Dear All People: talking race in Obama’s America

Today, I’d like to talk to you about two accomplished and important pieces of culture: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013), and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People (2014). I happened to read the one shortly after going to see the other in the cinema, but this is misleading – both belong to a category of artworks frustratingly few and far between, even today: truthful and searching depictions of the supposedly ‘post-racial’ USA. Americanah charts the experience of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who comes to the States on a student visa and lives through poverty, degradation and depression before becoming a successful blogger on American race issues. Dear White People follows four very different African American students on a predominantly white Ivy League campus, reacting to a ‘blacked up’ Halloween party.  I highly recommend that you go and find a copy of each.

This post isn’t intended to be preachy; nor are these two works. If Americanah were a bad book, if Dear White People were a bad film, then featuring race as a theme, even a central one, would not excuse them. The last thing we need is bad portrayals of this subject. Adichie is one of my favourite authors – her prose is quietly powerful and emotionally resonant, whether she’s talking about what goes unsaid between parents and their grown children, or the horror of a civil war. She is a startlingly, sometimes uncomfortably, honest explorer of how we present and see ourselves in the everyday; a writer who can tackle the greatest questions of our time, but through such intimate character portraits that the pages turn themselves. Until 2013, she held a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a Genius Grant – I know I’m gushing, but how many authors, let alone female authors, let alone black female authors, are certified as geniuses by the US literary establishment at the age of 31?

As for Dear White People, Simien’s debut feature, it is a sharp and ruthless satire for today’s generation, in which every character, white or black, is presented as a complex, flawed and confused human and social being. This might sound like a basic requirement for any decent script, but it is extremely, painfully rare in cinematic discussions of race, especially in Hollywood. Let’s put it starkly: when was the last time you saw a DVD that had not one, not two, but five black people on its cover?

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Any examples springing to mind are likely to be celebrations of African Americans overcoming the racism they faced. 12 Years a Slave and Selma are important, artistically commendable pictures, but their high profile masks how deeply uncomfortable Hollywood feels about addressing today’s questions of race and racism. After rejection by the Hollywood studios, Dear White People was crowdfunded, and struggled to get UK distribution until it was picked up by The New Black Film Collective. Even Selma took six years to make it to our screens, and might never have done without the weight of Oprah behind it, as producer. If this is too anecdotal for you, have some statistics: in US filmmaking from 2007 to 2014, 73.1% of all speaking characters were white – the national white population being closer to 63%. As for lead roles, only 17 of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2014 featured an ethnic-minority star or co-star, even though 37 in 100 Americans are BAME. And here we’re just talking quantity – the quality of BAME characterisation in Hollywood is much worse.     

Poorly considered representations of diversity have also recently been challenged in British publishing, by the Writing the Future report. Authors including Malorie Blackman and Andrea Levy, and less successful authors who’ve faced even greater adversity, gave damning evidence about the narrow-mindedness of our presses. According to these testimonials, editors and agents often refuse to accept novels from BAME authors unless they depict ‘ethnic issues’ (so pure romantic sagas or sci-fi tales are out) – but they also want these depictions’ realism to be ‘softened’. The reason for this is simple: UK publishers assume that the market for these books is white. (Not borne out by the figures.) As a result, they make a further assumption: that books about other cultures must conform to white readers’ preconceptions. There must be both a solid “sari count”, and a safe limit to exoticism: “make sure one half of a love relationship [is] white”, an anonymous author was told.

Both Americanah and Dear White People explicitly address this problem. The most compelling character in Dear White People, angry black culture activist Sam (Tessa Thompson), is a media arts major, whose combative radio show gives the film its title. She frequently rails against typified black characterisation in contemporary cinema, and in the general white psyche: she pulls up films with racist undertones (“The Gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken and freak out when you get their hair wet”) and quips that, when counting your black friends, “your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count.” Americanah offers an equally angry artistic voice, in African American writer Shan. Her memoir relates that her mother “felt like she’d hit a [professional] ceiling…because she was black”; her editor asks her to dilute, to “nuance” this: “Did your mom have a bad rapport with someone at work, maybe? Or had she already been diagnosed with cancer?” When a friend suggests that Shan fictionalise her experience, she replies:

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. …So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.”

These words echo the Writing for the Future report; they clearly flow not truly from Shan’s mouth, but from Adichie’s. A quiet, knowing authority runs through every alienating experience in Americanah. Even without the parallels between Ifemelu’s life and Adichie’s, motifs common to Americanah and Dear White People speak to a certain level of universal young black experience in the US. Much of Americanah is narrated in flashback while Ifemelu has her hair braided. This framework cleverly, subtly pitches us straight into the black world: my trips to the hairdresser certainly don’t last long enough to generate a lifelong flashback, but Ifemelu must spend an unfathomable nine hours in the salon. Questions of hair also feature early in Dear White People; a seemingly passing one-liner of unintentional white ignorance (“Your hair is so cute btws…Is it weaved?”) ends up the source of a vlogged tirade from Coco (Teyonah Parris), a fame-seeker emulating Sam’s intriguing fury. Though a blue contact lens-wearer who states, excruciatingly, that she’s “not really into black dudes”, when she casts around for racial subject matter, she need look no further than this very recent interaction, with a supposedly close friend.   

