Why did I name it “Dear White People?”

Justin Simien
Feb 11, 2017 · 21 min read
Myself and the cast of Dear White People at Sundance 2014

“I have a problem with your title, like…why do you feel the need to tell black stories for white audiences and not for your own community?” A young black man in the front row wanted to know, his arms folded, as if he’d come to ask that question and promptly leave before my film had even started. He was flanked by a woman whose sour face suggested she wanted to know as well.

About an hour earlier, en route to this interrogation I spent the car ride over scrolling through twitter, pausing momentarily at mentions from users I’d never met and whose faces were absent from their avatars. Being called a nigger and a race baiter by strangers on twitter was still infrequent at this point, but frankly it’s the kind of thing where once is more than enough. “You DO realize your last name means MONKEY right??”

Still stung. Even after the half a dozen times I’d read similar tweets and variations thereof.

“Jesus I’m getting it from all sides today,” I thought as I stumbled to explain to the young man, his arms refusing to unfurl, that the film’s title derived from a controversial radio show at the center of the conflicting points of views in the film. He responded with a shrug and a whisper into the ear of his companion, her eyes already in the back of her head. I pretended I hadn’t noticed as another hand flew up and a thought began to flicker itself into a nice groove in my brain.

”Should I really have called the movie ‘Dear White People?’” the thought went. This is 2014, about a month before my debut film would be released in theaters.

Banner for the Dear White People Movie

As the screening started, I headed out the back to make it to my next “word of mouth.” This time for a q&a to take place after a screening across town. A text from a conservative friend of mine encouraging me to “stay strong” had already hit my phone.

When my conservative buddies show concern, I know something is especially awry. Must’ve seen the tweets.

The questions at my next stop were less contentious as the audience had actually just seen the film. I smiled over that prickly feeling most people get when being complimented as audience members thanked me for portraying characters and stories they’d not seen before. I answered questions about the meager budget and the challenging shooting schedule. A white woman raised her hand to offer more praise. “I’ll admit, I didn’t know what this was going to be going in. I really thought I wouldn’t like it, but it really surprised me. Lovely job.”

Again I smiled. This time to cover up a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, the aforementioned thought flicker already growing roots into my nervous system.

Self doubt is a constant companion for a chubby, gay, black boy born in the south. Daring to make films of any kind and thus invite the possibility of ridicule was an internal battle of mine for many years as I worked on the screenplay for what would become Dear White People, beginning at the end of George W. Bush’s second term.

After the q&a the same woman, I could now see she was in her mid fifties, approached me to say how much she saw herself in the character of Coco. I admittedly had already shifted to auto-pilot, now totally obsessing about hypothetical audience members whose assumptions about the film would keep them from the theaters because of the title.

I hadn’t yet realized that pouring over youtube comments and measuring the dislike to like ratios on our trailers was killing me from the inside out. Just as I hadn’t yet realized the constant struggle to leave my bed in the mornings was a symptom of chronic low grade depression and anxiety. I’d assumed that little personality quirk would dissolve as I “walked in my dream” of becoming a filmmaker. Though I’d later come to learn that these symptoms persist through both good times and bad, at the time fretting over having a solid opening weekend felt vital and productive.

Every comment from someone who hadn’t bothered to look at the materials or read the reviews in lieu of calling me a racist based on the film’s title was like a tiny knife stab in the heart. I’m certain I had already begun annoying one of the Roadside Attraction execs handling the social media about how to communicate what the film was more clearly to people on the fence about the title. Even re-reading the now hilariously off the mark reviews of Do The Right Thing from 1989, which infamously (and incorrectly) claimed the film would cause black people to riot, had stopped encouraging me to push through the noise.

Had I made a terrible mis-calculation? Had I doomed my film and career to obscurity because I dared to put the words “white” and “people” next to one another in my title?

“Dear White America, congratulations, you’ve ruined the ‘Single Ladies’’ dance.”

