Dear White People showrunner Justin Simien noted that “racists are a lot more emboldened to speak out” in today’s society, which makes the show both necessary and relevant. Furthermore, in the same breath that someone would say “we don’t need the show” because “racism is over,” they would call Simien the “n” word. The main theme Dear White People puts forth is the struggle that Black students have matriculating through an Ivy League PWI (predominantly white institution), or “being a Black Face in a White place.” Dear White People (the movie and series) subliminally highlight the importance of HBCUs (Historically Black College or Universities).
For current or future HBCU alumni, a question that likely arises while seeing the racial tensions on the show is something to the extent of: “Why didn’t those students choose an HBCU?” One of the reasons someone might say this is because the students on Dear White People have to face cultural insensitivity. The event that exposes students to the reality that America is far from “Post-racial” is a Black face party hosted by a University magazine, Pastiche. When administration catches wind of the party, Pastiche thinks to shut it down, but the invite still goes out and that party happens as originally planned. Sadly, black face is not something that Dear White People is just exaggerating.
The show tells us the thing we already knew, but some were reluctant to accept it. Another issue the show brings about is police brutality. Reggie gets a gun pulled on him at a party and the idea that Blacks are being brutalized and demonized is amplified by this moment. These things considered, a PWI just does not seem to be the move.
Still, some cite the opportunities that PWIs offer as main reasons for attending, especially the Ivy Leagues. Yet, HBCUs churn out “70 percent of all black dentists and doctors, 50 percent of black engineers and public school teachers, and 35 percent of black lawyers,” according to the UNCF. This said, HBCUs foster Black excellence, so why go to a PWI if one is African American?
For one, HBCUs are severely underfunded and underappreciated. These effects may stem from a society ingraining in us that things that were designed for the betterment of Black people must be inferior. At one point in the show, Colandrea Conners, who goes by Coco, is asked why she wants to attend Winchester instead of one of the “Black Ivy league schools down south.” Coco never gives a response, but judging by her actions in the series, you can infer that she did not feel that an HBCU could get her where she needed to go.
In a broader context, we can look at our 44th President, Barack Obama, as a parallel for Coco. He made African American history through his achievements, but he attended three PWIs. This begs the question: would Barack Obama have made it so far if he had Howard or Hampton on his resume? There is no way to know how things would have played out if our former President was an HBCU alum, but it is certainly something to think about. Really, why are HBCUs treated as if they “hinder” African Americans?
I mean, we get it. Ivy Leagues founded by white people have been around for centuries and have a long reputation of excellence. That’s cool; that’s fine. I do not seek to discredit any of their achievements, nor do I seek to discredit Obama for breaking barriers, but I seek to understand why PWIs are treated as if they are the only institutions of higher learning that procreate excellence.
Some Black students may think Dear White People is a motivation to work harder at PWIs, but working harder to exceed the standards set at PWIs is a double-edged sword for African Americans. On the one hand, you are excelling at their game, but on the other, you are excelling at their game. Spot the difference? Because PWIs were founded by white people, Blackness will never “fit” their schema.
Even on the show, the students talk about forced integration. In the chapter 2, journalist Lionel discovers that the University’s biggest donors are upset by the racial tensions on the campus and seek to integrate the residence halls to stop “self segregation.” HBCUs can be seen as a form of self-segregation, but they can too be seen as a form of representation. Ideally, HBCUs will have faculty, staff, students, and guests, who are in support of Black empowerment or, at the very least, possess an understanding of why HBCUs were founded.
Dear White People’s episode about “self-segregation” reminded us why we have HBCUs and why, in some cases, segregation is not about inequality but about surrounding oneself with like-minded people and/or those who have a cultural competency. Education secretary Betsy DeVos spoke at Bethune Cookman’s 2017 Spring Commencement – only to be silenced by “boo’s” from the crowd. Graduates turned their backs to express their dissent for the woman who thinks that HBCU founders were the “pioneers of school choice”.
That said, this is only one take on the show. By attending an HBCU, a student is immersed in a vast, vast amount of excellence across cultures but especially Black excellence. Through an HBCU, a student can be one step closer to dismantling this idea that Black people have to excel in white spaces instead of creating our own spaces. Dear White People suggests that even an Ivy League PWI cannot insulate one from racism, but HBCUs don’t necessarily insulate one from reality, either.
When Bethune Cookman’s graduates protested DeVos’ speech, their President threatened to mail their degrees if they didn’t settle down, but why should they have to settle down? That’s my question for the masses. Why should Black people settle down and chase white standards of academic excellence at rather than forging our own standards and creating our own spaces? These are questions stirred in an HBCU student watching Dear White People.