The first season of Dear White People dropped on Netflix on Friday and it did not disappoint. Many who saw the 2014 film are thoroughly convinced that the new series is way better than the movie. There is a lot to love about it: a dope soundtrack, a diverse ensemble cast, a Scandal parody that puts the original to shame, and a refreshingly complex take on race that finally reflects what Black folks have been talking about on Twitter, Tumblr, and on our friends’ couches for years.
In each episode DWP beautifully breaks up the monotony of televised Blackness, taking care to show us in all of our varying physical, cultural, and ideological states. There is Lionel, the introverted journalist who has struggled with his sexuality in the midst of homophobic Black masculinity. Sam goes hard for the movement because it’s still relatively new to her due of her mixed race. Troy is a son of Black excellence who knows that he could be doing more for the culture. However, my favorite example among the series' complex profiles of Blackness is Coco Conners.
From the very first episode, Coco (played by Antoinette Robertson) is presented as the bougie antithesis to Sam’s radical activism. Sam is light-skinned with natural hair and little, if any, makeup. Coco is dark-skinned with a long, wavy weave and a full face beat. Sam leads the Black Student Union, a Black student advocacy organization that focuses on direct action at their fictional Winchester University. Coco is the treasurer of CORE (Coalition of Racial Equality), which relies on political alliances and trades in political correctness. Most of Coco’s campus friends are white and she is heavily invested in her image and success. The general consensus on their campus, and probably for many viewers, is that Coco is not woke.
However, that would be a gross oversimplification of her character and the real-life Black women like her. And if DWP teaches us anything, it’s that the politics of race and gender are never simple. It’s important to know that we meet Coco at a Black Caucus meeting, where all of Winchester’s different Black advocacy organizations meet collectively. And while she certainly doesn’t mind people thinking that she is from Evanston, IL, she is from the Southside of Chicago. She is the first in her family to go to college, and it took a wealthy, white mentor to help her attend an Ivy League. She has experienced violence and trauma that she is trying desperately to escape from.
When a fellow student has a gun pulled on him by campus officers, and other Black Caucus members propose violence as an organized response, it is Coco who reminds them of what is really at stake. When it comes to individual moments of life and death, holding back is sometimes the best route to go. Obviously, respectability politics need to be resisted and critiqued; relying on respectability is not an organizing strategy for Black liberation. However, there isn’t a single Black person in America who doesn’t have to use them at some point in their life to get or keep a job, secure housing, be approved for a loan, or keep an officer calm enough not to shoot. And sure, none of this is foolproof, but navigating life in this way is a reality we can’t ignore. Coco’s reasons for keeping up appearances are both personal and political.
It’s one thing to critique Coco’s obsession with white approval and acceptance. However, relegating her to the sell-out category because she’s committed to her lofty political aspirations, Louboutins, and full-coverage foundation is problematic as well. As we witnessed in conversations sparked by Kendrick’s controversial verse on “Humble,” Black women are judged to be woke or not based on how we choose to present our bodies. It’s not a coincidence that in one of Coco’s childhood flashback scenes, we see her learning to associate dark skin with ugliness. It’s a brilliant and often overlooked example of how race and gender intersect.
Coco Conners is complicated and downright wrong sometimes. It’s DWP’s courage to lean into these imperfections that makes her the best part of the series.