I chuckled at the IM from a close friend, a white friend, as we attempted to stave off boredom at our respective day jobs. It was 2009, and youtube was flooded with girl scout troops, sororities, inmates, you name it doing their version of Beyonce’s iconic video and thus sapping it of its cool. Sending “Dear White America-isms” back and forth had become a snarky but satisfying past time initiated by my friend. During such an exchange it dawned on me that “Dear White America” would make a great name for the radio show hosted by firebrand Samantha White, a divisive fictional character in a screenplay I’d been writing called 2%

2%, which referred to the percentage of black students amongst the general population of a fictional Ivy League at the heart of my screenplay, was always a working title. The script was a multi-protagonist “Altman-esque” attempt to comment on race from differing points of views within a small black community embedded in an overwhelmingly white one. It was a way for me to express the everyday conundrums and challenges of being a “black face” in a “mostly white space.” A way to comment on the “black experience” as I knew it to be, but rarely saw reflected in the culture.

I waffled on whether or not to include a sequence where white students threw a “Nigga Night,” to dress up in black-face, drink forties and blast Ja-Rule. I wondered if I was taking the satire too far. Months after I’d decided to cut the scene I came across an article about just such an occurrence at UC San Diego. The scene was reintroduced and provided a fitting climax that I could now model after real world events as they unfolded. But the title had to go. “Number titles” never worked, I’d been told, assisting in the publicity department at Focus Features. 2% was too nondescript. This film needed something…louder.

College students enjoying a “Compton Cookout”

I’d seen fantastic black filmmakers make fantastic films about the black experience take their work all the way to Sundance only to have it fall into cultural obscurity afterwards. There were exceptions of course, but nuanced, complicated depictions of black people were not terribly en vogue in 2009. I knew that whatever I called it, I had to break through the clutter. Like my hero Stanley Kubrick, I sought to not simply tell bold stories, but to ensure that eyes were laid upon those stories, even if that took some provocation.

I idolized Kubrick for having the perseverance to make unflinching masterwork after masterwork despite audiences and critics not quite being ready for them. A Clockwork Orange had survived vicious headlines accusing it of stoking violence to become a classic. 2001 A Space Odyssey had defied utter befuddlement by critics to become regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. (It happens to be my favorite film ever.)

Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell filming A Clockwork Orange

A picture of Kubrick, along with Spike Lee, Bob Fosse, Michael Jackson and of course Oprah Winfrey watched over me from a vision board above the computer where I wrote in my tiny Korea-town studio apartment. They reminded me of what I wanted my work to achieve.

As I began fleshing out Sam’s voice as well as the mechanics of her controversial radio show, now the catalyst for all the drama in a more recent draft of 2%, I thought to start an anonymous twitter account in order to test out quips as well as study reactions to something called “Dear White America” and incorporate them into the script. After searching and realizing Dear White America was already a thing (a brilliant book by white essayist Tim Wise hoping to speak to white anxiety in the age of Obama) I landed on Dear White People, which conveniently fit without abbreviation as a twitter handle.

The Dear White People account was met positively by the dozens who noticed it. I prided myself on avoiding low hanging fruit and strove to provide dual commentaries as often as possible. That was not exactly the model other, more viral, joke accounts followed but it was something I felt was true to Sam’s style of expression.

Early Dear White People tweet

Things picked up when a tweet thanking white people for Mayer Hawthorne and inquring if we could swap him out for professional reality villain Omarosa, got lots of likes and a comment from the singer himself, upping the follower count. There were some tweets that miffed people, to be sure. But even those gave me real world perspectives to put into the mouths of my characters.

Coco side-eyes nemesis Sam White in Dear White People film

The line “Dear White People is nothing more than blacker than thou propaganda” which the character Coco would retort to Sam in the final draft, came from such a reply, along with other lines and plot shifts. “What if there was a Dear Black People?” is asked (and answered) by a character within the script’s first five pages.

