Watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that if cops saw black and white students fighting in real life, they would have suffered vastly different consequences.
I recently rewatched a clip from Dave Chappelle’s 2000 standup special, “Killin’ Them Softly.” “Every group of brothers should have at least one white guy in it,” he says. “I’m serious! For safety.” In the span of a few minutes, Chappelle manages to joke about gentrification, police brutality and #CrimingWhileWhite. Even though the jokes are well over a decade old, they are painfully relevant today. “Dear White People,” on the other hand, already feels stale, just months after its release.
I don’t mean to sound like a spoilsport. I’m glad “Dear White People” was made, and I enjoy the BuzzFeed videos. But ultimately I find them lacking because they compromise and placate; they are not sharp or dangerous but smug and played out. (After all, a few Internet years is an entire life cycle.) Moreover, they sideline the more violent, systemic aspects of race in favor of the refrains of an after-school special. Good humor speaks truths that are hard to say out loud and difficult to swallow. It doesn’t ask for your understanding, because there it is, self-evident.