Last week, I spent a good portion of the time I should have spent studying binge watching Netflix’s new show “Dear White People.” And I really enjoyed it — despite there being several valid complaints about the show, I think it did a great job with the space and time it was given. And while I can’t speak to all parts of it, I think the part that it nailed so well was campus activism.
Namely, the show captured that elusive element of campus activism that becomes a weapon when most others point it out, but because of the show’s sympathy to its main character, seems less hostile and more honest. That elusive element being the activists themselves.
Campus activism is defined by its activists, and these activists in turn are defined or (as the show points out) choose to define themselves by their activism. The show makes this point in multiple ways, most explicitly when a character named Kurt (who runs a satirical, inflammatory magazine) confronts the main character, Samantha White (who is a prolific activist on campus), and says, “The truth is, you like things to be fucked up so you can have a machine to rage against, Sharpton.”
What he means is that the very things that White claims to hate and work against have come to define her — and because of that, she seeks them out to fulfill her role as the activist. There is some backing for this in the show — though I won’t spoil that here. But the sentiment is one that echoes through arguments about PC culture too: that we are a generation of soft kids who like to complain and are always seeking out things to complain about even when there is nothing there, because we have no ways to define ourselves without the narrative of victimhood.
The idea that you can be perversely happy to find something to complain about isn’t novel. It’s also a concern you see in journalism, when something horrible happens and there’s professional excitement because it’s a scoop. When it’s your job to rage against the machine, it’s nice to know that the machine messed up and you don’t have to dig for today’s material.
It’s not a flattering light to see activists in. It makes their work seem silly or disingenuous and distracts from the meaning of their words and their validity to the intent of the students who would make their lives about this kind of work. It makes them seem self-involved and undermines their arguments, which is why it is used as an insult when talking about campus culture, and why the show satirizes it. But what struck me about the show is that because it focuses on the activists, it reveals this in a way that is more meaningful than insulting. The show captures the gaffes and mishaps that happen along the way when you’re trying to do the right thing and say the right thing, like when Sam tells a caller to wake up to their white privilege only to find out the caller is black. But it also shows that while these activists sometimes seem like kids running around trying to find something to be angry about, what they’re talking about is a real and pressing concern. And on some elite campuses, that real and scary thing is neatly packaged or hidden away and only reveals itself in small ways — I had to say microaggressions in this article right? — but it doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is frivolous.
The show makes this clear too: after sprinkling through its episodes all the little incidents that are easy to brush off by saying the characters are too sensitive, it gives you a scene where you are forced to confront the reality of what these students could face and do face. It is a scene where Reggie, a character who is smart and “woke,” gets held at gunpoint by a police officer at a party for a minor altercation.
And that’s where I think the show makes it’s most interesting point about campus activists: that these kids in college are choosing to define themselves by their activism, but maybe for good reason — because they live in a world that will define them by their race or gender or whatever other stereotype anyway. Because for the whole episode before he is held at gunpoint, Reggie tries to let loose, to shed his role as activist. And what is said joking in the beginning of the episode to convince a friend to go out — “Sometimes being carefree and black is an act of revolution” — suddenly becomes more painful because we see exactly how hard it can be to be carefree and black.
So it is not obvious to me that it is bad for people to define themselves by their activism. I can see how that can contort the incentive of activism, how it can lead to the kind of “slacktivism” of social media, where the point is not to fight for the cause but to appear aligned with it. But I can also see how these causes cannot be sustained without people who dedicate their lives to it. I can see how while some people support a cause quietly and only when something instigates them, what activism needs to survive, thrive and make an impact is people who do make their lives about the fight and do make outrage a part of their routine.
And a part of making something a part of your routine as a person who is learning and growing is that you will mess up and will fall short and will sometimes seem ridiculous. We all spend a good amount of time being caricatures of ourselves. That is true of everybody on this campus, regardless of how we choose to define ourselves. To hold campus activists to a higher standard of maintaining the right amount of outrage and civility constantly is ridiculous and unfair. They are people who are choosing to complain, yes — but in a world that doesn’t let you forget the color of your skin, what other option do you have anyway?
In another scene, Kurt asks White who hurt her — and when she starts with “Two hundred years of…”, cuts her off: he knows, we, the audience, know what she is going to say: two hundred years of slavery.
And like the rest of this show, in its own way this is funny, because the punchline is that we all know what White was going to say. And yes he brushes it off and that’s less funny, but in that scene it is also a victory: that somehow this is now mainstream. These ideas have been said enough and heard enough that we can consider them repetitive.
And that happened because of activists. Because of activists who maybe started on campuses and honed their narratives and tied their causes to their identity and wove it through their lives. Who were probably also accused of identity politics and of using their activism to define themselves and therefore being disingenuous. And who despite all that made ideas that were truly radical at the time a commonplace narrative. And somehow, that fact makes the insults sting much less.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.