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Stephen Jackson
Dr. Erin McLaughlin
Writing and Rhetoric 13300
12 October 2015

Activism and Racism in Dear White People


The film Dear White People, directed by Justin Simien, uses a fictitious Ivy League
school, Winchester University, as the setting in which to present the idea that racism and racial
conflict are still alive in present day America. The president of the university has decided to
randomize housing at the university, thereby breaking up the traditionally all black Armstrong
Parker residence hall. Sam White, who runs a radio show Dear White People from which the
film gets its name, is at the root of resistance to this decision of the president. Amidst all the
drama caused by Sam, Kurt Fletcher, the son of the president, plans a Halloween party at which
everyone is invited to dress up as a black and to give vent to their interior black personality by
unleashing their inner Negro. Lionel Higgins, a black sophomore struggling to find his
personal identity and acceptance at Winchester, finds out about the party and ultimately is the
cause of the black student union coming and breaking up the party, resulting in fighting and
property damage. The police become involved, and so does national media. In the end, Sam gets
her wish, and Armstrong Parker becomes once again an all-black residence hall. However, the
Sam at the beginning of the film is definitely not the same as the Sam at the end of the film. The
director uses the progression of film scenes to portray the overall shift in Sam's method of
activism, which leads to the films conclusion that a more subtle form of activism actually
produces results.

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Sam is introduced to us at the very beginning of the film, the last of a line of main
characters. The main characters are seen one by one, watching a news broadcast on television.
The camera is actually placed, as it were, in the television. The viewers are looking out of the
television at each of the main characters in turn. Sam is seen last of all. She is probably important
if she comes at the end of a line of characters. What is most interesting to note is how she is
portrayed. She is silently pointing her camera at the screen, and then clicks it off at the end of the
broadcast, as a small, wry, but definitely not happy smile creeps across her mouth. This gives the
first indication of her attitude towards activism one of getting something started, and then
merely sitting back, perhaps with spite, and watching events unfold for better or worse.
The shift in Sam's attitude is expressed by how she is presented in the scene by the
camera. She first comes across as a haughty, defiant, strong willed character. She competes
against Troy for head of the once all-black Armstrong Parker house. Her one goal in regard to
Armstrong Parker is to protest the randomization of housing, which has split up the blacks into
other residence halls. She is quite bent on her objective, even being willing to go to the extreme
of petition and public protest against the president. In the scene depicting the election, when she
gets up to give her speech, the camera gives us as viewers an insight which the people in the film
watching Sam don't get to see. The camera lets us see Sam from behind, and we see her
clenching her hands deliberately, behind her back. This shot must be intentional on the part of the
director. It is meant to illustrate something about the plot, or about Sam's character and how it
intertwines with the plot. It perhaps lets the viewer make the conclusion that Sam isn't quite as
confident as she would like to appear, perhaps not quite as firm in her convictions about her
stance in taking active means to change racial views on the campus of Winchester University.
However, in the beginning of the film, Sam is still quite an extreme activist. She has been

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elected head of Armstrong-Parker house, and she definitely fulfills her role as such. This is seen
in the striking scene in which she kicks Kurt out of the dining hall. Kurt interrupts the
conversation of some of the blacks, and at a certain point Sam decides to step in. The camera
clearly illustrates that this is a particular confrontation between her and Kurt. The camera zooms
in, slightly from beneath, so that the viewer is looking up at Sam and Kurt face to face. Everyone
else in the scene has quieted down. The shifts in the camera shows some of the other characters'
reactions to Sam's attitude. Troy, the former head of house, is shaking his head, while Reggie is
grinning, clearly showing his interior delight. This confrontation ultimately results in Sam
standing her ground, and Kurt leaving the dining hall. As head of house, Sam is definitely not
hiding in the background.
Another interesting one on one conversation that the camera highlights is between Sam
and Reggie, right before the protest. Sam's attitude and words make Reggie suspect that Sam is
having doubts about her position. Sam on the other hand, claims that she is not getting cold feet.
The camera moves back and forth between Sam and Reggie, setting up, as it were, the conflict
between the two. The scene is interrupted when Sam's cell phone rings. The camera zooms in on
Sam's face as she answers the call from her mom. It is made clear by this close up shot that Sam
is undergoing some sort of emotional struggle. The camera remains fixed in this close up shot,
giving the viewer time to fully grasp the meaning and importance of this part of the scene. Sam
begins to tear up, and choke on her words. Even though we aren't quite certain of the cause of her
emotional distress, we know that something important is going on. The camera then takes us
back to her confrontation with Reggie. However, in this scene, instead of Sam standing up and
holding her ground as she did in the dining hall scene with Kurt, she turns around and runs away
running away, but this time not to continue her extreme activism, as she did in the case when

