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Using “Dear White People” to Discuss Campus Climate & Racial Identity

This past summer, following the church shooting that occurred in South Carolina, I participated in an ACPA – College Student Educators International virtual discussion, conversing with other educators about how to process the tragedy, but also how to educate, how to incite action on our campuses.  What is the role of college student educators in moments like this? How do we address systemic white privilege, so deeply entangled in the fabric of our country’s historical and contemporary consciousness?

One colleague was quite clear: White people need to start talking to other White people about privilege. About racism – particularly its systemic nature.  White people must stop talking about race as something impacting only people of color. White people need to stop treating race as a lesson we learn about in class, but quickly forget after the conclusion of the lecture/segment/series/day.

This discussion weighed heavy on my mind as I spent the summer preparing the syllabus for Diverse College Students – a master’s seminar for future student affairs professionals that I am teaching this Fall here at Sam Houston State University.  I decided to begin the course with bell hooks’ (1994) Teaching to Transgress to open dialogue about how we consider create learning environments that are open to the practice of “freedom,” as hooks describes.

This was followed by two weeks dissecting Paula S. Rothenberg’s (2016) White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. The 5th edition, which was just released, contains many of the foundational essays from previous editions, but also includes new essays addressing the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin (Hart, 2016) and Michael Brown (Dyson, 2016).  Undergirding these discussions was an attempt at unpacking systemic privilege; seeking to help students, particularly White students, understand how systems work so we could evaluate our campuses and higher education as systems upholding White privilege.  Only after these foundational weeks did we turn to racial identity models.

Dear White People

Dear-White-People-Poster-597x884I also decided to have students watch the film Dear White People. Set on the fictitious predominantly White campus of Winchester University, the film centers campus race issues: the daily microaggressive behaviors of White students toward Black students on campus; the challenges Black students (and students of color) face in finding and maintaining community on a predominantly White campus; campus policies that marginalize Black students (and students of color); tokenization of Black students (and administrators) by White students (and administrators); White students and administrators failure to understand privilege, highlighted through predictable responses to such misunderstanding: charges of reverse racism by White students, and the proverbial “racism is no longer an issue” response to Black student concerns by the University President.

The film reaches crescendo when a White fraternity on campus, Pastiche, decides to host a Hip-Hop Halloween party, where students are invited to “release their inner Negro.” This party is disrupted by Black students and other students of color, and is followed by a predictable administrator response of “we don’t tolerate such behavior” on our campus and “we are a welcoming, inclusive community.”  As we approach Halloween I have no doubt that we will be reading headlines in the next few weeks of this very occurrence happening on a college campus somewhere in the United States.

A Study in White Privilege

The film is a study in the systemic nature of White privilege on college campuses. There is the scene where the college President (a White man) addresses the Dean of Students (a Black man) telling the Dean to quash and handle Black student protests against a new campus policy called the Randomization of Housing Act, which threatens to break up a Historically Black Campus Housing community.  Race issues are “student issues,” the President says, although the President denies that Winchester has any race problems.  It is the Black Dean of students who should handle race issues, not the White president. Decisions to circumvent student protest are driven by concerns about “bad press” and “donors” becoming upset.  White privilege.

There is a scene where the Dean of Students is talking to his son, Troy, who attends Winchester. The Dean conveys the truth – that the President barely made it through school, has at best mediocre qualifications, to be President.  The Dean – who excelled in school, graduated top of his class, however, is not the President of the University.  White privilege.

This story is situated within the context of the Dean scolding Troy for smoking marijuana and losing re-election as Head of House in his residence hall.  The Dean is attempting to relay to Troy the realities of White privilege: as a Black man you can do everything “right” – excel academically, serve your community, dress and speak in a specific way – and still find yourself in a subservient position. Fulfill a stereotype – in this case, get caught smoking marijuana – and the game is up.  White students, however, can easily get away with such behavior.  White Privilege.

The Housing Randomization Act is policy rooted in White privilege. In the movie, Armstrong-Parker House is a residence of predominantly Black students.  The Housing Randomization Act seeks to diversify what appears to be “segregated” housing by randomly assigning students to housing, rather than allowing students to choose where they want to live.  The result will be the destruction of Armstrong-Parker House as a cultural hub of Black student life at Winchester.  The Black students protesting the new policy is one plot of the movie.  This policy is rooted in White privilege. If students are randomly assigned, White students will still live in racially homogenous environments; Black students, however, will be marginalized from important community support on the campus.  White privilege.

The Editor of the school newspaper (a White student) reaches out to Lionel (one of the film’s main characters; a Black student), asking him to “infiltrate” Armstrong-Parker House and write a story on the racial unrest being caused by the Housing Randomization Act.  Lionel, who is seeking a way to fit in on campus, takes up the offer.  Lionel’s relationship with the White student editor is exploitative (including sexually exploitative).  The White editor’s aim is to impress his advisor at the New York Times by publishing a story unpacking the racial tension at Winchester.  The White student editor likely does not care about improving race relations, but only advancing his own career, and he uses Lionel to do so.  White privilege.

