‘Dear White People” sparks discussion

By Timbi Shepherd – jshephe3@unca.edu – Asst. A & F Editor | Feb. 18, 2015 |

Lipinsky Auditorium buzzed with anticipation Thursday evening as UNC Asheville community members filled the seats for a screening of Dear White People.

The film, Justin Simien’s directorial debut, is one of two major 2014 releases addressing the subject of race in America. Whereas Ava DuVernay’s Selma gives an account of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Dear White People provides a cross-sectional study of race issues in present-day, Obama-era college life.

Simien explicitly references the films of Spike Lee and Robert Altman, and, as David Fincher did in The Social Network, he sets the scene for spirited conversation and contention within the marketplace of ideas of an Ivy League campus. Like the films of Lee, Altman and Fincher, Dear White People weaves a tapestry of the social and identity dynamics of its day.

Introducing the film, Preston Keith, assistant director of the Intercultural Center and Multicultural Student Programs, said, “Dear White People is described as a satirical look at the experiences of four African-American students at a predominantly white institution.”

Although the film is billed as satire, its incorporation of prickly comedic elements into the fabric of everyday life is uncanny, Keith said.

Dear White People examines aspects of race relations, diversity and activism from a humorous, but often all too real, perspective,” he said.

As the action unfolded on screen, the atmosphere of the room alternated between moments of laughter at many of the movie’s light-hearted jokes and moments of silence in more serious situations. Characters face humiliation, hatred and other hardships, even in a context – or pretext – of banter among peers.

“Wow, that was a lot. The movie is filled with microagressions that students of color have to constantly endure,” said Robin Hamilton, Mills Hall community director, as she led the audience in a critical discussion following the screening. “It pulls from actual events happening at college campuses nationwide.”

Two panelists, Mia Black and Que Reynolds, senior psychology students, fielded questions from Hamilton and audience members about their reactions to the film and their own experiences as black students at a predominantly white university.

Black and Reynolds agreed the film is strikingly, and at times painfully, true-to-life.

“I felt the filmmakers turned off the satire whenever they had a moment where someone would be able to look at the movie and be like, ‘Oh, I shared that moment before, and that’s extremely awkward,’” Reynolds said.

The film reaches its climax at a blackface Halloween party, and ends with a montage of photographs of actual college blackface parties. Black noted how this juxtaposition serves to ground the narrative in an unsettling reality.

“When the filmmakers show these pictures, you see that people aren’t really thoughtful about race or about what they say,” Black said.

She added there are many subtle moments in the film that draw attention to how small comments, which someone may intend as compliments, can actually offend the other person without the speaker’s knowledge. For example, one white character in the film tells her black friend she loves her hair, and asks whether she has a weave.

“First, you’re like, ‘She asked her friend if she has a weave, ha ha,’” Black said. “You then go, ‘Oh, I’ve asked someone if they have a weave. Shit, I was being microaggressive, and I insulted someone.’”

Hamilton followed up Black’s statement by describing the “pile-on principle” – how microaggressions tend to have a cumulative effect over time.

“You hear these things over and over,” Hamilton said, “and you get to the point where you just lose it because these things are always in the back of your mind.”

Hamilton and the panelists said these kinds of mistakes are not necessarily about intent, but impact. They warned racism is more prevalent than many white people think, as offenders are too often ignorant of the ramifications of their words and actions.

Hamilton then asked Black and Reynolds how they felt the film confronts the perception that the election and re-election of President Barack Obama signal the emergence of a post-racial America.

“I think it’s very obvious that we don’t live in a post-racial society. The fact that there’s a movie called Dear White People makes that pretty evident,” Black said. “Also, the fact that there have been protests in Ferguson and issues with the police and black men makes it evident that race is still an issue and will probably always be an issue until people educate themselves.”

To that end, Black and Reynolds encouraged audience members to practice empathy and to think before speaking.

“Ultimately, we have a long way to go, but we’ve seen progress,” Hamilton said to close the discussion. “It’s all about listening to others, hearing their stories, agreeing to disagree. This conversation cannot end after we leave here tonight.”

Instead of calling others out on their mistakes, she urged audience members to call others in – to share perspectives and to learn from these interactions.

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