I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses. It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.
-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I haven’t seen the movie Dear White People, but I watched the first season on Netflix. As near as I can tell, this is like watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer the TV series without watching the movie. The movie is fine, but the show is something different and completely worthwhile on its own. The first season is 10 half-hour episodes, following a group of very different black students as they navigate life in college, trying to find themselves and their places in the world. And it’s really good.
Most episodes focus on a different student and their experience. While the stories overlap, the timeline does move forward a little each time, so we can see how the same kids went from an act of overtly uncovering racism on campus to being driven to riot. We get some flashbacks, so we can see how one student expressly requested to not be assigned to black student housing, was anyway, but then grew to love it and feel that living there helped her to define her identity in a way she wouldn’t have been able to on her own. We see people who have ideas about the “right” and “wrong” type of black person realize that it’s not about the type of person so much as how far they’ve been pushed. Students of other ethnicities aren’t ignored; they’re just not the focus. Every character has strengths and weaknesses and goals. They make mistakes and they make friends and they struggle to identify themselves against parents and a school and a society that’ve already identified them.
The show puts a lot of thought into the difference between “segregation” and “having space.” And it doesn’t pretend that there are easy answers, although there are definitely some wrong answers. It can sometimes throw in a little absurdism a la Atlanta, but for the most part plays it straight and is well worth the viewing time, giving it to characters that don’t get nearly enough representation. The show, knowing that’s the case, makes the time count.