Dear White People: Cultural Production & Citizenship in the Neoliberal Age

This is our world—rampant affairs of identity engulfed in our political climate, with citizenship and recognition spearheading our historical contestations with democracy. In Western pop culture in our digital age, dissension on racism, cultural appropriation and police brutality emerge across our spectacular media representations. From Kanye West’s recent debacle of supporting President Trump to the cultural production of Black essence in Black Panther to the more recent Childish Gambino music video, This is America, reforging one’s identity hits center stage in the post-Obama era. And culture, like Stuart Hall suggested, remains focal in media and communication circulations that construct and sustain how we come to be (or like to be). From the optic gaze of the white patriarchy to the algorithmic architectures of social media, these representations historically reconstruct culture by outlining the conditions of possible ways of being and thus determining the accessibility to equal recognition as citizens. When we consider the conditions of existence that are determined based on the mechanisms of power (like with media), the production, circulation, distribution, consumption and reproduction of culture sets the stage as a complex structure of power, sustained by the articulation of connected circuits and modalities (Hall 1980). However, our digital age has propelled us farther into a global landscape that disrupts the notions of nation-states and citizenship, calling for new hybrid forms of identity for social equality, activism and change. The disjunctures across our global landscapes open a window to questioning if citizenship is a document of legitimacy to live in a certain region or nation or if it is the social recognition by a civilization that treats you as a free being (Appadurai 1990). Conjuring questions of collective identity, we need to ask if assimilation is a necessary precondition for citizenship (Fanon 1952, Washington-Bā 1973). When we evoke the term citizenship, the debate stirs around democracy, legitimate status and the constitution of membership. Who gets to hold this membership and how is it embodied or recognized? Thus because culture is a powerful mechanism in maneuvering through our politics of society, the search for interventionist work that demonstrates hybridization, relationality and authentic representations across cultural production is crucial to developing an understanding of agency and true freedom. With themes of recognition, finding agency, the self, and authenticity, Dear White People, a television series reboot of the 2014 film with the same name, mediates as a satirical comedy to engage with the disconcerting realities of racism by forcing us to have difficult conversations, but also as an inciting contribution to how we process contemporary rhythmic flows of the Négritude Movement today.

Enacting the battle between the lack of ontological resistance and the claim for agency in relational difference, 2014’s Dear White People premiered as a provocatively trenchant film that follows Black students navigating through their lived-in experiences of oppression at a white university and spins an ironic misnomer of reducing white people to the color of their skin. Thus, the show necessitates a philosophical conception of Négritude as a revolutionary and explorative flow of continuous transformation, but also imaginative transcultural relationality in the fight against today’s post-racial attitude. Popularized for catalyzing digitally networked publics into debate about racism as seen on Twitter through hashtags like #BoycottNetflix, Dear White People resurfaced as a Netflix television series in late April 2017 amidst the end of the Obama-era and the emerging Trump administration. Dear White People contradicts mainstreamed xenophobic racism and notions of a post-racial America by weaving together a counterhegmonic narrative that calls out chauvinistic bigotry, delves into the exploration of performing Blackness and garners alternative representations to stereotypical clichés. With the first season predominantly following Sam White, a half-Black, half-white student activist who created a radio broadcast called “Dear White People” as a vociferous stage against the hypocritical and racist incidents on campus, the television series begins its story within the Winchester community after Sam White leaks a Blackface Party invite through hacking into the Facebook account of the white-male-led newspaper, Pastiche, unsettling the rooted belief that we are living in a post-racial era. Following the dramatic tensions that emerge from the first season from activist protests to unraveling the neoliberal, bureaucratic operations of the academy, the show released their second season on Netflix, which refocuses the story in a different spotlight—still immersed in incisive racial politics—but channeled through a look into character psyches, providing a window to witnessing how the spatial temporalities of white historicism places people of color at a disadvantage, materially and psychologically. Though the second season plot line centers on the aftermath of season one’s failed protest against racial inequality on campus—which resulted in the racial integration at the Armstrong-Parker dormitory, the only all-black safe-space/housing on campus—and the emergence of an alt-right cyber troll enabling the trope of “white genocide” among the Winchester community, the show’s true value sits at the heart of the characters’ exploration of the self.

