‘Dear White People’ Reveals the Truth About Being Black in Trump’s America: ‘We All Have a Kind of PTSD’
‘Dear White People’ creator Justin Simien goes deep on alt-right trolls, racial PTSD, and how Trump’s election changed the direction of his Netflix TV series.
The second season of Dear White People opens with an instantly recognizable cultural debate, yet one that has never been dramatized on television. The battle lines are fiercely drawn, the passions intense, and the arguers obstinate in their opinions: Should grits be salty or sweet?
Justin Simien, who created the Netflix comedy and the 2014 race satire it is based on, laughs when we bring up the scene. The debate takes place as the historically all-black residence hall at fictional Winchester University is being integrated with white students displaced by a dorm fire.
“It’s one of those things, like Michael Jackson or R. Kelly or whatever, that black people are always talking very passionately about,” Simien says. “I thought it would be a really slice-of-life moment that I haven’t really seen before but I think every black person can recognize immediately.”
For all the heightened reality of Dear White People, he says, the characters are the draw. “They’re always so hyper-articulate about everything. So I thought it would be really fun to tell this story about these black kids who are sort of ensconced in a kind of white takeover of their safe space and having a very black conversation.”
Dear White People: Vol. 2, which became available to stream Friday on Netflix, arrives auspiciously.
The first installment debuted to a perfect 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, praised for its topicality and incisive humor, and for introducing conversations that had previously been ignored in pop culture—everything from sweet vs. salty grits to epigenetics to institutional racism. As might be expected from a satire with Dear White People as its title and this as its subject matter, there was intense discourse surrounding the episodes and their messaging, not to mention ignorant trolling from alt-right voices on social media, in forums, and on blogs.
That makes its way into Vol. 2, with lead character Sam (Logan Browning), who hosts Winchester’s “Dear White People” radio show, dealing with the emotional turmoil of being targeted by an alt-right troll. Echoing the real way political and social unrest incubates on college campuses, alt-right students launch a “Dear Right People” radio show to counter Sam’s.
Vol. 2 also marks the first time Simien and his writing staff are tackling the show’s racial and political subject matter in Trump’s America. The 2014 film of the same name was obviously written during the Obama administration, while, as timely as the first season of the series was when it launched last spring, it was almost entirely filmed before the election. To wit, the last day of shooting was the day Trump was unexpectedly elected.
All that adds layers to the new season, which kicks off almost immediately after the events of the finale. With the new episodes now available to stream, we talked with Simien about the reaction to the show, racial PTSD, how shooting on election night changed him, and more.
What have you learned from the intense reaction to how the show was perceived, both the praise and the vitriol?
I will say the degree to which the outrage of the alt-right was weaponized against us, that definitely took me by surprise. My deep-dive into what that culture is about, why it is, and how it works certainly is reflected in this season. But by and large I can’t say that I was super surprised by anything because we had sort of gone through all of this with the movie. I do think, as always, some people missed the point and some people missed it intentionally to create attention-grabbing headlines. But by and large, a lot of people took the show as we meant it, and that was great.
The dichotomy is interesting: there was so much alt-right trolling, but also a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, which indicates that what you were trying to say was not only well-received but also much needed. What do you think it was about the timing of when the show came out and that message that resonated?
I think that it really is happenstance that we came out during the beginning of the current presidency. He won the night we wrapped. Even though we couldn’t have predicted that he was going to be our president, per se, the underlying things we’re talking about in the show were already present in the country. We were just trying to tell the truth about those things. I woke up the next day and was in a bit of a daze wondering how this all happened. Then I was so grateful that I had this thing that was coming out in the world that could give people some sense of catharsis of, well, what does it feel like to fight on the right side of history and fail anyway.
I’m not sure I would call it serendipitous, because neither is a particularly positive thing, but it is uncanny how perfectly the election results mirrored the exasperation of what these characters go through.
That’s really what happens to the characters in the first season. What does it feel like when you’re in a community or a culture that tells you you’re set up against people because of your race? I think that, it’s weird to say, but we did have the benefit of timing because I think more people were ready to hear frankly from the black community about these things than maybe they were before Trump. I think a lot of straight white guys who have really good intentions and have a bunch of black friends finally had a reason to pay attention to some of the things we’ve been saying for so long. So, yes, there was a backlash. But there was also people who I think were willing to listen who didn’t think they had to before.
What was it like to have the last day of shooting on election night?
We went into the day very celebratory. Everyone was like, great, at the end of the day Hillary will be president and we’ll have our first female president, and, boy, it will be crazy when Trump starts his TV network, but, good lord, at least this will be over. We really came in with that mood. As the results started to roll in, the giddiness of not only being on our last day of shooting but also celebrating the presidency at night began to give way to an anxiety that was really palpable. You just felt people’s attention drifting away.
