Last spring, showrunner Justin Simien described the first season of his Netflix series Dear White People—the entirety of which was written and filmed before the 2016 election—as an unintentional “clap back” against President Donald Trump. “We commented on the world we were going to live in before we knew it was coming,” he said proudly at the time.
Season 2 is broadening that scope to include the Trump-fueled rise of the alt-right.
Last season ended with Winchester University’s student body president and son of the dean Troy Fairbanks dramatically smashing the glass doors of Hancock Hall amidst our protagonist Samantha White’s protest of a town hall meeting that was meant to ease racial tensions on campus, but instead achieved the opposite. We learn in the new season’s premiere that at that very same moment, a fire broke out at a nearby dorm.
“These events were assumed to be the result of rioting after the protest, because, you know, black people were involved,” the show’s narrator, Giancarlo Esposito, tells us in the premiere’s opening minutes. More consequentially for the show’s main characters, the students displaced by that fire have now been integrated into the school’s previously all-black dorm Armstrong Parker.
The “white refugees” do yoga in the common room and introduce Cream of Wheat into the dining hall menu, but there are far more insidious actions afoot as well.
Starting with his 2014 film version of Dear White People and continuing through this new season, Simien has been consistently adept at capturing the heightened way racial and political issues manifest themselves on college campuses, all the while remaining utterly hilarious. After a year in which we saw alt-right figures successfully stir unrest at universities from Berkeley to Charlottesville, a show like this has never had more fertile material to sink its teeth into.
Most of the premiere finds Sam in the “sunken place,” as her best friend Joelle puts it, battling online with a particularly vicious troll named @AltIvyW who calls her a “race baiter” and suggests she was only accepted by the fictional Ivy League school due to affirmative action.
When the troll insists that white people can be “oppressed” too, Sam goes off on an epic thread of tweets—or the show’s campus equivalent—listing the endless ways African Americans have been systematically kept down by a white-dominated society. She almost seems to be having too much fun with the never-ending digital back-and-forth, staying up for days at a time while her friends engage in more typical college behavior like studying and partying around her.
This war between Sam and her newly empowered alt-right classmates culminates when she shows up to host her radio show—also named “Dear White People”—and sees a group of students in the booth hosting a new show they’re calling “Dear Right People.”
“Why is the left allowed to dictate who gets to be oppressed?” one young blonde student asks. “Why do we have to suffer just because we were born white and straight and normal?”
“A straight white guy march? Can you imagine the vitriol?” her straight white guy host replies.
“Listen, I’m not a white nationalist, but...” the female student says later, before declaring that “inclusion and diversity programs” at the school “are all just code for white genocide.” To which her co-host adds, “Preach, girl!”
But just when Sam is about to “drag this Kirkland Signature Ann Coulter,” she looks down at her phone and sees the latest attack from @AltIvyW. Without giving too much away, the troll has discovered something about her heritage that he is using against her in the cruelest way possible.
Sam’s conflicted emotions when it comes to social media antagonism can easily be viewed as a reflection of how Simien felt when alt-right trolls called on their fellow racists to #BoycottNetflix after the streaming service released the first teaser for Dear White People in early 2017. Aggrieved haters began posting screenshots of their Netflix cancellation confirmations on 4chan’s /pol/ board and r/The_Donald subreddit.
Just as Sam spends hours actively engaging with her troll, Simien responded with a tweetstorm of his own, followed by a long diatribe on Medium explaining exactly why he chose the title he did for his passion project.
“I found myself actually enjoying the engagement for awhile,” Simien wrote of the experience at the time, “using what wit I had left in the midst of a long press day promoting the series to mock and point out logic flaws via Twitter among the few accounts that seemed to reflect an actual person.”
He added later, “These people feel they’ve been looked over, counted out and ridiculed by mainstream society. That’s a pain I understand deeply. It has been with me my whole life. It’s that very pain that my series speaks to.”
When Simien spoke to The Daily Beast in an interview last year, he said, “I actually think a lot of the trolls will really identify with the show, because we sort of put everyone on blast,” adding, “I have a feeling there will be a lot of secret views on Netflix from these people.”
The trolls will certainly see themselves represented in the new season. Whether or not they like how they are being portrayed is a different question.