By emphasizing perspective, unlike traditional Hollywood produced films (ex: the 2014 version), the Netflix series of Dear White People continues their story through the lens of different characters each episode rather than a sole focus on one protagonist, suggesting narratives should be socially-constructed by multiple, diverse points-of-view. Mirroring the subconscious vitriol many Americans have toward the oppressed-voicing-oppression, the fragmented narratives filtered across various character points-of-view show their complex reactions to the mainstream’s negligent disregard of current racial issues in American society. Subsequently by focusing on the social divides that emerge from racial tensions, Dear White People also demonstrates how the master-slave dialectic between the Black man and the white man forms an inferior complex in the Black individual as shown in Black Skin, White Masks, a seminal work of psychoanalyst and philosopher, Frantz Fanon. Drawing upon the work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and critiquing Jean-Paul Sartre, Fanon famously underscores how categories of identity are socially constructed based our interactions with others through the construction of “Blackness” through the white Other’s lens. With nearly every character, we find each of them dealing with a variation of the psychological inferiority complex that Fanon discusses, where a sense of inferiority is produced by the racist culture at Winchester. Breaking from misrepresentative stereotypes, the show asks one of the Négritude Movement’s overarching questions: “Who are we in a white world?” while also reminding us that racist oppression still exists historically and structurally. However, the fragmented narratives that develop through the series also instigate a potential for a collectivization and relation through difference. Thus, these different elements of the show provide rationale for analyzing and reviewing Dear White People. Through this site of cultural production, a shift in media representation emerges. By extrapolating on the development of the show’s characters, the show provides a potential example in navigating and reimagining our next steps for liberation, recognition and citizenship in a white neoliberal world. Thus, by diving into themes of mis/recognition, coherence and authenticity in performing Blackness, and collective activism against institutionalized and micro-aggressive racism, Dear White People procures potential in becoming a mobilizing flow of Négritude values, embodying an emerging-sentient relationality, but still offering a trans-identity formation of collective action without the precondition of a singular identity.

“The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me. I am fixed. Once their microtomes are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality” (Fanon 1952: 95).

As a studious, yet socially inept gay Black man, Lionel Higgins struggles with fitting into a prescribed label due to his traumatizing high school experiences with bullies. Exemplary of the complexities of intragroup marginalization through toxic norms of masculinity and its relation to the performances of race and sexuality, Lionel’s storyline is filled with minefields of racism and homophobia, depicting how identity is a fluid embodiment of situatedness in motion through space (Rodríguez 2003). Though his peers attempt to shape him into pre-existing notions of being black or gay as though the two labels are mutually exclusive, he establishes a relationality through his capacity to change masks with context—from a journalist reporter at the Winchester Independent newsletter to a member of the Black Student Union. By decoding preexisting narratives in different spatial conditions, Lionel symbolizes the modern Creole who harnesses opaque relationality, by simultaneously exploring his Blackness and sexuality (Glissant 1928). Moreover, Lionel grows, in his situatedness between interconnected imagined worlds, by engaging within the different scapes filled with different codes and reading practices, ending the first season contesting the limiting labels placed on him, and ultimately activates new social relations with people in the different communities he identifies with at Winchester (Appadurai 1990, Muñoz 1999). By enacting a sort of relation-orientation to crafting his perspective in the show’s narrative, Lionel exemplifies the fragmented and intersectional elements of identity within experiencing Blackness.

“The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. From one day to the next, the Blacks have had to deal with two systems of reference. Their metaphysics, or less pretentiously their customs and the agencies to which they refer, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own” (Fanon 1952: 90).