By 2011, I’d seen Stuff White People Like and Shit White Girls Say go through tremendously popular viral cycles online, unscathed by the controversy they stirred up. In fact any controversy only seemed to re-enforce their popularity. It occurred to me that by naming the film itself Dear White People I could tap into the burgeoning meme culture as well as make a meta-commentary about the controversies within the film.

As a title it felt right for other reasons too. It was a clutter buster, the kind of thing that made you sit up and go “What is THIS going to be?” Perhaps naively I assumed that most people would move quickly past their knee jerk reaction, whatever that may be, take a look at my little art film about the lives of black students, and either be surprised or validated by seeing themselves in characters mostly absent from popular culture. It also worked for me as a title, because the radio show of the same name (providing a subtle double meaning as Samantha’s last name is ‘White’) within the film also draws both ire and praise from the black community at my fictional Ivy League. Whether or not such a show was racist was a central question the characters grappled with.

In addition to that rationale, before one had even seen the film, the title immediately invited a discussion about what racism even is. If I hurt your feelings by making a joke about white people, does that count as racism because I’m black, or because it offended you? Is a white person mocking black people the same thing? Furthermore, is racism synonymous with prejudice? Or, as Beverly Tatum asserts in her groundbreaking book Why Do The Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria is racism something else altogether?

“Prejudice plus [the] power” to enforce that prejudice upon others through a system of disadvantage, Tatum asserts, is what defines racism as separate from bigotry, prejudice or plain insults based on race. It was a point of view Sam White, I thought would certainly have.

A show called Dear White People forced the characters in the film (as well as audiences) to ponder these questions alongside an uncomfortable feeling that their very identities may essentially be mere responses to mainstream white culture’s preconceptions of them. What a mind-fuck being black could be in what was still being called “Post-Racial America.” The title felt appropriate on virtually every criteria I could come up with.

Finally the title worked the way some of my favorites did. Titles like A Clockwork Orange or Naked Lunch or There Will Be Blood were flashing beacons among more typically titled films. Audiences and critics didn’t seem to mind the title mis-leads. Their attention had been captured and then focused upon novel subjects often under-explored.

“This kind of thing worked for other film auteurs, why shouldn’t it work for me?” I thought.

Sure enough the self funded concept trailer I created to raise money for the film went viral, thanks in part to it’s title, and set me on a path to finance and create my ambitious attempt at a debut feature. The outrage and claims of “reverse racism” the video inevitably received hardly outweighed the excitement it generated, and in fact it shined a light on the need for such a movie in the minds of fans.

The cast of the original Dear White People concept trailer

This was 2012. Four years before the end of President Obama’s second term.

One of the first comments the concept trailer received was “What are you complaining about? This isn’t the sixties, it’s 2012. Do we really need a movie like this?”

“David Duke tweet” was the subject of an email I’d received from a friend and fellow filmmaker. “Use it” the email said along with a link to an ominous tweet from the former KKK Grand Wizard claiming that “he knows…” The tweet link took me to a world of youtube videos where white people were warning each other of an impending race war I had apparently called for. (Imagine my surprise!)

It had been less than forty-eight hours since Netflix released not a teaser, not a trailer, but a thirty second date announcement for Dear White People, now a series I’d adapted for the network from my then three year old film. How it went over depended upon where you watched it.

The piece was picked up on every online outlet that reports entertainment news with headlines like “The Dear White People teaser has dropped and it’s EVERYTHING” and “Netflix has dropped the Dear White People teaser and twitter is losing it!” It began trending on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube receiving celebratory gifs, praise and anticipation. My phone was filling with well wishing as the video racked up half a million views embedded in hundreds of articles, blog posts, and social network feeds. The comment section of the video within the YouTube ecosystem, however, was inundated with criticism.

No, criticism isn’t the right word.

