The other day a friend of mine brought something to my attention. It was an article concerning the upcoming Netflix show Dear White People. The trailer came out a little while ago and for some reason it has White America in quite a tizzy. Some people, the ‘alt-right’ (Nazis) key among them, have said that the show promotes ‘white genocide’. I’m going to take this opportunity to address some of the issues that have arisen in the wake of the show’s announcement.
What is ‘Dear White People’?
Dear White People is a new Netflix produced show based around a film from 2014 by the same name, both created by Justin Simien. There is little information about the plot of the new show except that it will deal with ‘post racial America as students of color navigate a predominantly white Ivy league school’. In the movie, the main character Samantha White (a bi-racial film production major) attends fictional Winchester University and hosts a radio show called, you guessed it, Dear White People. Samantha uses her show to provide social commentary on white people in general and on racist transgressions of the school specifically. In response to White’s show a character named Kurt (son of the school’s president) organizes a themed party with his social club. The theme? Blackface. Black students appear at the party and a confrontation ensues over the overt racism of the Blackface party. There is a brawl. When asked about the message of his film Simien had this to say in an interview with Indiewire:
“My film isn’t about ‘white racism’ or racism at all. My film is about identity. It’s about the difference between how the mass culture responds to a person because of their race and who that person understands themselves to truly be. All explored through the microcosm of a success-oriented Ivy League college.”
What is Blackface?
When I decided to do this I didn’t think I’d have to lay out the history of blackface and why it’s racist, but that’s the life of a historian right? So blackface is defined as a type of theatrical makeup used by non-black performers to represent a black person.
Well that doesn’t sound so bad…
Hold on, I haven’t even started yet. Blackface gained popularity in the 19th century and is partially responsible for the spread of racial stereotypes. Blackface directly influenced the cementing of and the proliferation of racist ideas and images around the world. Blackface wasn’t used to display Black people and Black culture in a positive way. Characters in Blackface are displayed as being ridiculous. It was never intended to be an accurate depiction of Black people or Black culture. It was used as a caricature to mock Black culture. Historically, portrayal of Black people and culture in this way has been used to further oppress and demean Black people. You might not think that Blackface is a bad thing, you might think that it’s something that you should be allowed to do because ‘it’s art’ or you’re ‘just expressing yourself’. The objective reality of Blackface is that it was used to mock and demean Black people and culture and to further the idea that Black people are inherently inferior. When the only representation of Black people and culture in performance art is through white people in a Blackface caricature then the public will only ever see Black people and culture as something to laugh at. It was also used as a tool to keep Black people away from the acting stage. The characters were created by White people and played by White people with no input from actual Black people.
You can’t divorce Blackface from its historical context. You can’t ‘take it back’ partially because it was never a positive thing to begin with. The history of Black people and culture in America is one of oppression and marginalization. The legal system of this country did, and in many ways still does, view Black people as less than full citizens with equal rights. We are not living in a world where racism is a thing of the past. It’s still part of our lives. So when you decide that Blackface is fine because ‘I’m not racist’ or ’cause I want to’ you’re acting from a place of privilege and racism. Hopefully your racism is unintentional and merely a part of your privilege and you don’t actually view Black people and culture as the caricature you are attempting to portray. Concepts, ideas, and actions that have historically been used to oppress people cannot be removed from that context. To give an example out of my field of expertise: The swastika began its life as a Hindu symbol of luck and a symbol of the sun and the Creator. It is now associated so heavily with the Nazis that to use it, while attempting to represent Hinduism, would be misunderstood as Nazi sympathies. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens to people and it happens right now. The history of Black people in America is filled with violence and racism, and this is a history that they carry with them from day to day. White people have never had to deal with issues like that and we lack a fundamental frame of reference for understanding how it impacts the daily lives of Black people.
Well I heard that the show promotes White Stereotypes.
Well, sure. In the 30 seconds of trailer we are treated to some images of classic white stereotypes. Here’s the thing about that, and why it’s ok to stereotype white people. White people have never been marginalized by their government. 44 of the Presidents of the US have been white. As of the 2013 Census, White people make up 63% of the population. There is nothing in the history of the US that has marginalized white people the way that we’ve marginalized Black people, Asian people, First Nation people, etc. Stereotyping can’t actually hurt White America. None of those stereotypes will adversely affect how society as a whole perceives us. A stereotype of white people is that they can’t dance. A stereotype of Black people is that they’re thugs and criminals. There is a massive difference.
I also heard that the show promotes White Genocide.
So this is the big one. This is the fly in the soup. This is what Twitter is apparently shouting about. The show doesn’t promote White Genocide. There is no White Genocide.
