clock menu more-arrow no yes

Netflix’s Dear White People digs into everyday racism, and it's sharp — and funny — as hell

The addictive new comedy explores tensions on a prestigious college campus in a stellar first season.

Sam (Logan Browning) has a campus radio show, everyone has opinions
Netflix

Dear White People opens with an “ethnic but nonthreatening” voiceover that promises to catch us up on the action at Winchester College, a fictionalized Ivy League school trying to hide long-simmering problems with institutional racism beneath layers of prestige. The point of this voiceover, the narrator (Giancarlo Esposito) announces with an audible grin, is to provide a kind of shortcut into the story.

Thankfully, this turns out to be completely misleading.

Justin Simien’s new Netflix show — the TV version of his 2014 movie of the same name — doesn’t take shortcuts. After breaking down the basics of what makes Winchester tick, Dear White People drops us right into the middle of the particularly messy aftermath of a “Dear Black People” party, which started with students in blackface and ended with royally pissed off black students giving them hell for it. Campus radio host Sam White (Logan Browning) — who helms the blistering “Dear White People” show that the party was mocking in the first place — immediately sets about trying to galvanize the school’s black students into taking a stand the administration can’t ignore.

With that, the show immediately throws us right into Winchester’s sprawling conflicts and interlocking drama. It spits banter so sharp and quick that it slices through even the tensest scenes with laser precision. It digs into the personal wreckage caused by institutional racism with humor, depth, and straightforward clarity.

Dear White People is, in other words, one of the most confident new TV comedies I’ve ever seen — and that confidence is what ends up making it so compelling.

So here, let me count the three ways this show pulls off its mission without stumbling in the way freshman comedies usually do — and why it’s a truly marathon-worthy watch.

1) The show’s structure is unusual — and allows for enough room for individual, intimate stories to shine

Sam has something to say, always.
Netflix

Dear White People makes a couple smart calls to balance the everyday horrors of racism with the everyday realities and coping mechanisms of the people it affects in a way that lets their individual personalities — and even senses of humor — shine.

First, all 10 episodes of the show’s first season take place in a relatively short timeframe, spanning the week or two following the blackface party. The first episode is basically just the next day, with Sam raining righteous hellfire down on Pastiche, the Harvard Lampoon-esque satire magazine that threw the party; the Winchester administration that’s taking its sweet time responding to the controversy; and her fellow students who would really rather not think about this kind of thing happening at their precious school in 2017. After that, tensions keep escalating on campus as everyone argues about the best course of action, and the school’s black community grows more and more frustrated by the infuriating difficulty of pointing out racism at an institution that thinks it knows better.

Homing in on the ripple effects of the party not only allows the show to confront the immediate mess, but makes sure that none of the main characters get short shrift while they process their reactions. This approach helps the show somehow take both a broad view and a startlingly personal one. We get to see several different characters with very different perspectives work through what it means to them that they’re living in an environment that insists it’s liberal and informed, but where a blackface party nonetheless could — and did — happen.

Adding to Dear White People’s intrigue is that the episodes aren’t exactly chronological. Many of them overlap with one another, as the show presents certain events from a variety of perspectives, constantly adding new layers to interactions that otherwise seemed cut and dry.

2) Every episode is filtered through a different character’s point of view

Sam and Coco (Antoinette Robertson) hash it out
Netflix

As Dear White People quickly underlines (and as should be obvious), Winchester’s black population isn’t a monolith. Every clique has its own thoughts on how to handle the kind of pervasive racism they experience every day. By focusing on a different point of view in each episode, Dear White People gives its characters enough room to make sure their individual concerns and opinions are heard and understood.

Sam is the most immediately strong voice, both on Dear White People and the Winchester campus itself. Her radio show is blunt, impassioned, and furious. She’s a one-woman wrecking ball, and woe betide anyone who gets in her way — and that includes any would-be allies who balk at committing themselves a thousand percent to the cause.

