When Netflix released the trailer for Dear White People, the Internet’s right-wing commentators went livid, calling for a boycott of the show that allegedly promotes “reverse racism” and white genocide. The incredibly upsetting message of the 0:34 second long trailer that made people lose their shit: blackface is not acceptable.
Based on Justin Simien’s film of the same name, the series is set in the imaginary Ivy League campus of Winchester where the protagonist Sam hosts the radio show Dear White People in which she addresses race issues. In one episode she is asked a question that also appears all over the Internet: How would everyone react if there was a show called Dear Black People? Sam’s dry response is that there’s no need for such a show, as that’s exactly what Fox News is already doing.
Black people… such reverse racists!
The title may be controversial and racism is a central theme – but the series is everything but racist and the problems it addresses are just as prevalent in Germany and beyond. Berlin is popularly considered to be Germany’s progressive hope but ask a Black person living here and they will have many story to tell about strange encounters with white people – from being stared at on public transport to terrified women holding tighter to their handbags when they see Black men, to being told to speak quietly in clubs or restaurants – the list is pretty long.
The aftermath of a blackface party that got crashed by the BSU dominates the conversation in the first episodes. US college campuses have a history of racially insensitive costume parties but the practice is widely seen as problematic. In Europe, however, blackface is still seen as an acceptable way of celebrating “traditions”. From carnival parades to Black Piet to the Three Wise Men to various theater and TV performances – Black people are still seen as a legit source of inspiration for “costumes” and shows that are meant to entertain white audiences.
Yes, hair. Even post-Solange there’s still a lot to be discussed. From Afros that are explored by white hands to jokes about natural hairstyles vs. weaves, Dear White People, proves that something as normal as hair can still be exotified, politicised or ridiculed when it belongs to Black people. In Germany, meanwhile the news has spread that it’s impolite to just reach for the hair of a stranger but everyone living here who wears their hair the way it naturally grows out of their head has heard some kind of comment about how that’s an act of rebellion or resistance – which is just plain stupid.
There’s a scene where Sam is the only Black student in the lecture hall. She’s busy taking notes while her professor begins to talk about slavery. While looking at her, he repeatedly asks if there is anyone in the room who has a special connection to the subject until everyone stares at her expectantly. Situations like these are totally normal for Black people in white societies like Germany, but on top of that there’s an annoying tendency to be made the ambassador for Black culture globally. Another common thing institutions such as universities like to do is including Black students in PR pictures as a living proof of them being “international”.
Unlike Sam, her former friend Coco tries her best to fit in and be accepted by her white peers and the world they stand for. She is also the one who calls out Sam’s light-skin privilege, arguing that Sam isn’t a “real sister” and can get away with murder because she resembles the white people she’s bashing in her radio show. Of course colourism isn’t just an American phenomenon. The few Black people in German film, TV and ads are usually light-skinned, female and thrown in to spice things up a little bit – and the emphasis is on a little bit.
Even Winchester isn’t safe from gun-wielding assholes. In its most intense episode, Dear White People shows how hard it is to dust yourself off, carry on as usual and get ready for the next blow after a completely unnecessary, excessively aggressive encounter with the campus police. Germany, like many other European cities, has a history of racially motivated police violence against Black people. N’deye Mareame Sarr, Oury Jalloh, Laye Conde, Christy Schwundeck, and Ousman Sey all died under police custody in Germany. Their deaths prove that failure to properly investigate deaths of Black people under police custody isn’t just an American problem, it’s an international one.
Dear White People launched on Netflix at the end of April and if you’re immune to the humour of the show, you might just be a part of the problem.
If you live in Berlin and are interested in discussing what it means to be white and woke, make sure to visit Him Noir’s workshop White on the outside, woke on the inside on May 20th.
June is Black Lives Matter month. Visit their website for infos on what’s happening in the capital, and their international site for events in other cities.
Written by: Kemi
Images by: Coco