There are countless other examples of White privilege in the movie.  The aim was to help students think about the complexity of these issues and how campus policies, administrative structures, networks of alumni and donors, and history all play out in very real ways on our campuses – in ways that perpetuate White privilege.

Racial Identity

The film is also an outstanding study in unpacking racial identity development models that we often teach and discuss in student affairs programs.  The complexity of the characters in this film allow us to open more nuanced examinations of how racial identity plays out in the present-day college environment, while also discussing the utility of theory in practice, particularly for understanding students along vast continuums of understanding racial identity.

For example, you might examine Kurt, one of the White students in the film – the son of the President and head of Pastiche – who organizes the Hip Hop party and also makes the comment that the most dangerous and oppressed group in present-day society is the “educated White man.”  Where does Kurt fall on Rowe, Bennett, and Atkinson’s (1994) White Consciousness Model? In my reading, he exhibits signs of both dominative and conflictive attitudes. He relies on stereotypes about Black people (coming to eat at Armstrong-Parker so he can have chicken and waffles) and also is opposed to policies, such as affirmative action, that might eradicate racial injustices.  How does Kurt’s decision to host the party work as a function of White privilege, knowing he will likely not face consequences due to both his racial identity and his father’s role as President of the university? What is the role of college student educators, and the campus environment, in providing the challenge and support needed for Kurt to develop in his racial identity?  Or more importantly, an understanding of his White privilege?

We might examine Lionel, one of the Black students in the film – who is also gay and seeking to find his place on campus. One of my favorite scenes in the film has Lionel sitting on the steps of a campus building looking at the quad.  He looks to a group of Black students who have congregated, and then over to a group of gay students who have congregated, and realizes he does not fit in either of these groups.  Lionel could be a study in Intersectionality theory (Berger & Guidroz, 2010; Strayhorn, 2013) or gay identity development (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010).

However, strictly looking at Lionel’s racial identity development in the movie is informative.  At the beginning of the film, Lionel rejects moving to Armstrong-Harper House, telling the Dean that in high school he had tremendous problems fitting in with the Black students.  He takes a position of “rejecting labels.”  At the end of the film it is Lionel who tips off members of the Black Student Union to the Hip Hop Party at Pastiche.  Seeing the party first-hand, Lionel has a moment of cognitive dissonance, realizing for the first time just how racist Winchester University really is.  We might discuss Lionel’s movement within Jackson’s (2012) Black Identity Development model from a position of Naive into Stage 3, Resistance.  By the end of the movie, we see Lionel embracing his Black identity, becoming more actively involved in the Black Student Union and more freely interacting with students at Armstrong-Parker.  This could be Lionel moving into Jackson’s (2012) Redefinition stage.

There are also two characters, Sam and Troy, who are biracial-multiracial.  Both of these characters present complicated, nuanced understanding of racial identity that will become increasingly important for college student educators to understand. As Museus, Lambe Sariñana, and Ryan (2015) discuss, biracial and multiracial students face different levels of oppression, prejudice, and discrimination on campus.  Such prejudice and oppression comes from both White students, and other students of color.  How students cope with these prejudices and stereotypes influences their understanding of racial identity – be that a monoracial, multiracial, extraracial, and-or situational racial identity.  While Sam and Troy are often discussed from the perspective of a monoracial identity (as Black students), their identity as biracial-multiracial actually complicates the story of race on present-day college campuses.  This discussion is important to have with emerging college student educators.


While we often expose college student educators to theory and case studies, asking them to unpack racial identity or campus climate issues from empirical perspectives, popular culture can be an important way to examine multiculturalism on campus.  The film Dear White People allows educators to unpack, dissect, and understand important issues: White privilege, racial identity development, campus racial politics, issues of sexual orientation, and tokenization.


Berger, M. T. & Guidroz, K. (2010). The intersectional approach: Transforming the academy through race, class, and gender. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Dyson, M. E. (2016). Where do we go after Ferguson? In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (5th ed., pp. 187-190). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hardiman, R. & Keehn, M. (2012). White identity development revisited: Listening to White students. IN B. W. Jackson III & C. J. Wijeysesinghe (Eds.), New perspectives on racial identity development: Integrating emerging frameworks (2nd ed., pp. 121-137). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Hart, W. D. (2016). Dead Black man, just walking. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (5th ed., pp. 35-46). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jackson III, B. W. (2012). Black identity development: Influences of culture and social oppression. In B. W. Jackson III & C. J. Wijeysesinghe (Eds.), New perspectives on racial identity development: Integrating emerging frameworks (2nd ed., pp. 33-50). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Museus, S. D., Lambe Sariñana, S. A., & Ryan, T. K. (2015). A qualitative examination of multiracial students’ coping responses to experiences with prejudice and discrimination in college. Journal of College Student Development56(4), 331-348.

Rothenberg, P. S. (2016). White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Rowe, W., Bennett, S. K., & Atikinson, D. R. (1994). White racial identity development models: A critique and alternative proposal. Counseling Psychologist22, 129-146.

Strayhorn, T. L. (Ed.). (2013). Living at the intersections: Social identities and Black collegians. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

1 Comment

  1. Jen Jones says:

    I loved Dear White People. Great movie. Bet it made for very interesting discussion in your course!

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