No Reason To Pretend is a biweekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.
“How you tell the truth to a crowd of white people?” Isaiah Rashad asks on 2016’s “Bday.” He delivers the question as a drunken quandary, squeezing it between boasts and sips. For him, it’s a blip in a stream of consciousness. For Sam White, the main character of Netflix’s Dear White People, it’s the only question. A willed provocateur, Sam spends every day kicking the hornet’s nest that is her college, the fictional Winchester University, an Ivy-like school rife with racial tension. When Sam was first introduced in the 2014 film of the same name, she was mostly a mouthpiece for the film’s weak agitprop: Her dialogue was an anthology of holier-than-thou hot takes and oiled fingersnaps, and her worldview was painfully black and white. In the TV show, she is more of a person, fleshed out by nuanced writing, relaxed direction, and an equally developed supporting cast. These level-ups push the show and its ideas beyond its provocative title and shaky crowdfunded beginnings, but Dear White People still has a poor grasp of black life.
The show is clearly invested in its black characters, but it has little interest in their lives beyond their experiences of racism. Students rarely take classes, call home, talk about grades, or merely exist outside of Winchester’s choking racial divide. Their wordy conversations are laced with black cultural references and slang and signifiers, and their romantic lives are winding and intricate, but the plot is entirely propelled by seismic racist events, everything else an aftershock. In this world, black people are fundamentally defined by racism.
This is an odd way to tell truths about black lives. Not only does this approach obscure those black lives by defining them so rigidly, but to keep these lives subordinated to the big picture, it has to actively contain them (very few scenes occur off-campus or online or anywhere without some percolating racialized tension). One of the most recurring shots in the show is the group portrait. In this shot characters are arranged as if they’re taking a formal group photograph, directly facing the camera, and aligned in neat, democratic rows: Every face visible, every person represented. Traditionally, group portraits are used to mark a shared experience, capturing collectives both temporary (classes, partygoers, etc.) and permanent (family, neighborhood, union, team, etc.), so it makes sense for a show about racism to frame its characters this way.
The caveat, though, is that in group portraits, individuals are blurred as the collective grows. So as the story expands to encompass characters beyond Sam, it strains to keep the collective intact, which means ratcheting up the racism, their only glue. The pot boils over when Reggie, a coder and militant, gets into an argument with a white schoolmate, Addison, over whether Addison can say n**** when singing Future’s “Trap N****s.” The argument occurs in the middle of a party, which stops and becomes a melee as the spat gradually comes to blows. When a white campus security guard arrives and holds Reggie at gunpoint, the camera cuts to the other black students at the party. There’s an array of expressions on their faces, from fear, to hurt, to indignation, but the show declines to explore that range of reactions, instead dwelling on Reggie’s humiliation and turning him into a martyr. The episode isn’t a failure by any means, but moments like this hint at the worlds of blackness that the show pushes out of the frame.
Rap tends to celebrate the individual more than the collective (unless the collective is straight black males), but in its focus on specific black lives, it ultimately generates more points of collectivity. “Trap N****s,” for example, turns dopeboy anxiety into a holy blessing (“God blessing all the trap n****s”). Rick Ross’ “Buy Back the Block” transforms franchise ownership into community self-determination (“It’s time to clean up the ghetto, a dope boy wanna shine.”) Earl Sweatshirt’s “Off Top” transmutes drug-addled freestyling into racialized paranoia (“I hope the sheriff keep away from me”). 2 Chainz’ “Ghetto” spins poverty as a badge of honor (“I dip my bread in the Kool-Aid.”) Vince Staples’ “Loco” conflates fame and delirium (“I don’t need a shrink, I need a hit song.)
None of these songs are singularly about racism or are addressed to white people, and I think they manage to accomplish what Dear White People doesn’t precisely because of that. Rick Ross wants to buy back the block because he knows about the dearth of black wealth. Earl fears the sheriff because cops kill black people. Vince is going crazy because fame is the only thing that can rescue him from poverty and the pressure is breaking him. Future prays for the trappers because he knows nothing else can help them. The biased justice system, federal redlining, the tattered social safety net, and, inevitably, white people, are all implicated in these songs, but the dangers of these forces only make sense in the context of these rappers’ lives.
Dear White People confuses its provocation with its purpose, committing itself so wholeheartedly to outing racism that it obscures what racism threatens: Communities, futures, lives. Provocation and dissidence are vital, and drama doesn’t get to be as loose and associative as rap, but Dear White People just feels oversized. It wants to tell truths about whiteness but has nothing to say about blackness outside of its relationship to whiteness. It wants to tell truths about predominantly white colleges but only knows that they can be racist. It wants to expose the biases of upper class white people, but has no conception of class. It obsesses over how to tell white people the truth, but doesn’t consider whether they deserve to hear it. The series has its moments (Episode 4), and its representations of black women are refreshing, but if you really want to see racism dismantled, watch Vince Staples’ “Senorita” video.