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How ‘Dear White People’ Dismantles the Conservative Myth About ‘Safe Spaces’

Where to Stream

Dear White People

Netflix’s Dear White People manages to do quite a lot in its ten-episode first season. It presents a college campus simmering with racial tension, it connects those tensions to the world outside of the show, and then it proceeds to complicate those tensions without ever selling out its own convictions to an “All Lives Matter” false equivalence. It tells universal stories through characters who feel deeply personal. It’s a triumphant show that deserves to be savored, which is why I’m still thinking about it even as Netflix is determined to flood its own comedy marketplace with new seasons of Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It’s also a show that goes a long way towards obliterating the conservative myth about “safe spaces” on college campuses.

In his commencement address to the students at Hampden-Sydney college, reproduced in the paper earlier this week, New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens spoke urgently against the idea of “safe spaces” on college campuses, urging the graduating class of the all-male school in Virginia to reject any attempts made to curb the intellectual diversity so central to the college experience. The concept of “safe spaces” on campuses is a relatively new one, but as any SJW snowflake knows, they have become a boogeyman of conservative culture critics looking to slam the intolerant left. Safe spaces are where liberal college kids retreat to when they don’t want to be confronted with rational conservative arguments about how there’s no such thing as rape culture and how long ago slavery ended. The ideal liberal college campus, so the argument goes, would be one great big safe space where minorities and liberals all agree with one another while conservative students cower in silence. The biggest problem with safe spaces is that it discourages free debate. These sheltered college kids refuse to allow their beliefs to be challenged in any way, so they retreat to safety and shut out argument.

One of the things that Dear White People does so beautifully is to present an environment where its characters fight for their own safe space and still manage to be constantly challenged within that space. The black students of the fictional Winchester have their own space, Armstrong-Parker House, where they can socialize and study and live with other black students on a campus where they are the minority. They fight for this space, both figuratively (battling back against aggressive campus cops and fratty “blackface” parties) and literally (later in the season, wealthy donors press the administration to “de-segregate” AP House). You’d think, then, that Armstrong-Parker would be the very safe space that conservatives constantly deride, where students are coddled and reassured and never challenged on their own beliefs. Dear White People dismantles this immediately and constantly. Factions within the black student population bicker and jockey for position. Main characters Sam (Logan Browning) and Coco (Antoinette Robertson) have a long history where their their beliefs and experiences butt up against each other, causing a rift. Lionel (DeRon Horton) finds himself challenged on multiple levels, as a black kid and also as a gay kid, trying to navigate both worlds. He ends up getting challenged by his gay newspaper editor, among others, which is its own thorny (and welcome) dynamic.

Dear White People is a show that pokes into some of the more sensitive corners of the American racial dynamic in 2017. It’s why so many white people were up in arms when the trailer for the show first dropped, full of any number of variations on “Imagine if there was a show called ‘Dear Black People,'” and other such defensive jabs that managed to miss the point. The title is more than a little bit ironic considering Dear White People isn’t all that concerned with addressing white people. Instead, it’s a chance for black people to see some reflection of themselves in the myriad characters of color matriculating at Winchester. And while any open-minded, open-hearted white person should be able to get plenty out of a show that is this humane, intelligent, funny, and full of well-drawn and complicated characters, the salutation “Dear White People” doesn’t exactly require a response in kind.

Creator Justin Simien and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser haven’t produced a show where all conflict stops at the black-white border. Black people aren’t a monolith, and Dear White People, more than almost any other show on TV, gives them the space and the voice to challenge each other and figure their own shit out, (mostly) independent of white people. This idea that rejecting notions like white supremacy or rape culture means retreating to a fluffy utopia of safety and agreement is both false and self-serving. There are more ways to be challenged than by being asked to tolerate racism as simply just another alternative viewpoint.

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