By the time it happened, I had considered us a pretty close group of friends. We’d all come from different pockets of the country—Maryland, New Jersey, Philly, New York, Los Angeles—but had arrived at Sproul Hall eager to be on our own for the first time.
We were a pretty lucky bunch. In 2004, Sproul was one of the few co-ed dormitories in East Halls; the region of campus where freshman are corralled until sophomore year. We all lived on the first floor, where I was the only black guy. I was 18 and wanted to make a good first impression so I tried to be as friendly as possible. I grabbed for whatever pop culture reference points I could when talking about sports or politics. Silly as it seems now, it was an attempt to get people to meet me on my terms, in the space that existed between us. Penn State’s black student population accounts for only four percent of the university’s total student body. Having another person meet you in the middle wasn’t always easy.
The first incident happened in November. It was morning and I had just finished showering in the communal bathroom. Standing at the sink, brushing my teeth, I was greeted by a friend’s words. “Nice ghetto slippers, man.” At first I didn’t know what he was referring to—“ghetto slippers?” I thought. Then he pointed to my feet. I was wearing a pair of Nike sandals. I wasn’t sure how to respond and felt betrayed so I kind of just stood there and stared at him. There was a cutting silence between us. In that moment I felt like an anomaly—something not seen, but watched and studied. The only thing I remember saying before walking off was, “Oh, ok.”
The second incident happened in April. I’d buried the bathroom episode somewhere deep in my mind and had made friends beyond the walls of Sproul Hall by then. I still considered many of the guys on the floor buddies, but made a conscious effort to seek out others who looked like me. One night, a friend who lived a few doors down the hall and had recently joined a fraternity asked if he could borrow some of my clothes. “We’re throwing a hip-hop themed party at the house tonight,” K said. “Do you have anything I can wear? You know, like a large white-t or something?”
Here I was again, believed to be a symbol I wasn’t. I ended up telling him I didn’t have anything he could use and fabricated some excuse so he would leave. K had so easily rooted my blackness, while I was still figuring out what it meant.
K didn’t invite me to the party.
I don’t tell these stories to single me out as some Special Negro who is looking for pity, but rather to highlight their disturbing frequency (there were more incidents, by the way: like the time my philosophy professor thought I was on a football scholarship, because that’s obviously the only way a young black male me can get into college). These things happen far too often, on university campuses, high schools, and in work spaces daily. It is the struggle of being “a black face in a white place” and navigating the messy racial terrain in America as an outsider—something director Justin Simien knows all too well.
I’ve been thinking about my time in undergrad lately, mostly because I saw Simien’s debut film, Dear White People, last week and haven’t been able to escape the themes and conversations that permeate throughout. It is a film that, in every sense of the phrase, keeps it 100. There is no right or wrong vision of what it means to be black in Dear White People. Authenticity is always in question. Each story is valid. Each character is deserving of space. As Coco Conners, the reality-TV wannabe played sharply by Teyonah Parris, remarks early on: “Boycotting hot combs doesn’t make you an expert in CP time.”
Set at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University, where the president believes “racism is over,” the film centers around four characters undertaking the alchemy of formation. It is not so much that Simien’s characters are facing an identity crisis, but rather each is coming to terms with what they know to be true while trying to rid of the masks others cast onto them.
Sam White (Tessa Thompson) is the biracial campus radio host who becomes the de facto mouthpiece of the black student body despite deep personal and family struggles (“I’m tired of being everybody’s angry black woman”). On her show, she offers sharp-tongued, but perfectly measured polemics, verbal jabs meant to provoke self-examination among Winchester’s naive white students. “Dear white people, The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” Tragic mulatto bullshit this is not.
But this conflict to self-identify proves true for just about everybody: the ambivalent gay journalist Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), the all-star student Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), and Coco. It is a film about identity in the abstract—the complexity found beneath the surface, the misinterpretations that arise, and the discoveries made along the journey.
Not unlike my own experience at Penn State, and again at UCLA for grad school, campus dynamics are anything but cut and dry. Social and racial divisions plague Winchester, and culminate in a hip-hop Halloween party asking guests to “liberate their inner Negro.” Events eventually come to a boiling point and a race war erupts. Without giving too much away, each character arrives at an unexpected end. Sam, Lionel, Coco, and Troy don’t have it all figured out by the credits, but maybe that’s the point: this shit ain’t pretty, but we’re in it together.
The obvious, easy understanding of the film is that blackness does not exist as a monolith, but instead in multicolor. Which, honestly, if you come away from the film thinking, “Black people are so diverse!” then you’ve missed some of the point. Though race threads the film together, it is not its driving force. Dear White People is not just a movie about the expanding and contracting notions of black identity, but equally an examination of sex, gender stereotypes, privilege, and aspiration. Simien’s commentary is wide, but no less powerful: interracial dating, pop culture as a sort of brain drain, tokenism, and the ills of appropriation, cultural and otherwise, all get a turn under the microscope.
But, most of all, it’s how identity is conditioned by fear that resonates loudest: the fear of falling short, the fear of succeeding, the fear of not being who others want you to be, the fear of not fitting in. The power of fear to shape a false identity, and how we either give in or reject this fear—ultimately accepting or shunning identities projected onto us. Watching Dear White People, I was back in Sproul Hall, sitting in my room as K’s words tangled my thoughts about who he thought I was.
I should have said something.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]