Dear White People, The Rachel Divide, and the Hard Questions of Identity
The second season of Dear White People—released today on Netflix under the tag Volume 2—rattles with welcome confrontation, proudly bearing the face of disquiet in its opening blushes. Creator-director Justin Simien wants to have a conversation with us. So he begins with a seemingly straightforward question: What goes best in grits?
Remember, we’re at Winchester University, which means students happily toss up answers like dynamite. Sugar. Salt. No, shrimp! “And a little gruyere—heaven.” There’s conflict. There’s harmony. There’s a natural intensity to the tempo of exchange. One of Simien’s signature cinematic tropes is to ignite debate around cultural emblems, major and minor, and this opening scene is a good example of how he does so (even if some of the dialogue feels overworked). "Look," Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) says in response, "y’all need to stop disrespecting grits like they’re Cream of Wheat."
I love grits too, specifically with cheese. But I also love Cream of Wheat. And herein lies Simien’s point—there’s a depth and complexity to these questions, and they are worthy of needed exploration. What their answers reveal, about the characters onscreen and the audience watching them, is another matter altogether.
If Dear White People pulls truth from the real world into a fictional setting, the great race illusionist Rachel Dolezal—the focus of a new documentary, The Rachel Divide, which also just landed on Netflix—works in reverse, stuffing fiction into truth. These two releases speak to each other in a strangely resonant way: engaging questions around identity and privilege—one from the inside out and the other from the outside in.
The first season of Dear White People didn’t stray far from the thematic design of Simien’s eponymous 2014 film. The plot hurled its protagonists through a series of trick doors and racial quandaries, some with more payoff than others, building to a campus Halloween party that involved blackface and a near-fatal police encounter. The season culminated in a school-wide protest that didn’t resolve much of anything for our heroine, Samantha White (Logan Browning), or for us, the audience. It was the story of Old America refusing to admit to its indignities and ignorances—of the powerless versus the powerful; the story of black versus white, and white remaining blind to its own privilege. You’ve heard this tune before.
Season 2 picks up shortly after the protest, just as a conservative backlash is gaining traction on campus, and across the nation. The mouthpiece of the movement is an online troll who posts under the moniker “AltIvyW,” and he quickly finds a target in Sam, who’s become a de facto “black voice” on campus thanks to her controversial radio show Dear White People. In one latter episode, Sam plainly articulates how radical conservatism has been warped into its modern image: "It’s targeted racism hiding behind free speech rhetoric."
At times, Dear White People verges on caricature in the way that a Spike Lee film might: compressing poignant context with over-the-top character portrayals. The most annoying rupture is dialogue; it’s weighed down by an eagerness to perform hashtag-speak. Take overachiever Troy (Brandon Bell) discussing his heteronormative expectations around dating with Lionel (DeRon Horton), his newly out-of-the-closet roommate: "I’m problematic as fuck, just @ me on your next think piece." There’s also the matter of the show’s gaze into queer life. Just about every gay student we come in contact with gushes over The Real Housewives, Bravo’s uber-popular reality TV franchise (satire or not, it’s a curious, if reductive projection given that Simien identifies as gay).
One of Dear White People’s genuine feats, however, is its rejection of easy, comfortable categorizations around black identity. Some read as callow and lazy, while others as wholly compelling. It can be a frustrating watch, but it’s not a false one. This is best displayed in Simien’s rotating character perspective (each episode is positioned from a different character POV). Think of it as an ensemble approach to personhood: Simien is showing how the self comes in and out of being, and why this metamorphosis is not always the same. A single thesis it may lack, but there are conversations aplenty: about black rage and trauma and free speech and colorism and white people appropriating oppression.
The one through-line of the season centers on displacement—physical, emotional, familial. The historically black dorm has been integrated by white students, and tensions remain red hot (one student jokingly terms it the "white refugee crisis"). It’s Simien mocking power, and how it often does what it does: co-opt the powerless, rob them of their own narrative, and remix it into something unsightly. It’s not just a question of who belongs, but one of who gets to stay, and why.
In The Rachel Divide, we are told, Dolezal's story is also one of displacement. She was displaced from herself as a little girl, feeling divorced from the image she saw in the mirror. “I grew up in a painfully white world,” she writes in her 2017 book, In Full Color. In it, she talks about race not being so easily defined, of looking one way during adolescence—"my skin was pale, my hair blonde, and my face full of freckles"—but feeling another. "I loved drawing pictures of myself when I was young, and whenever it came time to shade in the skin, I usually picked a brown crayon rather than a peach one."
Director Laura Brownson assembles a narrative free of bias, but it’s painfully clear that Dolezal is not only adept at blurring memory, fantasy, and fact, as all gifted costume artists are, but that she is a woman consumed by her own infamy. She speaks of how scandal has followed her since the summer of 2015, when news broke that she’d been passing as a black woman for almost a decade, ascending to the head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. "Do we have the right to live exactly how we feel?" she asks at one point, and all I could do was laugh. If only it were that simple. Her question implies that one has rights, or the means to do so, or even a shred of authority. It’s the kind of question rooted in privilege that refuses to see itself for exactly what it is—the benefactor of cultural entitlement.
Since Dolezal became a national talking point for claiming she was trans-black despite being born white, she's been unable to find steady work. In a modest, one-story home in Spokane, she lives with her three sons, Franklin and Langston, her biological children, and Izaiah, Dolezal’s adopted brother who she has legal custody over. Esther, Rachel’s adopted black sister, is her only confidant. To get by, she does hair in her home; one sign advertises in the kitchen: "Braids, Extensions, Dreadlocks."
Out of displacement, Dolezal sought transcendence. And she labors to make the distinction clear, self-identifying as black, not African-American. It links her to not just one branch of the African Diaspora, but the entire tree. It’s a dangerous claim, one that again implies her given status: She had a choice. She chose.
The most striking detail lands midway through the film. Speaking about her approach to artwork, Dolezal's sorcery reveals itself. "Every color shows up better when juxtaposed next to, or laying on top of, another color," she says, covering a blank canvas in variations of brown. "So you always want to cover the white of the canvas before painting."
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