President of CORE (Coalition of Racial Equality) and son to Winchester’s Dean Fairbanks, Troy Fairbanks experiences inferiority not only by way of becoming a token Black man who will never fit in with his white friends, but also because of his father’s high expectations for him to become a bridge between the racial divisions. Because of the systemic Manichaean conditions at Winchester, Troy embellishes the same self-perceived lack of control over identity—unable to fulfill his father’s demands in becoming a representative of the Black student community while assimilating as an ambassador to white students too. Exemplary of Négritude thinker Léopold Senghor’s conception of Négritude, Troy becomes a vehicle embodying “cultural métissage.” Troy illustrates the subjugation to participate in both Black and white culture by becoming student body president, following in his father’s footsteps as the socially-acceptable Black man in the white world. Though well intentioned in attempting to unify the students, his attempt at hybridization is met with a lack of agency in the white society because he allows white society to dictate who he is and can be—a Black man. Into a downward spiral, Troy takes a turn in season two as he ventures on an alienating exploration of the self, trying to understand who he is in a world that leaves no space for him as a Black man or white man. Lastly, by demonstrating the varied differences in Black experience as shown with Troy and Lionel, Dear White People unveils through its characters a discovery process in search of performing and mastering an authentic Blackness, which finds roots in Negritude by questioning: What is my identity and what is the purpose and the interests of which my identity serves?

“Unable to blacken or negrify the world, she endeavors to whiten it in her body and mind” (Fanon 1952: 28).

Attempting to acculturate into Winchester’s white culture through the first season, Coco Connors aspires to become a successful politician by denying and erasing any trace of Blackness because she sees her skin color as an obstacle to her goals. In an extreme form of assimilation, Coco, essentially protagonist Sam White’s foil character, seemingly embodies Fanon’s apprehensive observation of the Black desire for whiteness. In accordance with Fanon’s critique of Mayotte Capécia’s dream of “whitening oneself magically as a way of salvation,” Coco’s character development draws similarities to Capécia (Fanon 1952: 27). By attempting to integrate into white culture with white friends and dating white men, Coco—on the surface—exemplifies a black woman desiring whiteness. Through season two during the racial-integration at Armstrong-Park, Coco even finds herself in a position as the white-whisperer, guiding white people who want to be less racist. However, against Fanon’s implications of Black women, Coco is not simply interested in whiteness in the way that he condemns Capécia for. Breaking away from the savior-trope, Coco demands only the best for herself and sees whiteness as one of many tools—people like Troy exemplifying another one of her tools—to be used in her attainment of success. As shown through her ambitious nature to join a prestigious sorority, social-climb to President of Winchester’s CORE (Coalition of Racial Equality), and to become a politician, Coco is interested taking “everything the world denied [her] mother and dared to deny [her]” (Bowser et al. 2017). In Fanon’s terms, her desire to be white comes from the difference in power within a society rigged for socioeconomically advantaging white people. Further as shown through Coco who undergoes multiple breakdowns, regains Black consciousness, in that she can never gain access to white citizenship, and embraces her Blackness as the series progresses. By confronting and contesting notions of post-racial mentality and microaggression, Coco, in her rise for power, develops a platform—against Sam’s Black-oriented radio show—that raises consciousness not only for white people, but also for black people in unifying through horizontal, but also temporal solidarity toward a post-racial revolution. Still as our current reality reflects, perhaps this world is not ready for the Cocos to take the lead yet. Nevertheless, what Coco and Troy show is the intelligent, socially-accepted, and well-assimilated Black individual who struggles with fitting in and being embraced by white culture.

“The white man wants the world; he wants it for himself. He discovers he is the predestined master of the world. He enslaves it. His relationship with the world is one of appropriation” (Fanon 1952: 107).