Of course, it’d be wearing perusing a film or novel consisting solely of scenes whereby white people knowingly or unknowingly discriminate against, patronise or misunderstand black people. Though prejudice and ignorance feature throughout both works, their most fundamental message is simpler: race hasn’t disappeared under, since or through Obama. At surface level, that might not seem like a groundbreaking thesis – as some critics complained, viewing Dear White People. But the industry studies we’ve discussed, and many others, demonstrate that it’s simply not a fact being stated frequently or with any depth in US-set film or literature. One of my favourite quotes from Americanah is Shan’s definition of the Great American Novel: “dysfunctional white folk doing things that are weird to normal white folks.” I mean, who doesn’t see in that Franzen, Roth and Pynchon? Americanah and Dear White People are resolutely, often tenderly, about real life. More than simply exposing race relations and racism, they show how institutionalised race distinctions complicate young people’s search for identity.

Dear White People suggests that they must soon make a choice. The black university dean remarks that mixed-race Sam must have had trouble growing up, “wondering which side you’d fit into”. He suggests that she has over-compensated, presumably out of white privilege-related guilt. Because it’s a smart screenplay, the film does put what one character calls Sam’s “tragic mulatto bullshit” under the microscope – but equally, she responds to the dean, “I’m not the only one.” The dean himself (Dennis Haysbert) is moulding his Prom King-type son to be as uprightly white as possible, even pushing him to date the white university president’s daughter. Again, though, Dear White People is a complex film: this choice isn’t about black/white culture, it’s about where these kids stand, politically and personally. Awkward, homophobically bullied Lionel (Tyler James Williams) can “listen to Mumford and Sons and watch old Robert Altman movies”, but can also lead the multi-ethnic charge against despicably casual racism on campus. Sam can produce a beautifully understated film about this explosion of racial tensions, without it lessening her anger. As far as Dear White People has a moral, it’s that people can only belong where they belong – and that may or may not relate to the colour of their skin.

Americanah offers the same message. Mwombeki, the Tanzanian leader of the African Students Association on Ifemelu’s campus, advises new members:

“Try and make friends with our African American brothers and sisters… But make sure you remain friends with fellow Africans, as this will help you keep your perspective. Always attend [our] meetings, but if you must, you can also try the Black Student Union. Please note that in general, African Americans go to the Black Student Union and Africans go to the African Students Association.”

Here, students must choose between two different black cultures, African and American. The pressure that the dean describes to Sam, the pressure to belong either here or there, seems even more present in Americanah. Ifemelu is struck by Mwombeki’s description of an inherent divide, crossed only by the inauthentic (“those [Africans] with no confidence who are quick to tell you ‘I am originally from Kenya’” and those African Americans “who write poems about Mother Africa”). She leaves the meeting reflecting that whether her young cousin Dike, born in Nigeria but living in the States from a very young age, belongs to the BSU or ASA “would be chosen for him.” This inflexible categorisation, enforced as in Dear White People as much by black society as by the white establishment, proves too much for Ifemelu. Since only among Africans does she “not have to explain herself”, she concludes that she has no choice but to return to Nigeria, despite having more or less achieved the American Dream.

In Dear White People, the university president (Peter Syvertsen), promoted over his better qualified, black classmate Dean Fairbanks, tells him in deadly earnest, “Race is over in America. The only people still thinking about it are…Mexicans, probably.” Americanah fights powerfully, yet gracefully and calmly, against this all-too-common attitude. Both film and book demonstrate that white and black people still think a great deal about race in the Obama age, and it calls for urgent discussion. One of the novel’s central tenets is the idea that Ifemelu was not ‘black’ until she arrived in America – before then, she’d never existed in a society of race consciousness.

As a mixed-race individual, I can confirm that Ifemelu’s early obliviousness to race is no utopia: it is, it can be, a reality. When growing up in London, I was so colour-blind that I didn’t understand until it was explained explicitly to me that my white sister must be my half-sister. I know how contradictory people’s experiences of race can turn out to be (one character in Americanah claims that Brits “will make [an] effort at saying [a foreign name] properly”; another, many pages on, goes by Dee because the English can’t pronounce his “real name…Duerdinhito”). I went to school with people like Coco, who felt such shame or alienation that they changed their name and looks to escape their ‘ethnic-ness’. I certainly know people from my university who would throw the blacked-up costume party at the centre of Dear White People. I know that white people really do love touching black or mixed-race people’s hair, because I’m guilty of doing it – and now I think harder about it.

But just as importantly as all this, I know girls like Sam, girls like me, who’ve gone through personal epiphanies about their suppression of emotion – a staple of great coming-of-age stories, from Pitch Perfect to The Hunger Games. Both Dear White People and Americanah are hugely entertaining, and sometimes achingly truthful. They are for neither white people, nor black people – they are about all people, and for all people.

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1 Response to Dear All People: talking race in Obama’s America

  1. Pingback: Elbows and escapism: reading on the Tube |

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