Brow Beat

Justin Simien on Dear White People Season 2, Racism in the Gay Community, and Secret Societies

DeRon Horton as Lionel in Dear White People.
DeRon Horton as Lionel in Dear White People. Netflix

Netflix’s Dear White People features an eclectic cast of characters at the fictional, posh Winchester University, including Sam (Logan Browning) a biracial social activist and host of the controversial campus radio show that shares its name with the series; Lionel (DeRon Horton), a journalism student and introvert learning the ropes of dating as a young gay kid; and the insecure but determined Coco (Antoinette Robertson), who aspires to be one-half of a power couple not unlike Barack and Michelle.

When we last left off in Season 1, a student-led protest addressing racial inequalities had come to a head, while Lionel publicly exposed the school’s wealthiest donors as having secretly funded racist policies both on and off campus. Season 2 picks up just a couple of weeks after those intense events, and deals with the fallout through its main characters while adding some new faces (and new issues) to stir things up even more.

For the latest episode of Represent, I recently spoke with creator Justin Simien to discuss his vision for Season 2. Below is an edited and transcribed excerpt from that conversation, as well as full audio of the episode.

Aisha Harris: While the show is called Dear White People, this season we’re seeing more engagement with people who aren’t white and who aren’t black, either. In particular there’s a new alt-right campus radio program called Dear Right People that springs up in opposition to Sam’s radio show, and one of the hosts is actually Asian. You also have an episode that focuses on racism within the queer community, and how we talk about the difference between a “preference” and being racist. You’re really getting into how white oppression affects all of us and seeps its way into everywhere. I think that was actually one of my critiques of the season last year: It was, for lack of a better phrase, very black and white and there were no other voices coming in. Can you talk a bit about switching that up this time around?

Justin Simien: Yeah. Definitely. It’s the goal of the show to always find room for the nuances and room to tell more complicated truths. And I think that you said it already: It’s like we don’t really live in a binary world. I think it’s easier for people to think of things as black and white, but that’s actually not how it plays out, there’s a lot of weird gray areas.

For instance, the whole model minority aspect, which I think is actually even more prominent in the Asian community than it is in the black community or other communities. Again, it’s a 10-episode show, so we can’t get into everything, but I at least wanted to color these moments in as complicated terms as possible. And now that we’ve met the characters, the world has been introduced, we get what the show does. I just thought it was an opportunity to go deeper instead of wider, do you know what I’m saying? Let’s not cover more issues, let’s just go deeper into these characters. And frankly, I think the so-called alt-right, they love putting people on a platform that aren’t white, to prove that they’re not racist. It’s a very common thing and I just thought that would be interesting, especially without explanation, leaving one to wonder, “Well, how did he get there?”

I was definitely wondering that. Even the other black guy in the room at the queer writers’ party Lionel attends; his response when Lionel tries to engage with him is, “I’m sorry, but I don’t date other black guys.” I’ve had conversations with my queer male friends about this exact thing, but I feel we hadn’t seen it yet played out in a show.

It was an opportunity to flavor Lionel’s world with something that is very honest and true, and certainly something I’ve always experienced. One of the things people don’t really talk a lot about is, just like people need to label feminism as white feminism when they feel like it doesn’t include all people. The same is true of so-called gay culture. When we’re talking about gay culture, mostly we’re talking about white male gay culture. And it’s a part of society that I don’t necessarily feel all that comfortable or wanted in.

That tokenism of, “these are my whites” and “how dare there be another black person here taking my shine” is so common among gay cultures that, even though we don’t describe it in explicit detail, I figured people who have been there will know what I’m talking about. And even people who haven’t been there will at least go like, “Oh, wait, that’s something I never thought about.” And again, I’m just always trying to look for those little moments with all of the characters, but Lionel’s the most obvious, because I’m also gay and black. I’m telling on myself: All of their little awkward experiences, they’re all bits and pieces of me and the writers in the room, we’re just telling on ourselves.

Were you ever on the other side of that situation, of being that black guy who was like, “Sorry, I don’t want to date—”

Never. Oh my God.

Because look, I think we’ve all to some extent internalized some sort of bias, even if it’s not explicit.

I get it. No, I get it. You know what, it’s also because I have a white partner and I get that a lot, the sort of eye-roll assumption that I’m into white guys, or that I only date white, or whatever. And honestly, it’s the same thing that happened when I was a kid where I grew up in a black neighborhood, but I was bused to a white school, and I was too black for the white kids, and I was too white for the black kids.

But the truth is that I’ve never been that guy. I find it really weird to not date my own race. Listen, self-loathing is a motherfucker, but I don’t have it like that. You know what I’m saying? In fact, in L.A. in particular, I really did try, y’all. I did try it, but more often than not, again, especially in a city like L.A., which although it certainly has a small black gay community, you’re still in the context of whiteness wherever you go. There’s maybe a black night at a gay club in L.A., but by and large we’re talking about white men. So, you’re still within the context of the rules that they’ve made, and that creates situations like the one that we described where like, yeah, sometimes other black guys feel threatened by me because they want to be the one that’s fetishized, or be found exotic among the context of other white men.

