"Dear White People" Has Me Reflecting on Doing Time At an Ivy League School

I was a decently self-possesed 18-year-old from Compton who didn't know anything about Black Student Unions and liked to cheerlead. Obviously I was in for it.

Jun 14, 2012 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

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A screen shot from the film. And yes, I've been there. 

We lived in the same dorm, but not on the same planet. It was me, this girl from Harlem, this tall guy who played the sax like a virgin, and another girl who wore ankle-length jean skirts and Ked topped with tube socks. These were the blacks on our floor. From a scientific point of view, I took an educated guess that all black people on campus were either geeks or militant.

That's what I wrote in my memoir about my introduction to blackness at Columbia University in 1998. Since elementary, I'd been in every socio-ethno-educational scenario you could come up with. I'd been the only black in the town, no less my class. I'd been the "valley girl" at the inner city public school. The regular old middle-class adjacent African American on scholarship at a budget private school. Then finally a decently self-possesed 18-year-old from Compton who didn't know anything about Black Student Unions and liked to cheerlead.

Obviously I was in for it. 

Nobody tells you how stark the racial divides on college campuses truly are. From the minute you step on to those perfect nothing-outside-the-line lawns, some group of upperclassmen who look like you immediately shove a clipboard in your hands, demanding that you join up with your people. Blacks, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese Caribbeans, Afro-Caribbeans, Southeast Asians, etc. They all have their own corners of the ring. 

Then of course it's the minority students -- all like 5 of us -- versus the rest of the establishment, which on most campuses is predominantly white. Hilarity can ensue, like the time my non-black friend's mom asked her if I bruised. And so can heartbreak, like nooses hung like notes on black professors doors and "black face" replacing togas at frat houses.

Despite knowing the reality of how fragile the racial imbalance is on most college campuses, nobody, aside from the acrobatic students walking the tightrope themselves, talks about it. That's why I'm so excited about the new indie, "Dear White People." Watch the trailer here

Set at the fictional Manchester University, "Dear White People" follows four black students who find themselves in the thick of a riot caused by an "African American-themed" party thrown by white students.

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The film's lead, a girl named Sam, hosts a popular radio show called "Dear White People," in which she dictates tongue-in-cheek "advice" to her white coeds like, "Breaking News! Dear white people, the amount of black friends required to not seem racist has now been raised to two." It's funny because it's true.

The number of different colored faces you tote around in your proverbial "realness" wallet directly effects whether or not you're a card-carrying member of a particular race. All the white friends I had freshman year made my stock all but plummet with the black folks on campus. But the more black friends a white kid has, the "downer" they seem. Think Michael Rapaport in like any movie ever. How much time do any of us take to consider how ridiculous that is?

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When a friend of mine, let's call her Misty, sent me a link to "Dear White People," which is also a Twitter account run by the film's director Justin Simien, I thought, "Duh!" Me and Misty were the black white girls at our high school -- cheerleaders, AP classes, modern dance, reciters of "Empire Records." Sounds really white, right? Yeah, I don't get it either. 

But when I got to college it was either sink or swim. Get black or get back. Thankfully, a floormate from Harlem saved me. Otherwise I'd have been whatever the idiotic reverse of blacklisted is.

She made me go to $3 pajama parties at the Pan African house, saving/drowning me in a mosh pit of black bodies pulsating to the xylophone stylings of "Money, Cash Hoes." One semester later I was deemed sufficiently black enough for even the most discerning of palettes.

Oh, how grateful I was back then to get a lesson in whose side I was supposed to be on in the racial Red Rover game that's played on campuses around the country. Campuses that like the fictional Manchester University of "Dear White People," don't think they have a "race problem."