Reggie Green, who is perceived as the stereotypical militant Black man, toward the end of the first season, traumatically gets held at gunpoint at a party for standing up against a white man for trying to say the n-word, even though Reggie sees himself as a nonviolent, computer-science intellectual. For Reggie, he comes to the same realization as Fanon: “I’m not given a second chance. I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the “idea” others have of me, but to my appearance” (Fanon 1952: 95). After the near-death experience, Reggie appears at an open-mic delivering a lyrical spoken word about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to work through his trauma and to set a literal stage for his launch into a deep pursuit of Négritude. He poetically bellows, “Reckless trigger finger itching to prove your worth, by disproving mine,” resembling the issues of racism in our institutions that are intended to protect our unalienable, “self-evident” civil rights (Bowser et al. 2017). Yet, for the Black man, from Fred Hampton to Tamir Rice, to our example, Reggie Green—citizenship is revoked by the white optic. Furthermore, a more disturbing note in the thread of gun-related bloodshed, a New York Times article revealed that only two police officers pleaded guilty across 15 major cases of Black deaths at the hand of the police, the rest left to no conviction or a financial settlement, anchoring a neoliberal price tag to the life of a Black person (Lee & Park 2017). As Sylvia Wynter describes with the sociogenic principle and as gun-violence statistics suggest, Reggie exemplifies the rupture between our biological definition of what is means to be and what it is like to be human—interpellated into a dominant white space as a threat to society based on the socially constructed factors our colonial past (Wynter 2001: 31).

“Out of the blackest part of my soul, through the zone of hachures, surges this desire to be suddenly white” (Fanon 1952: 45).

Confused by her biracial upbringing, Sam White, confronts a psychological dichotomy, while discovering she often gets reduced to Black. Even her close friend, Joelle, notices and tells Sam in season one, “You’re not Rashida Jones biracial, you’re Tracee Ellis Ross biracial—people think of you as black!” Yet, internally, Sam realizes that even though she participates in white culture, she is conflicted with her striped fragmentation between two worlds. For instance, in volume one, chapter one, Sam listens to what would be considered “white” music, but once she sees a group of people of color walking her way, she quickly changes her music to something she feels is more appropriate. Addressing complexity, Sam’s character rejects whiteness to create space for Blackness, but struggles as she tries to find herself between races and cultures. As arguably one of the co-founders of the Négritude Movement Aimé Césaire argues in his work Discourse on Colonialism regarding to Nazism, people either way are often surprised by their own implicit tolerance and legitimation until such oppression is applied to them (Césaire 1972: 14). Also at the epicenter of enabling discourse through her white-dominant education as did Césaire years ago with the literary review Tropiques, Sam’s creation of her radio broadcast provokes the Winchester community as she polemically articulates the hypocrisies, micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation on a prestigious college campus. By appropriating the reduction of people to a race-based generalization conveyed through the title, Dear White People, Sam points to incarceration, police brutality, and cultural appropriation as racism, like how the blackface party (regardless of who started it) simply reflected the existing system of hatred based on skin color. At the beginning of the first season, we find a Sam White who builds upon identity crises and racial tensions, opening a new dialogue for an issue that our society had tried to bury deep within the institutional forms of oppression. Unlike the show’s other characters however, Sam embodies a sort of reincarnation of Frantz Fanon by similarly emphasizing their interpellation that reinforces a sense of inferiority in the metaphysical hierarchies designed by Western culture and ideologies. With great psychological effort, Sam firstly attempts to harness her blackness. She explicitly snaps at any sign of racism and tries to transform her Black subjectivity in the white normative, but realizes her complex nature as a biracial woman restricts her. More importantly in the eyes of Fanon however, she then ultimately calls for the formation of collective identity across the Black community on campus to fight against racism on campus. Born from a shared experience of discrimination and oppression, Négritude for Sam flourishes as she attempts to kindle a black consciousness by demanding space for recognition and dispelling black stereotypes. Lastly, Sam, along with her militant ally Reggie, represents the harsh challenges of social activism in the Black community.