White Genocide is a conspiracy theory cooked up by white supremacists and white nationalists that says immigration, societal integration, cross-cultural or interethnic marriage, and abortion in White majority countries are all a plot to make White people the minority in the population and then make us extinct through forced assimilation. The thing is though, it’s impossible to assimilate ‘White People’ because there’s no White Culture. There’s no White Ethnicity. There’s Italian culture (a lot of different types), there’s Russian, French, English, and even White American. You can absolutely have a genocide of Italians (don’t), but there’s no overriding White Culture or Ethnicity to destroy. The current trumpeting of ‘White Genocide’ is being done by members of the ‘alt-right’ (Nazis). These aren’t groups whose ideas we should be entertaining. There is no White Genocide. Dear White People doesn’t promote White Genocide. White Genocide doesn’t exist.
Alright, so technically there is a concept of White Genocide that exists in the world, but it’s not this one that’s being shouted by White Supremacists. Following the Armenian Genocide many people of Armenian national and ethnic background found themselves in Diaspora. The Diaspora means Armenians living outside of their homeland of Armenia. There have been Armenians living outside of Armenia for several hundred years, but the scale and scope of the modern Diaspora was caused by the genocide. Many Armenians fear the assimilation of their people and culture into mainstream Western culture. This is what they mean by White Genocide and it is a term that I accept.
Can’t there be a White Genocide though?
Alright, so we’re doing this. The United Nations defined genocide in 1948 thusly:
“…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
This definition was based almost entirely on work done by Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin tried to include political groups in the definition, but the Soviet Union refused to allow it to be a part of the definition. Lemkin didn’t fight to hard to keep those groups in the definition though. His focus was on nationality and ethnicity for their cultural carrying capacity. The focus for Lemkin and the Convention was on culture. As I explained earlier there is no White Culture and there is no White Ethnicity. There is no overriding culture to destroy. White Genocide isn’t a real concept outside of the White Supremacist ideal of ‘racial purity’, which again isn’t an idea that should be entertained.
The UN definition included racial groups…
Right, it does, it also never goes on to define what a racial group is. Preventgenocide.org defines racial groups as being defined by shared physical characteristics. So, ok. We’ll kill all the people with white skin. Except there are a large number of ‘white passing’ People of Color, especially in the Latino/Hispanic community. Those are distinct cultural groups who are not part of the White Nationalist’s views of Whiteness. What if we just used ‘People of European Descent’ as our categorization. Ok, but again you’ll find numerous PoC whose families have been living in Europe for centuries. There’s no way to actually define what the White Race is. Race is an important and pervasive concept in our society. It affects our daily lives and it is regularly used to judge PoC. Racism is here and it’s constantly damaging how different cultures interact, but for the purposes of defining genocide it is far too open to interpretation to be useful. Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the ICTR decreed that ‘any stable and permanent group’ is to be awarded protection under the Convention. This is likely to become the norm in future UN Genocide Tribunals.
When the UN Convention came out in 1948, Race Theory was still battling with the concept of race as a scientific method of differentiating different groups of people. Today we accept that race is a social construct open to interpretation on the whims of aggressors. There was an effort made by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1950 to drop the use of the term ‘race’ altogether and instead use ‘ethnic group’. During this time though the UN still accepted race as a valid method of biological categorization (which it isn’t) and their efforts to drop ‘race’ as a term failed. Still, for the purposes of genocide studies I prefer to use Lemkin’s original intention and the intention of UNESCO to focus on nationality and ethnicity for their cultural carrying capacity. Again, race is important for its use in day to day relations between people of different skin colors, and skin color is still used as a way judge people, but a genocide of Italians is not a genocide of the Irish. Nor is a genocide of Rwandan Tutsi a genocide of all Rwandan people. For my purposes and the purposes of Genocide Studies, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups are more important categories, and are much easier to define. When so much of Genocide Studies has to deal with legal systems, those definitions are important.
We’ve gotten a little of track here. The point of this was to determine that Dear White People doesn’t promote White Genocide. I didn’t initially realize the work that would be involved in that. Dear White People, is a show about race relations on a college campus, and after a 30 second trailer White America was up in arms because they were shown in a less than stellar fashion. If behavior like that doesn’t perfectly underline the need for a show like this then I don’t know what will. The show isn’t an attack on White people nor is it saying that all White people are racist. Dear White People is a story about the experiences of Black people in a predominantly White school. The characters might be fictional, but what the characters experience is a reality that Black people face daily.
White people, we’re not perfect. We’re flawed human beings who exist in a world which was designed by us for our benefit. We built society for White People. It’s our job to recognize how the system benefits us and work to ensure that we don’t abuse our privilege. The benefits we have should be open to all, and they aren’t yet. No one is saying that you can’t have a difficult life as a White Person in America. We’re saying that your life isn’t difficult because you’re White.
Thanks for sticking with me through this whole thing, and I hope that you’ve learned something that will help you moving forward in your life. I, for one, support Netflix, Justin Simien, and Dear White People. I look forward to the show’s release and intend to watch it.