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'Dear White People' Creator Calls The Netflix Series 'A Conversation Starter'


The writer-director Justin Simien understands the complexity that surrounds identity and labels, so I asked him about the title of his show "Dear White People." It's generated controversy from people who argue that the phrase shuts white people out of the conversation.

JUSTIN SIMIEN: I think if it was "Yo, White People" or "Hey, White People" or, you know, "Eff You, White People," you know, I could see that. But to me, dear - dear anything is an invitation to a conversation. That's what that sort of - just in a language-on-the-page kind of way, that's what that implies. And I hope that as you watch the series, it begins to take on different kinds of meanings, you know. I think that there are characters who feel like they're constantly in response to white people. Like, they are constantly having to dear-white-people in their everyday lives. I hope that people see it as a conversation starter not as sort of a way of being shut out of a conversation.

SHAPIRO: One of the issues that a lot of characters in your show struggle with is, can you be black and still - fill-in-the-blank. Like, can you be black and be gay? Can you be black and date a white guy? Sometimes it felt like you were opening doors that are typically closed.

SIMIEN: Maybe so. I mean, I think that's a part of anything that's exciting in art. You know, I loved Lena Dunham's "Girls." I love "Blue Is The Warmest Color." You know, I love watching things that are the dirt underneath the fingernail things, like, those little things about our lives that, you know, maybe you have thought about but just never thought you'd see on the screen before. And certainly for audiences that don't know anything about sort of the ins and outs of black identity, I can imagine that, yeah, it would be a really interesting sort of glance into all the things that we sort of think about and deal with. I mean, one of the things about being black in this country is that you - your personality and your - what you are to the society is kind of decided for you (unintelligible) people around you.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean that people expect you to be able to play basketball, for example? They look at you, and they say, oh, you're black, so you must be good at X, Y, Z...


SHAPIRO: ...And not at A, B C, that sort of thing?

SIMIEN: That, you know, but also all kinds of complex versions of that as well. You know, all sorts of assumptions that, you know, might even seem positive on the surface. But nevertheless, I've been taught through life experience that, like, I'd better open my mouth and quickly define myself in a new space and with new people because if I don't I will be defined.

SHAPIRO: The show is set in an Ivy League university. And so even if the students face some degree of oppression, they're still relatively privileged. And one of your main characters, Sam, touches on this in the first episode. Let's listen.


LOGAN BROWNING: (As Samantha White) You know, in the real world, kids are getting shot by cops for being black; voter rights are still being suppressed; our criminal justice system continues to propagate a new Jim Crow. This isn't about a college magazine. This is about a movement. We're surrounded by the future leaders of this country, and we've finally got their ear. So what do we want to say?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) About what now?

SIMIEN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: They're distracted. They're distracted.

SIMIEN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So when people are getting shot and locked up in the real world, why write a show about what some people would describe as microaggressions?

SIMIEN: I think this is actually the conundrum that a lot of black people faced. You know, we had a black president. You know, one black celebrity actually was a billionaire for the first time. And...

SHAPIRO: Oprah Winfrey.

SIMIEN: Exactly. And black people had more of a prominent role in the culture. And so for a long time, you really couldn't even mention racism to a white person, frankly, because you'd be accused of crying wolf.

But I think one of the things that we have to continue to explore and think about are the ways in which everyone is oppressed by this system. These black kids and the white kids, all of whom are at the same school, all of whom are - if they're not from the same socioeconomic level, at least here at this school they all feel kind of equal and similar. But yet the black kids are experiencing a very different kind of Winchester than the white kids are experiencing.

SHAPIRO: I feel like there was an era of black storytelling in TV and movies that was sort of driven by Spike Lee and his contemporaries. And you're of a different generation now. And this is a very kind of post-Obama black narrative.


SHAPIRO: And I wonder how you would describe what this moment is in telling black stories in TV and movies.

SIMIEN: Well, I think what's new and different about what's happening now is that there are multiple different versions of black lives being presented simultaneously. So you know, the fact that you can watch "Insecure," watch "Dear White People," watch "Atlanta," watch "The Haves And The Have Nots," watch "Scandal" and see completely different versions of us, it suggests that we're human beings. You can't sort of pin us into one or two experiences. And that's what I think is unique about this time.

SHAPIRO: Justin Simien, it's been great talking to you. Thank you.

SIMIEN: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Justin Simien is the creator of the new Netflix show "Dear White People." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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