“Representation matters,” is a phrase that rolls off the lips and fingertips so easily at the site of any marginalized person being centered in film and television. And much like every other phrase permeating the zeitgeist, I have to wonder if we know why it matters. We have become so easily placated with just one or two black and brown faces that we forget there’s more to our experiences, than what can be explored via one character. Yet, we still expect that lone character to capture the totality of the black experience through one arc. Representation, rather equal representation, is so much more than seeing one black or brown face in a place where they otherwise wouldn’t typically be. For all of our strides toward inclusive media, we still only get to see diverse intersectionality on shows that are uniquely intended for audiences of color. Dear White People is one such show with its majority black cast. Viewers were moved by the diversity reflected in the show’s premier season. There were multiple black people with multiple intersections of identities, creating space for nuanced, and relatable storytelling, which is the true benefit of equal representation. Season 2 of Dear White People doubled down on the show’s inclusivity, by centering their brown girls, and their gay characters. Two categories of people that are often overlooked, even on shows that center people of color.
Season one of Dear White People delivered on a deeper dive into the lives of the crew we met in the movie from which the show was developed. The premier season provided and inspired intense, sometimes uncomfortable discussions on race that resonated with black viewers, and angered many white people who didn’t bother to try. I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight that a huge part of the draw of the show for me were the multiple dark skinned black girls in the cast. But I was disappointed to see that those girls were relegated to supporting roles. It was not lost on me that a show that explored the nuances of the black experience had as its titular lead, Sam (Logan Browning) a light skinned, biracial woman with preferential natural hair, and light eyes. This felt, shall we say, typical, given the show’s premise and creators. Sam fits right in with the usual black female leads who appear more racially ambiguous than black (Paula Patton, Rashida Jones, Nicole Ari Parker, etc.).
Sam, who has a black mother, an ailing white father, a secret white boyfriend, and identity issues, was the focus of season one. She identified as black, because like many biracial people, she can’t choose to pass as white, yet black people felt that she overcompensated for her whiteness with overzealous activism for black causes. This was a narrative we’ve heard and read about biracial people for quite some time. Their never ending quest to find an identity between the two worlds to which they should belong is one we’ve become familiar with, because for so long they were and remain the kind of black people white audiences can tolerate. Is their struggle valid? Sure, but it is not new to our collective consciousness. As she became increasingly more self-righteous, the audience became painfully aware that Sam’s friends lead way more interesting lives than she did, yet she was the focus.
This changed in season 2. Sam continued to be draining, but the characters who tend to be overlooked in art and in life were more centered.
Lionel (DeRon Horton) is fresh out of the closet, and learning where he fits into the gay community. He is an awkward, intellectual, aspiring writer and journalist, who is looking for his voice as a gay black man, and a writer. His attempt at dating, and looking for a group to which he should belong reveals many of the underlying issues within the gay community. The internalized homophobia, racism, and body image issues that permeate the LGBTQIA community were further emphasized by Lena Waithe’s character within a character, P Ninny, and Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff)’s secret identity as the racist who’d been trolling Sam. Lionel lives at multiple intersections, and because this was properly explored with the addition of other gay characters, he continued to develop organically.
Coco Conners (Antoinette Roberston) was introduced as the sharp/bordering on cruel, gorgeous, dark skinned black girl from humble beginnings with dreams of assimilating into white society to create change from the inside. In the beginning of season one, it was easy to label her a sellout. Later in the season, we find that she wears long silky weaves, and puts on airs as a means for survival. Her character began to take shape, as we got to hear a different perspective on someone’s need to reject their upbringing, as a means to elevate. By season two, we see Coco grapple with her role as the resident black culture educator to white students, an unplanned pregnancy, and her plot to take over the world. While she is faced with the possibility of becoming the single mother her mom is, we also see her really hustle to make a name for herself and rise in the ranks.
Kelsey (Nia Jervier) played the ditsy, clueless, Hilary Banks role in season one. However, in season two we learn that she struggles to feel seen as a pretty, Trinidadian, gold star lesbian who feels overlooked, in life and in porn. Kelsey and Coco’s characters develop as roommates, and friends, with no one as the lead. There is mutual support and admiration, which reached its pinnacle when Kelsey tags along with Coco to terminate her pregnancy.
And finally, there’s Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson). Much like the black side kick in many a romantic comedy, the Joelle character was in service to Sam’s various existential crises in season one. Yet, she was beautiful and interesting in her own right. I, like many other viewers was disappointed to see Joelle relegated to this silent role, and we couldn’t help but feel this was in part because of her dark skin. This, again, felt typical of a white show, not a black one geared towards black viewers. Joelle didn’t get her own episode, or her own plotline involving a love interest. In fact, the man she was interested in, Reggie (Marque Richardson), was expectedly in love with Sam. It was all too familiar that the gorgeous, brilliant, non-self-centered, loyal, friend was overshadowed by the beautiful light skinned friend who wasn’t even interested in the guy. This servitude went unaddressed for the entirety of season one, but Joelle finally got her moment in season two, delivering on the nuance of being the Kelly Rowland to Sam’s Beyoncé.
Joelle’s episode reveals that in addition to being witty, thoughtful, loyal, and gorgeous, she is also extremely smart and competitive. She has a lot of insight that goes unsaid as Sam doesn’t allow her to get a word in edgewise as her co host on the Dear White People radio show. And then came the scene that addressed the elephant in the room: colorism. Joelle and Sam’s ex Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) are secretly hanging out as friends in the library when Gabe flirtatiously asks about Joelle’s relationship with Reggie. Joelle quickly reminds Gabe that she doesn’t want Sam’s sloppy seconds.
“It’s just that when I look in the mirror, I see someone who’s beautiful and talented and always the second one you think of. This world is not kind to the Kelly’s.”
Stop right here. Finally, some nuance on the topic of colorism. Finally, a dark skinned girl who knows she’s the shit, but is still aware that she is not the world’s preference. As the lone brown skinned girl in a sea of light skinned friends from down south, I felt seen in a way that I hadn’t realized I needed. This was the first time I felt uniquely represented, and felt a connection to the phrase, representation matters.
The “woe is me, my dark skin makes me ugly” narrative is one that is typical, especially on social media, but not one that I identify with.
Maybe it’s being born and raised in a city as diversely black as Atlanta. Maybe it was coming up in the golden age of black television and film where we weren’t beholden to one standard of beauty. Or maybe it’s that I was raised by black women who never compared themselves to the white standard of beauty, and who taught me that light skin doesn’t make someone pretty, any more than dark skin can make someone inherently ugly. Whatever the cause, for all of my insecurities about my looks, my skin was never one of them.
The unfortunate truth is that all black girls don’t get to grow up immersed in pro blackness, with confidence in their being despite little to no proximity to whiteness. However, the narrative of self-hatred with regard to black skin has been reinforced over and over again. From the first time we sat as young girls and watched documentaries on the doll test performed during Brown v Board of Education, we have been bombarded with the idea that we hate our own skin. But the duality of self-love, and the simultaneous knowledge that your self isn’t the preference is one that hasn’t been explored enough. Moreover, Joelle wasn’t obligated to cover every aspect of the experience through her character alone.
Inclusive representation empowers writers, and creators to develop characters organically, giving the viewers real stories we can connect to. When there is a lone character to represent one marginalized group, they are forced to be all things to all people, thereby lacking authenticity. Because Dear White People has an extensive cast of diverse black people, they were able to zero in on those who are further marginalized within the black community on season 2. This was a master class on why representation matters. It makes for better characters, and better stories that more of us can relate to. Here’s to hoping next season Kelsey and Brooke get their own episodes as well.