When the world was first introduced to Dear White People the movie back in 2014, Barack Obama was in his second year of his second term as America's president, the World Cup was in Brazil, and 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson on a hot summer day in St. Louis, Missouri. The Sundance hit was a much needed jolt to resuscitate senses that had become numbed by continued police violence and inaction from the government. It also succeeded in getting discussions about the nuances of systemic anti-black racism into the mainstream news and pop culture vernacular.
Three years later, with someone named Trump now living in the White House, the political landscape feels like the beginning of a dystopian thriller and every day, new minefields emerge leaving people reeling from shock. The cultural zeitgeist feels right for Dear White People the Netflix series, and although some of its political repartee seems like it was lifted straight from popular identity politics Tumblr rants, it has ruffled feathers, received largely positive critical reviews, and set white feelings on fire.
Why then does a show that has been widely lauded as having a deeply analytical and sharp understanding of blackness fail spectacularly at accurately and respectfully portraying Africans and the role they play in African-American society?
As the series progresses, certain episodes try to illustrate the differences between African-Americans and Africans, through the experiences of one African student, Rashid.
Rashid (played by American Jeremy Tardy) is Kenyan with a generic Hollywood African accent. His character seems to always be looking into racism from the outside, confused by the violent relationship of mistrust between black and white Americans. He can't understand why the black students are always complaining and sees their political discussions as jarring and depressing. For him, conversations on racism are debbie downers and in one scene he even berates his friends for spending so much time talking about race, and then walks away. Unsure of how to find his away around the school he's been going to for probably a whole semester now, he stumbles around confused.
It's somewhat true. The ways Africans and African-Americans understand identity and blackness are different, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie succinctly described the dichotomy in her recent Pen America World Voices talk. Before moving to the US she always saw herself as Nigerian. "I was black when I came to the US," she said.
The experience of blackness is different in all 54 African countries so I will speak for myself when I say I understand Adichie's point of view. In my home country, Zimbabwe, religious denomination and ethnicities were identity markers. My blackness was not the only defining factor of my identity or how people saw me because everywhere I looked people were black. Since I was born I've only known a Zimbabwe where I saw myself. My government was black, my Parliament was black, my television was black. I saw myself everywhere. My identity markers were my being Shona and my family totem being Mbizi (a Zebra). My interactions with whiteness were understood in two ways. These were people who had usurped land from Indigenous Zimbabweans and over a period of almost a century, killed so many of us to keep it. In April of 1980 Zimbabwe became a sovereign nation and a few months after that, the Land Resettlement Program was created which saw black Zimbabweans reclaiming the land its previous owners had murdered their way into.
These differences however, do not make African immigrants ignorant to the trials of anti-black racism. Rashid was reduced to a bumbling caricature who couldn't grasp the subtle punchlines of sarcasm, and delivered bitingly witty one-liners like, " Pinocchio was my favourite movie growing up." His character was not multi-dimensional in any manner. He was the representation of the simple African that Western media has spent years cultivating, starting from Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, reaching peak idiocy in Coming to America and coming full circle at Ivy League Winchester, with dumb as a post Rashid. He was not given the privilege to discuss the complexities of race that African immigrants have to navigate both in our own countries that are still victimized by neo-colonialism and white supremacy masquerading as "peacekeeping aid." Africans living in the diaspora are people trying to not only integrate as immigrants in an increasingly non-immigrant friendly world, but also having to see ourselves othered to the point of gross comedic relief. It's 2017 and in a script written for a black show, someone thought it wise to insert, "make clicking sounds at African students." Are you serious? With an estimated 2000 languages, to only see our mother tongues as clicks is reductive as hell. Grow the fuck up. Artistically and culturally.
"Yes! I think my eyes rolled out of my skull during that scene. Not only is it obviously, boringly offensive, but it's also very 2002. We're still making clicking jokes in 2017? Word?" Hannah Giorgis, an editor at The Ringer, told me. "I know it was meant to illustrate the disconnect within the diaspora, but it felt so unsubtle and completely lacked artistry. The show's satire isn't strong enough to have made the tongue-click a teachable moment."
Giorgis added that she saw all the characters as badly written tropes but Rashid hit the closest to home. "I hate the idea of arguing over crumbs when it comes to representation; it feels like such a futile exercise. But Rashid's character being so obviously a trope stood out to me not just because I myself am African, but also because his position as the only African on the show makes it feel more glaring."
It feels strange having to pull out the cards that show the depth of the African continent to once again display the fact that we are not a monolith and neither are we simpletons, but here we are.
Rashid's character was a mix of fetish and condescension and I could not look past that enough to appreciate this series desperately trying to be seen as woke. Over two decades ago, the history making television show A Different World , based at the fictional HBCU, Hillman, produced an episode that saw Hillman students discussing the apartheid regime in South Africa and its political ramifications for black South Africans. One of Hillman's largest donors had not divested from South Africa and the students debated heavily on whether or not they should boycott. It was at the very end of the episode that we finally heard the viewpoint of the South African students at the university, and their thoughts on the matter. In mainstream television shows, African voices are limited and even when they are given speaking time, what we are allowed to say never comes off any better than silence.
Writer Huda Hassan (full disclosure, she has previously written for VICE), saw Rashid as a character only used as "a prop."
"I think Rashid's character reveals to us a very US-centric understanding of blackness that erases blackness in other geographical locations," she told me. "In this show we saw a lot of troubling moments: homophobia, misogyny, and—in this specific scene (the clicking scene)—an anti-African xenophobia. This reminds us that there are troubling and dangerous articulations of blackness within black liberation movements and organizing."
It feels strange having to pull out the cards that show the depth of the African continent to once again display the fact that we are not a monolith and neither are we simpletons, but here we are. The continent is the birthplace of some of the most brilliant political minds of our time from Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nafissatou Niang Diallo, Leymah Gbowee,
and Freedom Nyamubaya. (look them up your damn selves, because I loathe being your African Google). Not forgetting Samora Machel, Nelson Mandela, and my dad (because not every hero has a wikipedia page). Eight female presidents have taken the reins to lead their country's government and currently Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been the president of Liberia for 11 years. We have broken glass ceilings several times over and so I hate having to prove we are so much more than the little you see us as. Show us better. Because we most definitely are.
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