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‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien Takes On The Alt-Right & Fake News In Bold New Season [Interview]
Shamira Ibrahim spoke with the talented Dear White People creator, Justin Simien, about the show’s new themes, technology, race and more.
The premiere of the Dear White People Netflix series in 2017 was met with a barrage of accusations of “anti-whiteness,” reverse racism and calls for its cancellation, a bewildering phenomenon that seemed reflective of the passing of the baton into a new sociopolitical era, both in the U.S. Government as well as in the never-ending misinformation wars persistently fought on social media. Season 2 of the show, premiering on May 4, tackles this transition head-on, using its characters as mirrors into the myriad of ways we both willingly and unwittingly participate in the outrage culture hamster wheel that seems to have exploded since the 2016 elections.
Over the course of 10 episodes, the lead characters confront these new challenges — internet trolls, the rise of “white nationalism,” doxxing, free speech on college campuses, and internal debates within their black community as to the next steps to take to combat the looming spectre of white supremacy in their daily interactions — while continuing to reconcile the inherent exploration that is urbane to everyone’s coming-of-age college years. At the core of it all remain young adults who are still trying to figure out what scene they belong to and how to navigate their individualism while feeling beholden to the interests of a collective college housing experience that is being encroached upon by the influx of white classmates.
Okayplayer had the pleasure of speaking with writer and director Justin Simien about the unique themes expressed in this season, and the choices made to advance the conversation on the interactions of technology and race in season 2. One thing was made clear about the ethos of this season: the tools used may be different, but the tactics that entrap the restless fervor of the discourse being had by young black people—both on campus and online—remain the same.
Okayplayer: You start the season where we left off, focusing on the after-effects of the final conflict. Did you guys know where you wanted to take the series when you finished the inaugural season?
Justin Simien: I had a few ideas about it, but really, it was the response to Season One. I felt a sense of urgency for Season Two that I didn't feel until Trump won the day we wrapped season one — not just the negative response to our first press materials, but a desire to create a false sense of outrage among people. They really made people believe that an anti-white show was coming to Netflix, which is crazy because as many times as I say it to myself – Dear White People — I cannot figure out what is so threatening about those three words together.
My head was spinning after season one — why do these conversations get away from us so easily? The answer was always amnesia. There was always this sort of desire to erase the personal history of people in this country. It's kind of an obsession, actually. That common phrase, ‘Just get over it,’ is very entrenched in our country's racial dialogue, from the days right after slaves are newly released — ‘get over it, you're free, what do you have to complain about now’ — all the way until today.
As long as there is a percentage of the population that is purposely ill-informed about race, we can't ever really have a meaningful dialogue that doesn't get out of control. You see that’s the way that misinformation works. You see the architects of it. You can look at it through a historical lens, and I just kind of became obsessed with all those little secret histories that this country contains that affect our everyday lives. I became fascinated by that.
OKP: The first season really focused on a more liberally informed racism in the kind of elite environments many of us exist in. In this season, it really seems to draw out the open bigotry we seem to have transitioned into. What made you take that direction?
JS: It was literally what all of us in the room were going through. People who obviously associate me with the show said some vicious things to some of my writers, but literally, any black person on Twitter who regularly talks about these issues publicly has felt the change in culture, has felt the divisiveness, has felt the way in which people are almost addicted to the outrage. It's like we get together just to get outraged as opposed to having a meaningful conversation. It would feel odd not to talk about it and not to include it in the fabric of these characters’ lives because this is exactly the bullshit they would be dealing with if they were real and if Winchester was real.
OKP: Speaking of outrage and everything that comes with it, the show also leans into the cult of personality borne from the zeitgeist of response. It can really create a whole platform all on its own. What conversations were you all having in the writers room while fleshing those components out?
JS: It's a whole industry. Every time one of these poor kids gets shot, you're going to see the news cameras, you're going to see the competing liberal versus conservative spin, you're going to hear from the NRA… all this advertising money is being made off of the death of somebody. That money doesn't go to the family. It doesn't help them psychologically repair. It doesn't help the community gather around the issue, and there are very few consequences for the perpetrators of these crimes.
There was this feeling that it was another part of this system. When we talk about racism in Dear White People, racism is defined as an institutional thing. We're talking about disadvantages though when it feels like every time something happens, it sort of happens in the same way, that, to us, was a key that this is systemic. Our system is actually made to work in this way. I brought a couple of books into the room, one of which was The History of White People, which was just a mind-boggling read, but also, makes you realize just how arbitrarily we landed on this idea that whiteness means anything at all, let alone it being the standard of beauty. I just really wanted to explore that.
We looked into secret societies, which to me is an extension of this need to kind of always erase the past or hide our tracks. It felt like the same thing. Fake news, propaganda, trolls, it just felt like the same cast of characters since the Reformation era. That’s what I want people to understand, beyond just making you love the characters and having a lot of fun. I want you to leave the show curious, like, what other secret histories do I not know about? There's a few. You never see it. They leave you quite upset when you start to look into it.