“Dear black people, even though you make up 13% of the population can you please stop committing over 50% of the murders nationwide?”

That was one of the less aggressive ones.

Among the now perfunctory “what if there was a dear black people” comments, were accusations that I, and by association Netflix, were promoting a call for “white genocide.” Complaints that racism isn’t real, sat beside comments calling me a nigger. Assertions that all black people do is whine and destroy property were wedged between threats that the alt right would burn this country to the ground if we kept promoting “white hate.”

The hypocrisy of being called both a nigger as well the sole cause of the racism I was complaining about, was a sort of recurring theme. I wasn’t sure if the bi-polar nature of the hate speech was intentional or not, (a kind of mind trick perhaps?) but I knew enough to know that it was nothing new.

“The Nigger” (I’m going to be using the word in its historical context quite a bit here) is a social invention just as “Whiteness” is. They are both products of an anxiety that gripped 19th century Americans as the realization of the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery unless you were labled a criminal) become manifest. The requirements for citizenship, i.e. the right to vote, shifted from wealth to race as Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants sought to be absorbed into the now American ideal of “White.”

This invention proved particularly useful in keeping power out of the hands of newly freed slaves. In order for American industries to continue to grow, cheap labor was still needed after all. The concept of the “Nigger,” a kind of sub-human category for Africans living in America, succeeded in downgrading an entire group of people so that they might continue to be exploited for financial gain.

Scholars of the black American experience such as James Baldwin asserted that a kind of unexpressed guilt White people naturally felt over this often violent and ugly subjugation of their neighbors evolved into projections, fantasies and open hostility towards blacks. This hostility was then passed on pathologically through the generations.

Even the “Black Revenge Fantasy,” itself a fantasy of white extermination at the hands of blood thirsty blacks, was crafted and spread among white people as an extension of this unexpressed guilt. Modern Cinema itself became a legitimate form of mass entertainment only after the success of one such “Black Revenge Fantasy” crafted by a white man and released initially in “whites-only” theaters.

As long as black people remained “Niggers” in the minds of enough white people, so the theory goes, white people could continue to avoid having to face any guilt over treating who would otherwise be fellow countrymen, as if they were livestock. As long as there were “niggers,” to pad the bottom of the social order, the fear of slipping back out of the newly minted “white class” in America could be avoided. More importantly to the new white class the fantasy of a “just and free democracy for all” could continue unquestioned.

“We’re going to be releasing trailers for a lot of our big returning shows this weekend, so the plan for Dear White People is to just do a little save the date for now,” it had been explained to me.

In the date announcement for Dear White People, Sam White takes to her radio show to denounce the use of blackface, by now a widely reported on phenomena at college campuses. The piece was polished, short and sweet. I was thrilled but admittedly had low expectations. A version of this particular scene had been in every Dear White People trailer, from my rag-tag concept piece to the trailers and clips from the actual feature. Not the kind of thing that sets the world on fire, but, we had plenty of time to release proper trailers and clips closer to release.

Naturally, in response to the innocous clip (and perhaps to it’s popularity, who knows) a campaign was quickly mounted to garner as many “dislikes” as possible among organizers, as more casual viewers trickled into the comments to their horror. Vitriol echoing from users, most of whom used anime characters and “Pepe The Frog” memes instead of their faces in their profiles, could be disconcerting to the unitiated. Currently the clip has recieved over 300k dislikes compared to 34k likes, despite trending in Youtube’s top 10 for days. This kind of negatively weighted ratio is a classic and frankly transparent tell that automated tools for harassment, perfected during the latest election cycle, were at play.

The technique is called “brigading.” It employs the use of what are called “sock puppets” or networks of fake accounts to create the false impression of widespread outrage in order to build a narrative in the news cycle.

