Race as Performance: Dear White People

University-set Dear White People (Simien, USA, 2014) exploits a familiar trope by dealing with racial politics through the mixed female body. Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is a media student in love with white Gabe (Justin Dobies), dating black Reggie (Marque Richardson), and ashamed of her mixed identity. In order to fit in with the black students on campus, she wears African clothing and head wraps, rejects those she deems not black enough, asserts separatism and eventually dumps her white boyfriend. While she is centralized, the film shows that homogenous identity politics are universally destructive.

Black character Lionel (Tyler James Williams) doesn’t fit in anywhere due to his sexuality and cultural mixedness. He finds black people intolerant but is exploited and humiliated by whites. When asked “what’s harder – being black enough for white kids or being black enough for black kids?”, he responds “being neither”. Given his hybrid position –  a ‘cultural mulatto’ as Trey Ellis puts it – he is misunderstood by both racial groups. Black character Coleandra (Teyonah Parris) self-defines as ‘Coco’, has blue eyes, wears blonde wigs, only dates white guys and affects valley girl airs. Over time, she learns that in order to achieve her dreams of fame, she needs to perform blackness, which she does by attacking other black people online for the entertainment of white spectators. Black character Troy (Brandon P. Bell) dates white Sofia (Brittany Curran) to please his father (Dennis Haysbert),[1] but their interracial union is fraught with confusion – she attempts to use black slang to woo him but only embarrasses herself, while he takes drugs to cope with the pressure of living up to his father’s expectations.

Troy’s father, as the university dean, says to Sam: “I’m sure it was tough growing up, wondering which side you fit into, feeling a need to overcompensate”. Sam shoots back: “If that’s true… I’m not the only one”. Hybridised perpectives are here posited as part of the collective black, rather than mixed, experience. Troy, Coco, Sam and Dean Fairbanks all operate within a multiply-raced consciousness, code-switching to meet their environment. In the predominately white Ivy League college, racial divisions are exaggerated and manipulated, climaxing in the closing sequence where a ‘blackface’ campus party turns into a race riot. Rather than lead to moral redemption, this leads to financial salvation, motivating a TV company to set up a reality show on campus and profit from the college’s now notorious race problem.

Sam’s in-between identity is conveyed semiotically by long shots capturing her between her white and black lovers.  At the end of the film, Gabe tells Sam “to pick a side”. Her final decision is visualised before it is verbalised when she walks away from Reggie and towards Gabe. It is at this point that the white father is invoked as the key to her identity confusion; she admits that childhood fears of anti-miscegenistic attitudes have manifested themselves as an adult rejection of whiteness. As the film ends, a new student magazine title, Ebony and Ivory, signals hope for future. Yet the real-life images of ‘blackface’ frat parties over the credits explicate the continued problems generated by the ‘colour line’ in America.

[1] Troy’s father uses this relationship as a form of revenge against Sofia’s father, the university president, and in order to improve his son’s prospects.

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