So, I’ve always found it to be a really strange quirk of the gay community. I think the gay community can be incredibly racist. And I think that if you’re part of any marginalized group, it’s so easy to unconsciously pass that on to other groups. We do it with each other all the time. Colorism is still a rampant issue within the black community, but it’s my little way of saying, “Snap out of it. You look crazy.”

Speaking of the ways in which we subconsciously pass and internalize these things from other communities and bring them onto ourselves: One of the running themes of the season is a series of flashbacks we see, usually at the beginning of each episode, that unpack Winchester University’s racist past via secret societies. I saw it as the ways in which everything, nearly every major law, or policy, or whatever, can be in some way traced back to slavery.

Of course. Yeah. And reformation, so-called reformation.

At one point a character says, “Movements never die, they just go underground.”

A lot of people really think that we concluded civil rights at some point, but what happened was Vietnam happened, and our leaders were assassinated, and everyone got distracted. It wasn’t like, mission accomplished, that never happened. But it sort of fell out of the public view for a little bit.

Here’s what it is. I’m looking at the landscape today and we’re talking about misinformation, and we’re talking about fake news as if these are new concepts, but the truth is, is America is built on a kind of amnesia that the more and more you dig, the more and more profoundly perplexing it is, that we don’t really understand our histories and how we get to where we’ve gotten.

The reason why you can look at Black Lives Matter protesters and say, “Oh, they’re just complaining,” is because no one taught you how we got here, no one has educated you, you have not bothered to educate yourself in the ways in which pathology works, and the ways in which things are passed down the families. If you wipe out a whole generation of fathers and put them behind bars because they have pot on them, that absolutely has ramifications on their kids, and then their kids, and then their kids.

Winchester, in my mind, is America. And just because America has stopped talking about certain networks of people, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist, and that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist now. So, I wanted to really expand this idea of misinformation and anonymity and fake news and show that’s always been in the DNA of this country. And because Winchester is a placeholder for America, now that you’ve seen the way this works at Winchester, you can only imagine the ways in which is operating in American society. And there were networks that you don’t even think about: It’s like, the American presidents that we’ve had so far, they didn’t come from all over, there’s a very specific group of people that up until a certain point, the American presidents have all come from.

That is not coincidence, you know? I’m not saying there’s some large Illuminati conspiracy, but these lineages, they have a lot of control and a lot of power. If your dad’s rich, your son’s going to be. That’s the way it works, you pass on, that’s how we’ve always worked. So, I think the obsession with the past and with secrets is really just to get the viewer to think about things outside of what it just looks like in the present moment. A lot of decisions got us here.

This season, Armstrong Parker—the dorm that was specifically for some time, for people of color only—has now been integrated, and so you’ve got this culture clash happening. At what point do we stop trying to talk to people about these things and just wrestle it away instead? Wrestle away the power.

For me, this is my little way of doing it. There’s a conversation between Sam and Joel where Sam is like, “Why am I doing this? I’m not convincing anybody of anything.” And Joel is like, “Well, you’re doing it for us, so that we can be restored, and we can be refreshed, and we can fight another day.” And we need these messages just as much as anybody else does.

I’m not a policymaker, I’m not a politician. I would consider myself a kind of activist, but first and foremost, I’m a storyteller. And I think the job of storytellers is always to try and reflect back where we are as human beings in an honest and novel way, because it makes little things go off in your head that never would have gone off before.

And yeah, maybe this show is only reaching people who are already inclined to be reached by the messages, but that’s important too, that’s not for nothing. You know what I mean? We all need to be armed with this information so that we can enter the world and feel more human. At the end of the day, yes, we have to fight injustice, but also, we are human—this is going to go on for a while.

Let’s take a breath, we’re not going to stop racism in our lifetimes, but we can, in the process, not lose ourselves in that conflict. And I think that if I’m doing my job right, maybe I’ll awaken some people that never thought of it that way before, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because just telling the truth in my own little weird way through this show, there is something about that that’s important, you know? I needed to see Moonlight.

I already know about the gay experience. I’m already on board, OK? I know how oppression works, I know about being on the down-low, but I needed to see those two little boys on the beach, I needed to see that. I didn’t even know I needed to see that. I needed to see the constant paranoia of being the only black person at large in a horror movie in Get Out.

I know all this stuff already, but I left those experiences feeling more human, feeling seen, feeling more powerful, feeling like this thing that I’ve always thought about is real, and other people get it too. To me, if I’m doing that, I’m doing my job. If I wanted to change policy, I’d be in politics. If I wanted to write essays, I would spend my time doing that, but I’m a storyteller and this is the best way I can contribute to the culture, I think.