A so far yet to materialize “boycott” of Netflix was being called for within alt-right communities. My twitter feed was inundated with comments from both sides. Elation that I’d really pissed “these white people off”, general excitement from folks who’d seen the film or wanted to, along with minute by minute updates from trolls asking how I felt about the growing tally of dislikes on the youtube page. Another routine and transparent tell that bot accounts were being used to multiply the sentiments of a scant few.

One of the writers on my staff, who happens to be white, upon tweeting about his excitement for being associated with the show was slammed with hateful comments, death threats and anti-semetic jokes (he’s not jewish). A sarcastic tweet from election day that simply stated “Fuck white people” as a response to the upset win by Donald Trump, due in part to white working class voters crossing party lines, was dug up from last November and touted as proof that the show was designed to “perpetrate a war against whites.”

Netflix executives started emailing, wanting to make sure I was okay and making sure I knew how much they believed in the show and had my back. Friends and family started to text and encourage me to “ignore the haters.” Netflix' CEO reached out to express his pride in being in business with me.

And though the condolences were encouraging, for me it had already been three years since I’d first begun to recieve this kind of attention, sinking in my own skin at every glimmer of dissatisfaction. This day I felt completely differently.

Perhaps an emotional callous had grown? Perhaps my Buddhist practice had helped to steel me? Certainly a willingness to confront a tendancy towards Depression had helped me to heal. Either way I felt no panic, no fear and…well nothing really as the agita began to multiply throughout a dizzying array of automated accounts.

I found myself actually enjoying the engagement for awhile. Using what wit I had left in the midst of a long press day promoting the series to mock and point out logic flaws via twitter among the few accounts that seemed to reflect an actual person. All the while, their vitriol encouraged news outlets to write even more pieces about our “little save the date,” mocking the alt-rage and driving the view count of the clip into the multi-millions.

But this newly formed teflon in my soul was made of something else too. Like many card carrying progressives in the aftermath of the latest election, I’d made a point to try and understand the people that secured Trump’s victory (even knowing that favor would likely never be returned) and came to understand, as James Baldwin had decades earlier, that:

“One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

I knew that the human mind is not as biologically inclined to be rational as it is to survive. That even when faced with clear evidence to the contrary, if a person’s belief system (say that black people are evil race baiting crybaby animals) is rooted in their identity, any challenge to their opinion feels like a threat to their very lives. An ancient and impenetrable aggression takes over that can not be reasoned with, only shut out or ignored.

These people feel they’ve been looked over, counted out and ridiculed by mainstream society. That’s a pain I understand deeply. It has been with me my whole life. It’s that very pain that my series speaks to.

For the those calling for a Netflix boycott because of the title of a date announcement for a show they’ve yet to see, the gall I have to address “White People” at all feels like an attack. It’s not just that the suggestion of being lumped into a monolithic group is a new experience for some people, it’s the audacity of a black sissy daring to look them in the eye and say “I see you. From the fear in your belly to your rusted armor of anger, I see you. Because despite many institutional efforts to dissuade me I have found a way to see me, and thus see fit to place myself in a culture that had not previously made room for me to do so.”

Perhaps that is why so few human eyes can be seen among their profile pictures?

It doesn’t matter that according to studies and statistical research there is no systemic racial oppression of white people in this country. To be clear many people in our middle and working class of all races are struggling. But for our white countrymen that struggle is not due to their skin color, it’s in spite of it. Facts that affirm this are not helpful to the worldview or sense of self of this subset of white people, so it is ignored.

They have been made to feel that they are oppressed, perhaps by politicians and corporate entities hoping to enrich themselves, but to them that oppression feels real. It doesn’t matter that hurt feeling aren’t actually the same thing as oppression. It doesn’t matter that jokes about white people don’t reinforce systemic disadvantage for them.

A group of white people have been influenced to root their very existence in the idea that it is they who are the oppressed minority and thus are able to willfully ignore context, self hypocrisy and basic facts in order to wage the very kind of hateful, divisive attacks they accuse their “enemies” of. This is not new.