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she ran away from the dean, but running away all together. It is interesting to compare this scene
to the scene with Kurt. The one on one confrontation with Kurt resulted in Sam coming out
master of the situation. Here, she is clearly the loser in the situation. Reflecting on this scene
gives the viewer the first indication that Sam is changing. It is as if she no longer remembers her
haughty words to the dean. She is turning away from her violent and extreme position as an
activist.
Her change becomes solidified by the events that follow. During the party, when Lionel
realizes what is actually going on and comes to Sam, her reaction is not one as it would have
been at the beginning of the film. The old Sam would have reacted, and protested, and done
something to stop the party. However, she tells Lionel she is done being everyone's angry black
chick. She merely lets the party run its full course, come what may. She actually does decide to
show up to the party though, not to start a fight as Lionel does with the members of the black
student union, but with her video camera. In the midst of the havoc and confusion that results
from the party being broken up, we see Sam (and her camera) as a mere silent onlooker. One of
the last shots of the party scene is slowed down to let the viewer grasp the significance of what is
happening. We see the police running onto the scene. From among the blackness, Sam slowly
comes into focus, and we see her with her camera, and the flashing lights of police cars in the
background. The choice to take such a long time fading Sam into the scene is deliberate, and is
meant to have an effect on the viewers. As Lancioni states, The more time viewers spend
moving through the illusionary depths of the image, the more significance that image takes on
(110). This slow motion shot of Sam is almost the climax of the movie. It therefore makes sense
that the director would choose to slow down the camera, and even to silence the noise of the
scene, in order to let the viewers fully grasp the importance of the event. Once she is done

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filming the scene, Sam slowly moves the camera away from her eye, and the scene changes. Her
work is complete.
The director is presenting two types of activism in the character of Sam. On the one hand,
there is the violent Sam, who seeks to effect change by visible opposition, public petition and
protest. On the other hand, there is the Sam at the end of the film, who actually succeeds in
effecting the desired change by merely instigating something, and then sitting back and watching
without taking an active part. The question then comes to mind: Which is the better method?
Which form of activism is the director perhaps suggesting is the better?
From analyzing the course of events in the film, the conclusion could be reached that the
more subtle form of activism is being promoted. It is after all what reaches the desired objective
and causes reform in the end. Some might object that this is an activism where the end justifies
the means; where the result is sought after at any cost. While Sam certainly does stoop to means
which are questionably ethical, it is also likely true to say that if she hadn't done what she did by
making sure the racially discriminating party would still happen, nothing would have happened.
Sam could almost be equated to a whistle blower in the sense that all she needed to do was to
make the problem evident to the public at large. Her show Dear White People was effective
insofar as it had a very large number of viewers, but it was only the police coming to break up
the riot during the Halloween party that made national news.
So then, why does any of this matter? What is the whole point of this film? Is racism
really still a problem in America? For Simien, the answer to that question is a definite yes.
Thus the film. Bitzer claims that rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a
situation, in the same sense that a solution [comes] in response to a problem (5). The
rhetorical situation to which Simien responds is contemporary American society, with its racial

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prejudices. Some white viewers could object that the film is exaggerated; that such things don't
really happen anymore. (The president of the university in the film pretty much has the same
attitude.) Simien has a ready answer to that objection in the epilogue of the film. We see pictures
from news reports of events similar to Kurt's black-themed Halloween party. To note one in
particular, we see a news clipping about such an occurrence at Dartmouth College in 2013. In a
certain sense, Simien is like his character Sam. He has brilliantly called attention to a problem
that American society faces today. It only remains to be seen how American society will
ultimately respond.

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Works Cited
Bitzer, Lloyd F. The Rhetorical Situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1 (1968) : 1-14. Print.
Dear White People. Dir. Justin Simien. Lionsgate, 2014. Film.
Lancioni, Judith. The Rhetoric of the Frame: Revisioning Archival Photographs of the Civil
War. Western Journal of Communication, 60.4 (1996) : 397-415. Print.

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