Dear White People comes out at a time when the issue of institutional racism in the US has exploded into the open. A wave of protest has forced the mainstream press to acknowledge that racism hasn’t gone away.
The film — a broad comedy — opens with the breaking news of a race riot erupting at Winchester College. It is an institution where frat houses decide the hierarchy of student politics and black students have their own fraternities.
Running for the position of president in the Parker-Armstrong house is Sam White, a black nationalist and political agitator with a popular campus radio show called Dear White People. Standing against her is current president and son of the dean Troy Fairbanks.
After Sam’s surprise victory her main aim is to stop a rule being introduced which would assign housing at random to new students, rather than it being assigned by race, interest or field of study.
Sam feels this would erode the culture of Parker-Armstrong since, being black only, it would be the only house to be fundamentally affected.
However, I would argue there is no such thing as a homogeneous black culture. There are no inherent traits in black people which make them enjoy a certain way of life that is radically different from white people.
The film actually shows this with all the main black characters having conflicting interests based on factors such as their class or sexuality. This lack of cohesion reflects how capitalism divides people in many different ways, not simply along racial lines.
The film follows students in the run up to a Halloween party hosted by Pastiche House which is full of the rich, privileged and arrogant offspring of the ruling class — Bullingdon Club types.
They are headed up by Kurt Fletcher, son of the college president, who thinks that because of positive discrimination it is harder for a white man than a black woman to work their way up in society.
Their hip hop themed party sees students performing all of the most racist stereotypes targeted at the black community. They “black up”, wear afro wigs and wave guns around, pretending to be gang members.
Although this seems reminiscent of a bygone era when racists were proud to flaunt their bigotry, there are well documented recent cases of house parties at colleges across the US where students have performed the same racist acts.
Sam tries different methods of political action to counter the randomised housing proposal, from petitioning to calling a demonstration, before falling into demoralisation when she hits a dead end.
It’s not until the black students’ union — formed of members of the Parker-Armstrong house — rallies everyone to shut down the racist party that she is revitalised to get back involved.
The dialogue is witty and sharp, reflecting real debates around the fight against oppression.
However, the ending is uninspiring. The resolution is based on the logical outcome of identity politics — a common conclusion in colleges — and not the collective power of students.