The Representation of Colorism & Class in Dear White People

White supremacy and power structures have been deeply rooted in the United States history, and it continues to be present and affecting Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. In the past couple of years, there has been an increase in racial violence against BIPOC communities. The United States racial climate has also impacted postsecondary institutions where there has been an increase in racial violence. With a current global pandemic, racial violence has been more visible in online settings, such as zoom bombing BIPOC student organizations meetings and events. These racial issues have been portrayed in popular culture, such as the television show Dear White People (DWP), due to how popular culture artifacts represent society structures and values (Giroux, 2004; Mikos, 2014). The television show DWP follows up the climax of the movie DWP (Simien, 2014) by discussing the aftermath of the “Dear Black People” party, a blackface party, hosted by the Pastiche, a magazine student group lead by white people, at Winchester University, an Ivy League institution (Simien et al., 2017). Throughout the three seasons, we get to jump into the college experience of a group of Black students, the main characters’, especially their experience navigating racism. The representation of Black students is very impactful because most television shows do not represent narratives and images of BIPOC communities (Jhally, 1997). The television show represents a critique towards (1) the racialized nature of postsecondary institutions and (2) the whiteness of individual postsecondary stakeholders, such as students, faculty, leadership, and staff, by interrogating the frames and music of the television show (Jhally, 1997).

However, for this medium, I want to emphasize how the cultural artifact DWP also represents a critique of the challenges BIPOC communities face regarding colorism and class. Using Brinkmann’s (2012) three-part analysis, I call out how colorism and class are represented in DWP, specifically how colorism broadly plays a role in classism. Brinkmann’s (2012) three-part analysis is helpful because DWP does not state the obvious of how colorism and class are highly represented through the various frames Black characters appear. To be more specific, two characters in DWP, Samantha ‘Sam’ White and Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners, are examples of the representation of colorism and class in the Black community. Therefore, I focus on how colorism and class are portrayed in DWP by focusing on Sam and Coco in three episodes: Volume 1, Chapter 1 and 4, and Volume 2, Chapter 9. I first begin by briefly describing Sam and Coco and elaborate more on the importance of using Brinkmann’s (2012) three-part analysis. Then, I engage in critical analysis on the following themes: how colorism and class are represented through Sam and Coco by applying Brinkmann’s (2012) three-part analysis to six frames from the television show. I conclude with the implications of my analysis by connecting it to our society.

Dear White People: Colorism and Class in Black Communities

Sam and Coco are two Black women that were friends as freshmen, but now as juniors, their friendship dissolved due to their worldviews on race. Both Sam and Coco are what Reynolds (2014) describe as “college students with activities and participation” (p. 85) as they’re both involved in different extracurriculars. However, Sam is perceived as “the activist” as she was often the leader and keynote speaker of protests. Coco is perceived as “the affiliated” as she always pursues membership of elite groups, such as Greek life and student government (Reynolds, 2014). Ultimately, Sam is perceived as a Black woman with white-passing privileges due to her lighter phenotype, and Coco is perceived as a Black woman.

Throughout the following sections, I conduct an analysis focusing on colorism and class through Sam and Coco’s college experience. I use Brinkmann’s (2012) three-part analysis, which includes (1) describing the image by stating the obvious, (2) make the hidden obvious, and (3) make the obvious dubious. By conducting Brinkmann’s (2012) three-part analysis, I highlight how colorism and classism are deeply rooted in the United States. My analysis is based on how I, as a viewer, received and questioned the images (Mikos, 2014), in which I refer to frames. The frames are essential as it helps transport the viewers into the characters’ moods and stories (Mikos, 2014).

Colorism

To begin with, colorism within African American community manifests by “(a) discrimination against persons with typical West-African physical features (i.e., darker skin, wider noses, and thicker lips) and (b) preferential treatment of persons with typical Eurocentric physical features (i.e., lighter skin, narrower noses, and thinner lips)” (Abrams et al., 2020).

In DWP, Sam and Coco’s characters complicate colorism by focusing more on how skin denotes attractiveness and social standing. As well as, how colorism challenges Black and White biracial individuals, such as Sam, that navigate how others perceive them and how they self-identify (Harris, 2018).

