Justin Simien has created Dear White People twice. In 2014, Simien, who was born and raised in Houston, wrote and directed the film, a satire about race relations centering on a radio show at the fictional Winchester University. In 2017, Simien gave the movie new life, re-creating the story as a Netflix original series. The first season of the show focuses on students working through the fallout from a blackface party, but in the second season, which was released on May 4, the ensemble cast fights murkier battles. Simien spoke to Texas Monthly about the motivations for this season, online trolls, and whether he would watch a hypothetical Dear Black People.
Texas Monthly: Your last day of filming for season one was on Election Day in 2016. What kind of urgency did the election of Donald Trump give you when you were back to writing and filming for the new season?
Justin Simien: It gave us a lot of urgency. Everyone, including people who benefited from that result, were spending a lot of time trying to diagnose it and figure out how it happened. It became a lot clearer what some of those forces involved were, and unfortunately a lot of it had to do with weaponizing outrage: taking advantage of this moment and making people on both sides of any given ideological issue seem crazy. In turn, that decreases the ability to have anything that resembles discourse or conversation out there in the culture. That became not only fascinating, but it felt vital to our survival to figure out what happened. I think a lot of those questions really directly led me and the writers to this season.
TM: How were you able to explore some of those questions of what’s changed, particularly through the character of Sam [played by Logan Browning] and her interactions with internet trolls?
JS: What [internet trolls and our online conversations] revealed to me is this almost compulsive need to blot out the voice of the marginalized and remold our history into something that is [approved by] whoever is in charge. That is a part of the country’s DNA. A form of that happens all the time, and has always happened. The problem is that so many of us think that we’re having a conversation, when in fact we’re being involved in a form of harassment. Sometimes you’re not even talking to a person, you’re talking to an algorithm.
For me that was a really interesting door into a history—a national obsession over the centuries, frankly—of keeping identities and motivations private. The powerful and the rich don’t go out in the streets and protest when they want something; they make it happen underground. It’s a totally different strategy and it’s been a documented strategy in place for a long time.
One thing I realized is that we’re still in the reformation period. The reason why we can’t just get over slavery and why these things don’t stay in our past is that we never actually put the country back together again. Because of that failure, the world we’re living in is not a real meritocracy, where everyone has the same advantages. You feel this real sense of resistance when you dare to stand up to something like that.
TM: In the second season of Dear White People, it’s eventually revealed that the alt-right troll is a non-black person of color. What was behind the decision to make that character the voice of the troll, which many viewers will assume to be a straight white man?
JS: Because those are the kinds of people operating in the culture that I was most fascinated by. [The period after Trump’s election] felt almost like an ideological gold rush. After Trump won, there were a lot of people rushing to take a leadership position, whether that’s on Twitter or in real life, to own some pocket of that ideology. The ones that were really breaking through were people who were very surprising.
Candace Owens [a black conservative commentator who is pro-Trump] is someone who I just found out about, but we were watching these YouTube clips in the writers’ room of this prominent Muslim woman speaking against Muslims and [against] allowing people from Muslim countries into this country. Her arguments made no sense even though she was clearly an intelligent woman. We were trying to figure out, “Well, why would she speak so adamantly against her own interests and against the interest of her people?” We kept following that rabbit hole, and saw that there’s this cardboard white villain at the end of the tunnel. This is a really elaborate system of oppression that’s been at work for a long time and has deep roots, and it will continue to have long branches until we really start to look at it for what it is. This show, and this season in particular, through comedy and this sexy, soapy half hour, is our attempt to get folks to look at that and try to figure out what it is.
TM: One of the big changes this season is that Joelle [Ashley Blaine Featherson] got an episode, but there were also hints at new depths to other characters, like Kelsey [Nia Jervier]. Is there a plan to continue adding those layers and complicating the archetypes that we’ve been given of these characters?
JS: Absolutely. The hard part of this show has always been that there’s only ten episodes of a packed ensemble show. You have to cherry-pick who gets the focus. There’s so much more that we want to say about these characters: Each one of them could have their own spin-off and you wouldn’t run out of material because everything that’s going on with them is so interesting. When I wrote Joelle into season one, I knew that the goal was to get her an episode or more, and I certainly feel that fervor for Brooke [Courtney Sauls] and Kelsey—but wait until you get ahold of what Rasheed [Jeremy Tardy] and Al [Jemar Michael] are up to.
TM: Something that seemed like a theme through this season was the quote, “all my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” where you look into the many layers of anti-blackness in different parts of the black community. For example, there’s a scene with Lionel [DeRon Horton] when he meets another gay black guy who tells him that he doesn’t date other black guys.
JS: It was decided for us that we’re all this thing called black. In reacting to that kind of oppression, we took ownership over the label and embraced it. It’s problematic already, because the idea that we’re all this one thing was incorrect from the beginning. We’ve all been afflicted by the same sort of American diseases of oppression and discrimination against people of color, but we all have our own communities and different cultures.
It’s sort of a fiction that we were ever one community—there have always been many communities. We nostalgically think back to the civil rights era as a unified front, but it wasn’t. It was fractured, it was frayed, leaders were against each other. It was like a soap opera—people really had beefs and a lot of tension. That’s always going to be the case. I think we should embrace that, because frankly, you want there to be lots of different kinds of black folks, because that means that we’re human beings and we get to be all the things that we see people being on TV or read about.
But in terms of the anti-blackness of it all, any community can’t help but at a certain point to do what’s been done to them. [James] Baldwin has a quote about oppression: When done consistently enough, the oppressed start to oppress themselves. You see that in any marginalized community: among black people, among gay folks, among trans people, among women. We love to continue to divide because that’s what we’ve been taught power looks like. It can be a hard trap to get out of, but try we must.
TM: The title, Dear White People, gets its own share of backlash every time a new trailer is dropped. Some people say, “What if we had a show called Dear Black People?” Do you feel like you responded to that this season with Dear Right People, a radio show created by conservative Winchester students?
JS: The funny thing is—and I wrote about this on Medium—I remember coming up with the title and thinking, “That’s going to be a little bit of a shocker.” But I did not expect anyone to take actual offense to it, because I really don’t like the assumption that only something negative is coming afterward. I don’t get it, this idea that if a black person is going to talk about white people it’s only going to be negative all the time. I never took the title that way. If there was a Dear Black People, and it was as well reviewed as our show, and the writers of this hypothetical show struggled as hard as we do to invite everybody to the table and make sure that every character was nuanced and interesting, I couldn’t imagine what my problem with the show would be.
The other thing I’ll say is if you do assume that Dear Black People would just be a negative show about how black people are terrible or lazy, that’s called Jim Crow, and has been with this country since the country started. Whether we’re talking about minstrelsy or the way black people have been positioned in virtually every television show and film up until the last twenty years, that’s your Dear Black People—it was centuries long and had a very long run. The Dear Right People show-within-the-show is an echo of that. There’s nothing stopping them from getting on the radio and being on TV or getting on the internet and saying whatever they want to say. And in fact, not only is there nothing stopping them, but they’re doing it already. There’s shows like Dear Right People on every college campus, and on a lot of high school campuses now. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s new for us to get our own show, so that we get to say something, but the voice of the opposition has been loud and clear and well funded for some time. So Dear Right People was a way of putting that right in the middle of Sam’s world in a way that she had to pay attention to it.
I will say that this time around there really wasn’t a lot of backlash. There were a couple of people with the “What if there was a Dear Black People?” and there’s always comment section craziness, but by and large, people all seem quite distracted by other battles to fight in this country. Compared to the movie and the first season, we were pretty much left alone this time around, which is nice.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.