With the Netflix adaption to his 2014 film, Dear White People, dropping in April, writer/director Justin Simien wrote a detailed explanation on the series’ controversial title. The series, like the movie, follows a group of black students at a predominantly white elite college, and the trifling ignorance — and flat-out racism — that they face, including white coeds petting natural curls and a disturbing frat party where blackface is encouraged. The title Dear White People has received backlash since before the original film hit theaters, because, as Simien writes in his essay for Medium, “[Simien] dared to put the words ‘white’ and ‘people’ next to one another in my title.” Now, in the wake of the jump to Netflix, the title is once again in the limelight.
Simien writes that he originally wanted to name the movie “2%” as a reference to the percentage of black students at the story’s fictional ivy league school, but he was told that “number films never work” with marketing. So instead he latched onto a joke he had with his friend:
Sending “Dear White America-isms” back and forth had become a snarky but satisfying pastime initiated by my friend. During such an exchange it dawned on me that “Dear White America” would make a great name for the radio show hosted by firebrand Samantha White, a divisive fictional character in [the 2%] screenplay.
From there, Simien developed a “Dear White People” Twitter handle and thought about the movie in terms of popular memes during that time like Stuff White People Like and Shit White Girls Say. In addition to the meme-worthy capacity of the name, the characters within the movie also grapple with the title, as it’s the same as that of a character’s fictional radio show — with some black students supporting it and others finding it “blacker than thou propaganda.” “In addition to that rationale,” Simien explains, “before one had even seen the film, the title immediately invited a discussion about what racism even is.” Simien saw this uncomfortable confrontation with racism to be the crux of the movie.
A show called Dear White People forced the characters in the film (as well as audiences) to ponder these questions alongside an uncomfortable feeling that their very identities may essentially be mere responses to mainstream white culture’s preconceptions of them. What a mind-fuck being black could be in what was still being called “Post-Racial America.” The title felt appropriate on virtually every criteria I could come up with.
Read Simien’s full explanation here.