Illustrated through these various characters, racism is richly embedded into the neoliberal architecture of Winchester University, designed to deem racial inferiority as an individual psychological problem relegated to the private realm, while in actuality this inferiority complex stems from the social systems of cultural, political and economic power. When we live in structures that judge some as unworthy of citizenship, we must call for change. Citizenship in the neoliberal world adheres a materialization of a price-tagged privilege of private, individual rights. By focusing on issues of ontology, this show critiques the social structures that privilege some over others—whether that is whites over Blacks, men over women, or gay or straight. In the same neoliberal, post-industrial, digital realities we live in, the show’s characters mirror the denial of citizenship in the United States across global ideologies, media and histories. In season one, episode 2, Silvio—the flamboyant editor of Winchester Independent says to Lionel, “How can you hope to arrive at a truth when you can’t find your own?” Woven through the narrative, this remains central to Négritude’s necessary potential in constructing liberation for there must be liberation both in consciousness and from the cultural, political and economic structures of oppression, before we reach equality. As Fanon argued, the experience of racism in a white-oriented society catapults into a domino effect of psychological problems for Black people through the types of cultural representations and beings made available to them. Further, white, patriarchal and neoliberal society conditions our possibilities, making us always, already socialized beings (Fanon 1952, Wynter 2001). Extrapolating the social relations of racism, the diversity in Black experience and the search of authenticity in a rooted identity, Dear White People polemically fights to instigate discourse, enabling a Pan-Africanist-Négritude movement toward a solidarity against the patriarchal heteronormativity in our modern, neoliberal society. Dear White People does not nostalgically remain stuck in the past, but rather attempts to create a platform to stir conversation toward a new society that must confront its racist history in order to move forward and collectively reimagine with “the productive power of modern times, warm with all the fraternity of olden days” (Césaire 1972). With hopes not to overstep the rooted views of Négritude, I acknowledge my own neoliberal, Western subjectivization in my conclusion to argue for an aligned mix between the Creolization thinker Édouard Glissant and Léopold Senghor, that Négritude, at least today, seems more like multidirectional circulations of revolutionary discovery toward an expansive, cultural and global citizenship of being as force. Ultimately what many critics of Dear White People seem to miss is that the show embodies this rhythmic flow of Négritude where identities in difference can come together and insurgently explore imaginations without ignoring or neglecting the individual experiences shown through the episodic, psycho-affective changes in perspectival narratives. The show unlocks a spectrum of possibility, depicting that divergent ways of being exist in our imagined worlds. Thus, if we look to Négritude as an intersectional, transcultural and relational global citizenship, we might find a key to mobilizing discourse, building a collective consciousness against the systemic inequalities sustained by modern neoliberal agendas enveloping our cultural production, and taking a true leap of imagination—bridging invention into existence.

References

Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjunctures and Difference in the Global Economy. In Media and Cultural Key Works.

Bowser, Y. L. (Producer), Allain, S. (Producer), Lebedev, J. (Producer), Simien, J. (Writer). Dear white people. (2017, April 28). Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, Santa Monica: California: Lionsgate Television.

Césaire, A. (1972). Discourse on colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. Monthly Review Press: New York and London.

Fanon, F. (1952). Black skins, white masks. Grove Press: New York.

Glissant, E. (1928). Poetics of relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. In Hobson, D., Love, A.,Willis, P. (eds.), “Culture, Media, Language, pp. 128-38. London: Hutchinson.

Lee, J. C. Park, H. (2017). In 15 high-profile cases involving deaths of blacks, one officer faces prison time. Retrieved on May 10, 2018 from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/17/us/black-deaths-police.html

Muñoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of color and the performance of politics. 

Washington-Bā, S. (1973). The concept of negritude in the poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Wynter, S. (2001). Towards the sociogenic principle: Fanon, the puzzle of conscious experience, of “identity” and what it’s like to be “Black.” In Durán-Cogan, M & Gómez-Moriana, A.(eds.), National Identity and Sociopolitical Change: Latin America Between Marginalization and Integration. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wynter, S. (2003). Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human after man, its overrepresentation—An argument. pp. 257-337. In CR: The New Centennial Review. Volume 3. Number 3. Michigan State University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/ncr.2004.0015 

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