I can only imagine the instinct to want to run and hide, not work.
My boyfriend was on set and my showrunner was trying to shield me from news, because at the end of the day we weren’t able to get through takes because people were on their own sort of devastated. But there was a moment when I had to say, guys, the world might be falling apart but we have to finish this show and get out of here. It was this bizarre moment where I didn’t know how to feel. I was elated to be done with the show, but I was devastated at the results. I think I knew there was always a possibility but I, like Obama, had faith in the American people that ended up being misplaced. I think like any good liberal, I spent a lot of time afterwards pondering what happened and how that happened and why I didn’t see that coming, and realized that so many of the answers were in the show I just made. (Laughs)
Now you’re for the first time writing for these characters and this show and story after Trump’s election. The film and the first season were written before the situation we’re in now.
I think the film and to a degree the first season, there is a vibe of black people having to convince white people that racism still exists. And now we’re in a world where you either think it exists or you think that blacks are complaining too much. It’s all come out there now how people really feel. Because of that there’s a sense of urgency in this season to diagnose the problem. We never try to solve and we never try and preach, but I do think there’s a diagnosis here that has an urgency it wouldn’t have had if he had not won. I personally was invested in figuring out how we got here. I had a sense of urgency to understand my country better and understand my countrymen better.
You mentioned earlier how you’re bringing in the alt-right trolls. We see the introduction of the “Dear Right People” radio show. It’s what kicks off Sam’s storyline this season. Why was that important to you?
We talk about cultural appropriation, and I don’t know what you could do about it because culture is designed to be appropriated. But the thing that I think is fascinating is the way in which the alt-right has appropriated the very idea of oppression. When [these] people say oppression and prejudice, they mean different things by those words. These people prey upon the ignorant in society and make people who frankly aren’t doing that bad feel as if they getting the bottom end of the stick, even though that’s not actually true. They’ve done a really good job of taking the talking points that have activated liberals and the people on the so-called left and just sort of switched them to apply them to situations that they didn’t apply to. And it worked.
When you say it worked, what do you mean?
That’s where we are right now. We live in a country that is creating outrage on both ideological sides in order to make us feel like we’re living in a country of chaos, and therefore participate in the chaos. It’s kind of brilliant. I thought that there was no way to show what it feels like to be a black person in America without talking about that and including it, because it’s such a mind-fuck. Dear White People is not pure satire. Some of those podcasts from very smart college kids who are doing these things and saying these things and making these arguments that if you didn’t know any better you would almost agree with. To hear a white man talk about how he is oppressed because black people had a protest in a different city and it was covered on the news is shocking. But yet they believe it wholeheartedly. There’s no way for me to process that without putting it in the work. And to try to do it without moralizing. They never get into a direct argument, “Dear Right People” and “Dear White People.” That was never the point. It was this is what it feels like to hear this all day and to be subjected to this all day.
We see Reggie (Marque Richardson) dealing with the aftermath of what he went through at the party with the campus cop who pulls the gun on him. He doesn’t know how to react, people don’t know how to act around him, and he even starts having PTSD hallucinations. Dramatic moments like that standoff have been depicted before, but it’s rare to see the aftermath and how it affects a human afterwards.
That’s exactly why we did it. Usually when these things happen in a television show, the next week happens and everybody’s back [to normal]. That’s really kind of an insidious lie. One of the things that happened when Sandra Bland was arrested is that a lot of white people said well why was she mouthing off to the cops? Why was she being so combative? It’s her own fault. And what people don’t realize is that there is a human toll to racism. It does cause PTSD. There is such a thing as epigenetics, where trauma is passed on through DNA. These are things that we’ve proven. I think black people, frankly, because we present as if we’re high, because we have to present that way, people just assume that we’re over it and are surprised when black people start to complain about things. So part of the way to make sure that Reggie is human is to acknowledge that just because the situation is over and just because people are rallying around him, that does not mean that any healing has taken place.
That’s an important point. That people don’t just rebound back.
Common retweeted this Malcolm X quote that has just really been sitting with me about comparing racism to a knife in the back. There are some Americans who believe that pulling the knife out a little bit solves the problem. It of course doesn’t. There are some Americans who believe that pulling the knife out completely ends racism, but nothing is solved until the wound that is left is healed. More often than not, America doesn’t want to acknowledge that there was ever a knife to begin with. Black people, I think we all have a kind of PTSD. That’s why Get Out was so successful, because it dramatized the non-stop anxiety of being black into a narrative that we often, because we’re trying to get on in society, we don’t get a chance to stop and acknowledge the self-loathing that we’ve taken on or the pain that we’ve taken on. We haven’t really had a chance to process it.