There’s a Viner named Jus Reign who makes videos in which he fakes an obnoxiously bro-y American accent and asks the kind of accidentally offensive questions a clueless white person might ask. Jus Reign responds to the questions wearily, throwing a pointed, Jim Halpert-esque look at the camera. It’s simple and gets straight to the point: Uneducated questions designed to somehow separate you from the person whom you’re asking on the basis of skin color or cultural practice are annoying, tiring, and, worst of all, racist. The comments in response to these videos are, for the most part, standard. They include people laughing, people tagging their friends, and, most damagingly, people claiming the vine videos are racist or ignorant. “If I wrote ‘black people questions,’” one commenter says, “I’d get so much hate.”
Like Jus Reign, Dear White People addresses issues that are minor or even inane in comparison to the institutional racism that some face every day. The distance, for instance, between touching a black woman’s hair without her permission and shooting an unarmed black man after making a rash judgment call based on the color of his skin, seems vast.
But it isn’t: The same racism that allows for an individual to touch a black woman’s hair, the sense of thoughtless ownership expressed by that gesture, also informs the system that allows for the murder of an unarmed black teenager. The goal of Dear White People is to attack those aspects of our culture that allow for the normalization of microaggressions that build upon each other until they become macroaggressions.
But the film has faced outcry because—like Jus Reign—it doesn’t particularly care about not hurting white people’s feelings. It’s two hours of weary question answering, an entire film that is made up of the vocalization of a Halpert-esque look at the camera. Many have called the film racist, claiming that if it isn’t racist, there should be a “Dear Black People” equivalent—as if “Dear black people: You’re ugly” or “Dear black people: Your lives are worthless” aren’t precisely what is expressed every time a New York Times reviewer says that Viola Davis is “less classically beautiful” than someone lighter skinned or every time someone shoots first and asks questions later. I’m not going to explain why “reverse racism” isn’t a thing—you can Google that—but the fact of its nonexistence should be enough to tell you why “Dear Black People” shouldn’t be a thing, either.
There isn’t much media out there like Dear White People, especially not media specifically aimed at educating white people. A lot of antiracist movies are apologetic, with at least one good white guy that the white people who are not deliberately racist watching the movie can relate to. We get movies about Abraham Lincoln, not Frederick Douglass. Even the heartrending and critically lauded 12 Years a Slave features someone akin to a white savior in the form of Brad Pitt. Otherwise, we get movies and TV shows where race isn’t addressed at all, even in places where it is constantly on everyone’s mind, like in that whitewashed first season of Girls or in pretty much every season of How I Met Your Mother.
That’s why we need movies like Dear White People. They demonstrate that the really dangerous form of racism comes from people who aren’t doing it on purpose. Systematic racism takes hold not purely because people who are deliberately racist write it into existence. Rather, it seeps into culture and society via those individuals who are thoughtlessly racist. This is especially true now, when so many people seem to believe that we live in a somehow post-racial America, where the mass incarceration of black people is “their fault” and not the fault of a fundamentally flawed system. Dear White People reminds us that this isn’t the case—that you don’t have to wear a pointy white hood to contribute to a racist system, that you can have black friends and still be oppressing black people (as, of course, you are when you use them as a token of your non-racism).
We need to tackle racism on the microscale because that’s what allows for the perpetuation of a system that is fundamentally hostile to the other. That’s the sentiment that Dear White People conveys: In order to eliminate or at least lessen racism, we first must eliminate the microaggressive practices that inform our everyday lives. It isn’t about what is and isn’t politically correct. It’s about what is and isn’t actively harmful to other human beings. It shouldn’t matter if you have black friends, or gay friends, or Muslim friends—other people being humans should be enough for you to not want them to suffer under the oppression, both large-scale and small, of racism.