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The missing African narrative in Dear White People

Warning: This post may contain spoilers for the Netflix show Dear White People

So I watched Dear White People!

Having loved the movie 2 years ago, my friends and I had been waiting for this show and true to its hype,  ⅔ of the way through the first episode I was hooked! I literally stopped it,  mid wine sip, and facetimed my friend so i can at least yaassssss with someone else and not look too crazy hollering at my TV alone! It’s the kind of shit, you need to witness with your own!

I got so much life from Dear White People(DWP)!!  It’s a cleverly written and performed spectacle on navigating blackness in white spaces, through the lens of black students on a college campus. The stories in the film are struggles in respectability politics that my friends and I recognize, from our college days, and even in our current attempts at adulting in white spaces. I was fully on board with all of it, except for one character, the African character, Rashid.

Now I do not hold my breathe when any American production introduces an African character or story line. In less than a minute into ,it comes, the predictable poverty- ridden backstory, the stereotypes about language and of course the terrible accents that are  always the icing on the cake(I am looking at you Will Smith in Concussion). It’s the same tired narrative about African experiences that gets recycled by literally all of Hollywood, and the character Rashid in Dear White people, is no exception.While it was disappointing to see this in a film about blackness, what was even more disturbing was the outright exclusion of African students experiences from a show that talked about blackness on college campuses.

African( and Caribbean) students are a key feature of all college campuses and navigating blackness is as much their experience as it is of American black kids. African students themselves are a complex group, with perhaps 2 large camps, first generation students, and Fresh of the Boat (FOB) African students. In this post I will speak to the experience of the latter group, which I was a part of and, I suppose the character Rashid was supposed to represent.

I was a scholarship kid to the University of Chicago,coming straight from Africa. I was excited for my move, having grown up worshiping America from the movies and music. However, as a black immigrant, as it turns out, nothing prepares you for the  politics of race in this country. Blackness is largely a foreign concept to most FOB African students. I grew up in a racially homogenous environment where my personal struggles were more to do with economic status and gender more than anything else. Blackness is this experience that most FOB African students have to come into!

I struggled with being black and it was especially difficult, because my experience was that of folks shoving the identity down my throat and not educating me about it. As a freshman, I went to a few Organization of Black Students(OBS) meetings and quickly realised I had no idea what any of them was talking about, so I stopped. Soon after I had a confrontation where I tried to explain my reasons for quoting OBS and was hit with a line that forever lives in my memory.  “You know if the KKK wants to lynch someone, they  will take you as much as they will take me?” I had go look up who/what the KKK was, and I was horrified!  I sought a home on campus, a group that I more identified with,  and this was the African and Caribbean Students Association(ACSA). Turns out on my campus ACSA was actually formed as a walk out from OBS, because African and Caribbean students felt they were not represented. On my campus there was palpable tension between the two groups, which when I look back was really from lack of dialogue between us. First of all neither of us grew up learning about each other in positive terms. My history classes brushed on slavery and I had to look up things like the KKK and even MLK at some point of my college life.

On the other end  the American education system and media  just paints Africa as a big blurb of a “country.” Additionally, another layer of identity crisis is also occurring with FOB African students on campuses. I remember sometime in my freshman feeling  like some part of my African identity was slipping away as I struggled to assimilate into America. As a 19 year old, who barely knew who I was anyway, it’s terrifying and of course I will recoil at any other identity being forced on me! In my view, and probably oversimplifying this a little bit, African and African American students had no real understanding of each other’s reality, and without dialogue, the walls went up!

However at some point the tides turn.The reality of being black in America creeps into your life stealthily. You start realizing the ignorant questions about Africa you get from your classmates are as much about your heritage as they are about your race. I saw my African and Caribbean black guy friends getting  IDed walking on campus by Uchicago police, just as much as the other black students. Studies have shown it takes about a generation for the effects of racism to catch up to immigrant blacks in the US. We all get to that point of realizing, that as long as you are wearing this skin, you do not get a pass in America.

The questions because one of whether we embrace our black identities or not. Like the students at Winchester,  my friends and I made choices across the spectrum. On one extreme is those who choose to become part of the racial discourse of America and on the other end is those who choose self preservation, and cling on to their Africanness more than ever. I wrote about my choice in the article.

There is a complexity to African student experiences and stories worth telling, that I feel DWP missed in half-assing the African character. Some of the costumes at that Dear Black people party featured in the first episode, were as much about Rashid, as they were about the other black American students.The Dear white people writers made blackness on campuses look like a monolithic experience, that it is not and I hope in season 2, they wake up to this call.


Rashid the “Kenyan”

I am a huge proponent of telling African stories and I think if you dare to bring us up, you dare to drop a Rashid in there, you better do it right! My current favorite portrayal of Africa  is  in the Netflix series, Sense8. If you have not watched it yet, I highly recommend it. Part of the story takes places in Kenya and the writers and directors took the time to be respectful to the context of his storyline and I appreciated them hiring Kenyan extras and taking great shots of Nairobi. The character associated with the story line has a bit of a struggle accent though, but I guess we can’t have it all!

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