My biggest fear heading into the new Netflix series Dear White People was that it would risk either oversimplifying or sensationalizing race relations on a predominantly white campus. I’ve never seen the film and had no presumptions about creator Justin Simien’s angle. Having watched the first episode ahead of the season premiere on April 28, I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed. The showrunners scrupulously avoid any pretense or flatness in regards to its characters, and themes. The series' sophistication and robustness is apparent from the very beginning. And while it’s way too soon to provide a full recap of the first episode — spoilers are real — I would be remiss not to talk about a particularly shining example of the series' perfect blend of consciousness, creativity, and hilarity: a fictional version of Scandal called Defamation.
Samantha White and some of the other Black students at the elite (and fictional) Winchester University are gathering in a common room for “‘Defamation Wednesdays,” a communal watch party for a popular political drama. White describes this event as “the epicenter of Black college life.” This is not an exaggeration. When Scandal first aired in 2012, I was in my last semester of a six-year undergraduate career (don’t judge) and feeling too damn old to be attending social events. However, I didn’t need to be on campus to know that in the show’s heyday, everyone loved Scandal — and Black people really loved it. Programming chairs at Black Student Unions across the country probably latched onto this show and encouraged a weekly viewing ritual to bring their Black students together.
If Ryan Murphy ruined fictional shows-within-shows after the last installment of American Horror Story, Dear White People just redeemed it. Defamation not only contextualizes Scandal from the perspective of Black viewers, it satirically addresses the racial dynamics within the ShondaLand series — something that not even Scandal itself has been fully committed to — and the sometimes-ridiculous excess of the script. Defamation’s version of Olivia Pope gives an impassioned to speech to its “Fitz” saying that she is not his property so he can’t pinch her ass at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Then she “pledges allegiance to his cock” before her father walks in. I. Was. Screaming.
And so was the mostly Black Winchester audience. It was a great example of the multitude of ways in which people of color can engage race. Our allegiances don’t always look like protests and impassioned speeches. We can love and hate the Black female lead of a prime-time show. We can resist an educational institution that protects white students who don blackface. We can be a people who do both.