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.