By Sukhmani Khorana
When Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently declared that Indigenous people living in remote communities were making a ‘lifestyle choice’, he was rightly rebuked by both sides of politics for undermining Aboriginal sovereignty and spiritual connection to land. What was seldom brought up, however, was how his curious phrasing assumed that there is a norm that the ‘choice’ was deviating from. This led me to wonder about a hypothetical scenario where all of the nation’s Indigenous citizens walked the white-laced path – mortgaging an over-priced suburban house, working a 9 to 5 job in the big smoke, commuting to workplaces and shopping centres. Would that help us ‘bridge the gap’? Would that also be the end of race-based prejudice? Chances are they could still encounter casual racism and institutional stasis.
Justin Simien’s film Dear White People constructs just such a middle class utopia of American higher education in the shape of a fictional Ivy League school called Winchester University. However, as he begins to scratch the surface, the gold sheen that is equal opportunity in a post-racial society turns out to be cheap tin foil.
Only last week, I was trying to explain the post-race notion in the US context to my undergraduate media studies class by suggesting that having a Black President did not mean that racism was a thing of the past. ‘Look at what is happening in Baltimore’, I added. In the tutorial later that afternoon, one of my students pointed out that the Police Commissioner of Baltimore (Anthony Batt) is himself a Black man, and so it wasn’t entirely a race issue.
I am not sure what motivates the aforementioned top cop, but he is probably not unlike the Dean of Students at Winchester where everyone appears to be roughly the same class, but racial problems persist. The Dean is African-American, and in a poignant scene, tells his aspiring lawyer son Troy that despite having better grades than the white President of the university, he couldn’t rise any higher. Troy in turn is a closeted smoker and comedy writer, but is trying his hardest to not just be a model son, but also to not be the stereotype that the mainstream expects of him. In doing so, he becomes the archetypal ‘honorary white’, even as he later stands for the position of Captain of the on-campus Black house.
If the above doesn’t stir the contents of the audience’s racial boxes enough, writer-director Simien introduces Sam White, a mixed race film production major who runs her own witty radio show (named after the film), and has self-published a book titled, Ebony and Ivy. Sam is painted sympathetically with a range of shades of grey, and is arguably the central character of this narrative of some things changing for individuals, but other things remaining steadfastly the same at the institutional levels. Her slightly self-righteous political platform collapses by the end of the film as she realises that her identity is that of the documentary-making anarchist rather than the vote-rigging politician.
Akin to Troy, and opposed to Sam, is the character of Coco, who rants against Dear White People on her web videos, and volunteers to be the emcee at a Blackface party so as to get a reality TV gig. Her straight black hair is replaced by a blonde wig at the above party, until she realises that she is humiliated by the goings-on and dramatically takes it off before Sam’s rolling video camera.
The most complex character by far is the gay, Afro-sporting Lionel, who sits around following dining room conversations and not taking sides. This is because he has been given the opportunity to do a profile piece on Black culture for the prestigious university magazine, Pastiche. However, he is one of the first Black characters (aside from Coco) to find out about the Blackface party being organised by Kurt (Sam’s political rival, and the son of the university’s President). It is this party that brings his inner rebel to the fore as he goes back to Armstrong/Parker House to rouse others to action. In another memorable scene, he asks Sam’s compatriots if there are enough of them to make a ruckus at the party, and gets a reply from a fellow student that they will shortly be joined by the resident Latinos and Asian-Americans. While characters of other marginalised ethnic groups are not central to the narrative, it is a great moment of political solidarity in the film, and perhaps a subject for a future fictional campus story.
An element of the narrative that irked me, and jolted me back to the Australian political reality of Abbott’s ‘lifestyle choice’ comment was the race-based separation of on-campus housing. It appears that while the President of the university is attempting to integrate all houses, most Black students are resistant to this move as they want to retain something akin to a ‘safe space’. At the same time, characters like Lionel belong nowhere despite being visibly African-American, and Sam decides to get an off-campus apartment towards the end of the film to ‘get away from it all’. The film doesn’t provide an easy solution to the matter, and in fact encourages anti-racism activists of all hues to question their own motives and practices. I guess one group’s safe space is likely to be another’s lifestyle choice for as long as the latter largely determines the law of the land.
* Dear White People is now out on DVD in Australia. I am grateful to the Colourfest Film Festival for the opportunity to see the film on the big screen at a special event in Sydney in February this year.