But after we spend time in Sam’s shoes in the first episode, the show pivots to dive into the minds of other characters as they grapple with the increasingly dire aftershocks of the party. Sometimes, we get to see their side of scenes we witnessed previously; other times, we follow them on their own separate adventures entirely. Every so often, Simien and directors like Tina Mabry (Queen Sugar) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) center the camera on a single character’s face, making them stare directly into the lens as if to prevent us from looking away.

There’s an episode about freshman school newspaper reporter Lionel (DeRon Horton), who in the midst of the blackface party controversy is also grappling with the pressures of doing his job and figuring out his sexuality. Ambitious mean girl Coco (Antoinette Robertson) gets a chapter that dives into her memories of being Sam’s roommate, her experience as a constantly underestimated dark-skinned girl, and her determination to make the system work for her. Restless revolutionary Reggie (Marque Richardson), who holds a torch for Sam, finds himself involved in a terrifying conflict with campus police that sends shockwaves throughout Winchester.

All of them have a distinct, specific perspective; all of them think they have the right answer.

Every time I started a new episode of Dear White People, I was psyched to see who I’d be following next — which is probably why I ended up watching eight of the 10 in one sitting.

Above all, though, the most impressive thing about Dear White People is the way it breaks down character motivations and some astonishingly complicated issues without stripping anyone of their humanity.

3) Dear White People uses a quick sense of humor to dig especially deep into the messy realities of racism

Netflix

Dear White People tackles a lot of real, serious topics — but it’s also funny as hell. And to the show’s infinite credit, the jokes manage to pull the double duty of making you laugh while also making the show’s message that much more impactful.

Throughout the series, many of the black students on campus regularly gather at Winchester’s historically black dorm to watch a Scandal-esque show that has everyone throwing popcorn at the screen, or just discuss what the hell’s going on on campus (the latter of which are usually Sam’s doing). These meetings are driven by tension and debate, and though some of Sam’s classmates are fans of her unsparing rhetoric, others call it “entry level blackrage” and “self-serving blacker-than-thou propaganda.” Some are worried that rising up could make them “look angry”; others point out that they “are angry.”

Meanwhile, Dear White People also explores some of what Winchester’s white students think. Throughout the season, we see the sneering Pastiche writers cry free speech as well-meaning allies trip over themselves to atone. But the show isn’t as interested in the white students’ perspective — and that’s as it should be. Those white students do, after all, have far more opportunities and platforms from which to express themselves than the black students this show puts front and center, and who on other TV shows would usually be relegated to sidekick status.

When Coco talks about wanting to work from within the system as a means of self-preservation, we know she’s coming off a childhood in which she was constantly dismissed and derided for her dark skin. When the dean’s son Troy (Brandon P. Bell) resists his father’s insistence that he run for student body president, we quickly learn that it’s because he resents being held up as “the good one,” or the kind of genteel black man that Winchester’s wealthy white donors can accept. And when Sam fights with herself over indulging in a social life and even having a white boyfriend, we come to know that she’s struggling with what it means to be biracial, and the question of how to commit herself to a cause without burning herself out.

It’s heavy stuff, but brilliantly punctuated by Dear White People’s acerbic sense of humor in a way that only emphasizes the characters’ individual personalities. Sam’s “Dear White People” radio show is dense with calls to action, as well as snarky and quick in a way that makes it obvious why people keep tuning in. Coco has so many gasp-worthy one liners that I could have easily devoted a solid chunk of this review to praising them (a mean girl with serious baggage is my TV kryptonite, and Robertson’s Coco is a fantastic one). Sam’s warm and frank friend Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) offers her reprieve from The Cause with one snappy aside after another; I’m still laughing about her joke that Sam’s “white bae” looks like “the white dude in the picture that comes with the frame.”

With heart and humor and a steady gaze, Dear White People makes sure to portray its characters as whole individuals and not just human embodiments of their beliefs. No one is ever reduced to a walking talking point, but given the time and space to reveal who they are, how they got there, and what makes them special — which is, in turn, what makes the show special, too.

The first season of Dear White People is now streaming on Netflix.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.