Colorism in biracial identity. Sam has to navigate her biracial identity as a white and Black woman often perceived as a “local provocateur” due to her activism conducted through protests and her own Winchester’s Student Radio Show, “Dear White People”. In her radio show, she tackles racism on campus and is praised by the Black Student Union. However, Sam has to navigate receiving hate comments due to her whiteness and identity as a biracial woman. She also has to navigate being in love with a white man, Gabe, but being conflicted with how her Black friends will perceive her. Sam’s complexity with her biracial identity is presented in various scenes, but one that stands out is one where she is walking to class listening to music in Volume 1, Chapter 1, shown in Figure 1. To state the obvious, the frame captures a biracial woman walking on campus listening to music. To make the hidden obvious, the frame and audio capture how Sam changes her music from broad general slow music to rapping when she noticed people walking towards her. The change of music is a form of reactional representation, where the participants react to other actors (Kress, n.d.). To make the obvious dubious, Sam is navigating how society mainly perceives her as only a Black woman due to colorism, specifically the socialization of her skin tone (Harris, 2018).

Figure 1.

Sam is changing her music as people walk in her direction.

Note. From Dear White People by Justin Simien, Yvette Lee Bowser, Stephanie Allain, and Julia Lebedev, 2017, SisterLee Production; Culture Machine, Code Red, Homegrown Pictures, Roadside Attractions; Lionsgate Television. Copyright 2017 by Netflix.

Another example is Sam’s relationship with her white father, William White, shown in Volume 2, Chapter 9, through flashbacks of her childhood. One of her flashbacks is when Sam separates from her father’s hand as other children began talking and staring at them, shown in Figure 2. To state the obvious, the frame captures a father and child breaking their moment of hand-holding. To make the hidden obvious, the frame captures how Sam reacts uncomfortably to classmates talking and staring at them. To make the obvious dubious, Sam is navigating how society perceives her as a child of a white man. It appears that she feels embarrassed to be seen publicly holding hands with her white father. As her father is now gone, she feels guilty for not acknowledging him more publicly. This is an example of how biracial individuals have to navigate their colorism as skin color is a major factor in how others perceive them (Harris, 2018). Unfortunately, how they identified themselves is not relevant to others.

Figure 2.

Sam separates from her father’s hand as other children began to talk and stare.

Note. From Dear White People by Justin Simien, Yvette Lee Bowser, Stephanie Allain, and Julia Lebedev, 2017, SisterLee Production; Culture Machine, Code Red, Homegrown Pictures, Roadside Attractions; Lionsgate Television. Copyright 2017 by Netflix.

Colorism portraying messages about beauty. Moreover, in Volume 1, Chapter 4, we get to learn more about Coco’s life. For Coco, growing up in a racialized society has shifted her worldview to assimilating to white western norms. For example, in Figure 3, the frame focuses on Coco playing dolls with her friend, which is the first time Coco becomes aware of race. To state the obvious, the frame captures Coco playing dolls. To make the hidden obvious, the frame captures how Coco’s friend calls a darker-skinned doll ugly and the lighter skin doll pretty through a sequential bi-directionality where two participants are interacting with each other (Kress, n.d.). To make the obvious dubious, Coco is becoming aware of how society perceives darker skinned and lighter skinned girls, which ultimately affirming white normative views of beauty. As Coco states in frustration, “Dear white people, you made me hate myself as a kid. So now I hate you, and that’s my secret shame.” Abraham et al. (2020) emphasize how colorism plays a role in portraying messages on beauty where darker skin individuals are depicted as ugly due to their skin tone.

Figure 3.

Coco is playing with dolls.

Note. From Dear White People by Justin Simien, Yvette Lee Bowser, Stephanie Allain, and Julia Lebedev, 2017, SisterLee Production; Culture Machine, Code Red, Homegrown Pictures, Roadside Attractions; Lionsgate Television. Copyright 2017 by Netflix.

Sam vs. Coco. Both Sam and Coco have strong arguments about who is more or less Black. For instance, Sam and Coco tend to have arguments about hair, specifically on who is more fitting into White norms vs. natural Black hair. Coco makes judgmental comments to Sam’s natural Black hair, “Mess on top of your hair that makes you want to pass as natural.” On the other side, Sam will try to call her out for fitting into white western norms, such as hairstyles. An example of this conversation is in Volume 1, Chapter 1, as Coco was defending the Pastiche for having the “Dear Black People” party. To state the obvious, the frame captures a demanding gaze where Coco is talking directly to Sam’s camera (Kress, n.d.). To make the hidden obvious, the frame captures how Coco supports the “Dear Black People” party as she is dressed up per costume guidelines. To make the obvious dubious, Coco continues to desire to fit in with white western norms. As she defends the blackface party by stating, “They spend millions of dollars on their lips, their tans, their asses, Kanye Tickets because they want to be like us”. She does not see how the party is problematic as she also spends money to appear with straight or wavy and blonde hair, as society has portrayed appearing lighter skin as being more attractive (Abrams et al., 2020).

Figure 4.

Coco at the “Dear Black People” party.