Source: Netflix Media Center
OKP: Another prominent theme is the continuing examination of navigating queer identity through Lionel’s character. What did you guys want to draw out in that storyline this season?
JS: I wanted to write very specifically about being a gay person who's also black, but also grew up without a father — that's Lionel, that's me — and he doesn't really know how to be in the world. A lot of characters in TV shows, once they come out, their story is sort of over. They come out and they immediately find a boyfriend, and everything's great. I just thought that was a kind of cruel fiction for all of the rest of us who are like, ‘Well, that didn't happen to me.’ I wanted to show Lionel's continuing awkward walk in that life.
One of the things that strike me about being gay is how queerness is separated into these different groups in the same way that races are and in the same way that within the black community there are all these tiers of colorism and sexism. To be both is just such a mind fuck. I wanted to walk people through that, in a non-sitcom-y way, where he just goes to a party and meets the love of his life. It’s not that simple. Even as you go through the series, the love of his life may not be the love of his life.
That's what my experience is. I remember coming out and just literally never feeling the way everybody else in the club seems to be feeling, which is, they found their mecca, they found their thing. I never felt that way. I was never treated that way. I was never hit on in L.A. clubs. It never happened. It's sort of like, I just wanted to show what that felt like and what it continues to feel like for queer people and queer people of color.
OKP: In that storyline, popular personalities Kid Fury and Todrick Hall have guest features. How was it like working with them?
JS: They're so lovely. The funny thing is, like, I'm such a big fan of them but they were treating me like I was a thing. They were nervous and humble and I was like, ‘Wait, but you guys are stars in my head.’ Todrick [Hall] came so prepared. Kid [Fury], God, he just broke my heart. I just loved their performances. What I think came out was a really funny scene.
They were wonderful and I just thought they killed every take and really great to work with. I also thought because Todrick has been pulled into some of these problematic, pop star debates, and gained the ire of both black and white people. I just thought, what a fun way to just say ‘Eff you’ to all of it — including him, literally the center of a conversation like that and bring some levity to it because they're pop stars. This is not that serious.
Source: Netflix Media Center
The point of the scene is to show Lionel what gay black men look like and how intimidating that can feel. Boy, did they pull that off! You know what I think it is, I think that we are so often excluded from narratives that when we get to create our own, we become so exclusive and I just wanted to show how that feels to the outsider, like Lionel, who could probably be these guys’ friend but no one knows that right now because we're all so intimidated of each other. We're all so scared of each other. Even when he walks in they pause and sort of have to. I thought that would be a fun, entertaining way to look at ourselves.
OKP: In both seasons, the focal narrative was around the use of technology to spread information and how that can get distorted. In the first season, that was more so with the app and the Facebook invite; this season, it's social media and how news can get distorted. What do you think about when you think about this show and going further? How would you like to advance the conversation and how we have used technology to more access but with certain amounts of pitfalls?
JS: I think I'd like to continue in the line of thinking that I've begun, which is, why is this sort of erasing of the truth such a seemingly necessary component to advance in this country? We're essentially giving our lives over to algorithms that we've now been able to statistically prove are actually racist. In very real ways, the nuances of people who happen to be of color, there's no space for that in these algorithms because nobody of color wrote the algorithms and so nobody could see what was missing from them.
For everything from faucets not being able to register black skin in a bathroom to sort of lumping certain kinds of cultural answers together and drawing inaccurate conclusions about people and that effects purchasing and advertising decisions and all kinds of things that have a lot of other things they're sort of connected to.
I'd like to continue to explore that. We do have this thing in our country where when a new thing happens, there are all these forces that we just sort of allow to kind of sweep up whatever hedge up happens so that we can no longer talk about it or even properly remember it. That will always kind of be a theme that I think recurs, but I'm very interested in exploring, well, okay, given we are so distracted and given we are so woefully misinformed, what does a successful network of people look like? What does coming together even mean anymore? What does a meaningful dialogue mean? What is the work that it takes to move a social needle?
Source: Netflix Media Center
Is it actually possible? Are these things that happen to happen when these people are forming a group or when those people are forming a group? Or, are there things that we can actually affect? I think a lot of us are mad and we are looking at the culture around us and we are exasperated and what we want to know is, what is step one and then what is step two? I think what I want to see is characters going through those steps in some really concrete ways. I'm curious to see what that might look like.
At the same token, these are young people in a very formative experience and I was very reactive when I was at that age. You'd never catch me coming back junior year the same way I was rocking sophomore year. I'm also really interested in seeing how the event of the first two seasons sort of effect the characters in terms of their own self-expression and how they position themselves in this world.
I think someone like Sam, who's been trying the same thing for a while now and getting disappointing results, I wonder if she's going to be so quick to get on that same horse again or if she's going to try something new? That's where my first sort of thoughts go because I want to see the characters grow and change and respond over time. I never want you to feel like any season of the show is just a kind of warmed up version of the previous season. I'd rather it fail miserably but be different and look like human life, which is always changing, than sort of stay the same.
Dear White People Vol. 2 is available for binge-watching and streaming on Netflix now.
Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.