Clicking through to inspect the account of someone insisting I should be ashamed of myself for “causing racism” I found a pinned tweet defending “freedom of speech” atop her timeline. I laughed out loud. The irony was so lost on this person I feared it would never be found. Like the city of Atlantis. Or jobs in the coal industry.

“So… ‘Dear White People’ huh?” a pretty white television interviewer began, “now, why did you decide to name it that?” The stars of my series looked to me to begin. By now I had explained the title in dozens of ways to thousands of reporters and fans, but even as an answer flowed from the smile on my face, I noticed a familiar thought flicker up into my consciousness. “Should I really have named it ‘Dear White People?’” the old thought went.

I held onto that thought in earnest for a few hours as the press coverage, view count, emails of encouragement, dislikes, Netflix stock and vitriol continued to rise. One of the publicists from Netflix cheerfully escorting me and the cast from press room to press room at our recent junket took me aside to ask if I’d be willing to do any talk shows. I said of course, noting that I’d had fun doing the “Colbert Report.”

“Oh that’s right! And they do that segment ‘Hey, White People’ on his new talk show now. That would be perfect.”

The elevator’s door closed as it zipped me up to my room.

“Wait,” I thought. “That is right.”

Stephen Colbert does have a recurring segment on his show called “Hey White People,” where celebrities far more famous than I routinely mock white stereotypes in front of millions of viewers for comic effect without either controversy or calls for boycotts.

And what about Stuff White People like? That blog, specifically designed to satirize white culture, was turned into a book that became a New York Times bestseller, while “Shit White Girls Say” spun off through countless videos, parodies, memes and twitter accounts into a genuine social media phenomenon.

Hell, Django Unchained, made gobs of money and earned Quentin Tarantino both an Oscar and an NAACP Image Award among many other accolades for a story that is a literal “black revenge fantasy.” (The most recent description attributed to my series by David Duke sycophants on youtube) featuring a black man murdering white people for both comic and dramatic effect. Where was Quentin’s protest? (To be honest I likely would’ve been one of the first to arrive).

By now I was pacing beside myself in my hotel suite over how easily I had allowed an army of dozens flanked by bots echoing their jeers and jabs to drive me to question a title that I had chosen after so much internal debate and thought.

Even with all the painstaking care I had taken with my film and now series to craft a nuanced and fair narrative so that no view point went unchecked and no audience member felt unduly mocked.

My film never cracked the top 10. My series had a very modest budget and episode order. I have less than 20k followers on twitter. And yet it was me who was being made the subject of all this rage? While other people had been built entire brands upon the actual and straight forward mocking of white people.

“How could this be?” You might ask, unless you’ve already deduced the answer.

I am opinionated, well read, articulate, creative, successful and subversive just like the creators of all the projects mentioned above. But unlike the people behind those projects, I have the audacity to be all those things as well as black.

But that’s how oppression works isn’t it? If you do it right, it lives on in the minds of the oppressed long after the abuse is over. Often oppressed people unwittingly pass this oppressed thinking to their children, the original trauma now having faded entirely from consciousness.

Well, when I’d finally plopped down on my hotel bed to respond to all the notices and chimes on my phone, I spotted a couple of trolls in my twitter mentions, this time accusing me both of inciting a civil war and promising to punch me in the face if they saw me.

I decided to facetime my boyfriend and our two cats. Afterwards I hearted some kind words and closed my phone for the night, leaving this new batch of faceless trolls to continue to scream into their increasingly shrinking echo chambers.

Even though I have the wherewithal to recognize their hatred as just a knee jerk attempt to avoid experiencing the deep pain of feeling powerless, I’ll be damned if I allow for someone else’s pain to become my prison.

No. That particular American tradition had been endured by enough generations.

Allowing these individuals to choke on their own hate, wondering why I won’t “debate” them felt far more satisfying than crafting a 140 character response.

Whether it began with “Dear….” or otherwise.

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