Note. From Dear White People by Justin Simien, Yvette Lee Bowser, Stephanie Allain, and Julia Lebedev, 2017, SisterLee Production; Culture Machine, Code Red, Homegrown Pictures, Roadside Attractions; Lionsgate Television. Copyright 2017 by Netflix.

Colorism in Class

The theme of class is portrayed explicitly in Coco’s actions in wanting to fit in with white western norms as she believes that due to her Blackness, people assume she is poor and uneducated. Abrahams et al. (2020) also discuss how colorism plays a role in portraying how lighter skin individuals are perceived as wealthy and darker skin individuals perceive as poor. There are various examples of how Coco attempts to move social classes and be seen as a wealthy and elegant Black woman. It first appears when Coco refuses to use her real name, Colandrea. It also appeared when Coco was disappointed that she was placed in Armstrong-Parker House, a house for Black students at Winchester, as she wanted to not engage with the Black community.

In the last couple of frames in Volume 1, Episode 4, Coco is shown to be in the fancy Pegasus Ball, shown in Figure 5. To state the obvious, the frame captures Coco with her white friends at the Pegasus Ball. To make the hidden obvious, the frame captures how Coco is in a power position as the frame places her from a high angle where the subject, Coco, is shown intimidating the viewers’ eye line (Kress, n.d.). To make the obvious dubious, Coco continues to desire to fit in with white western norms. As she rejects the entrance of the members from Alpha Delta Rho, a Black sorority.

Figure 5.

Coco at the Pegasus Ball.

Note. From Dear White People by Justin Simien, Yvette Lee Bowser, Stephanie Allain, and Julia Lebedev, 2017, SisterLee Production; Culture Machine, Code Red, Homegrown Pictures, Roadside Attractions; Lionsgate Television. Copyright 2017 by Netflix.

Conclusion

Colorism creates inequalities within BIPOC communities, such as Black communities. DWP does not explicitly address colorism and its relation with classism, but it is more of a hidden message as the executive producers do not provide a space, such as discussing it in the radio show, to discuss this further. There are indirect hints to colorism when Sam and Coco argue. For instance, when Coco mentions the following that causing the ending of her friendship with Sam, “You get away with murder because you look more like them than I do. That’s your light skin privilege. Until you acknowledge that, [don’t say anything about] who’s woke or not.” Ultimately, television shows need to address these topics as they should not just be used as entertainment but also to represent BIPOC communities and enact change (Mikos, 2014). In DWP, Sam and Coco are examples of how other BIPOC communities experience colorism in postsecondary education. It helps change the socialization of skin tone within BIPOC communities and engage in discussions (Mikos, 2014).

References

Abrams, J. A., Belgrave, F. Z., Williams, C. D., & Maxwell, M. L. (2020). African American Adolescent Girls’ Beliefs About Skin Tone and Colorism. Journal of Black Psychology, 46(2–3), 169–194. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798420928194

Brinkmann, S. (2012). Movies, images and television. In S. Brinkmann (Ed.), Qualitative inquiry in everyday life: Working with everyday life materials (pp. 127–148). SAGE Publications Ltd. https://www.doi.org/10.4135/978147391

Giroux, H. A. (2004). Cultural studies, public pedagogy, and the responsibility of intellectuals. Communication and critical/cultural studies, 1(1), 59–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/1479142042000180926

Harris, K. L. (2018). Biracial American colorism: Passing for white. American Behavioral Scientist, 62(14), 2072–2086. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764218810747

Jhally, S. (Director). (1997). bell hooks — Cultural criticism & transformation [Film & Transcript]. Media Education Foundation.

Kress, G. (n.d.). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. https://sites.google.com/site/guidetoreadingimages/

Mikos, L. (2014). Analysis of film. In U. Flick The SAGE handbook of qualitative data analysis (pp. 409–423). SAGE Publications, Inc. https://www-doi-org.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/10.4135/9781446282243.n28

Reynolds, P. J. (2014). Representing” U”: Popular culture, media, and higher education: ASHE Higher Education Report, 40: 4. John Wiley & Sons. (Representing “U”: Popular Higher Education: pp. 1–11 & Chapters on settings, administrators, faculty, and students: pp. 21–107).

Simien, J. (Director). (2014). Dear White People [Film]. Code Red Films; Duly Noted; Homegrown Pictures.

Simien, J., Bowser, Y. L., Allain, S., & Lebedev, J. (Executive Producers). (2017). Dear White People [TV Series]. SisterLee Production; Culture Machine, Code Red, Homegrown Pictures, Roadside Attractions; Lionsgate Television

[2490 words; including references]

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