On Black Women, The Crooked Room, and Dear White People…

My Dear Readers,

This week, I have invited Mia Smith from RevolutionsDaughter.com back to guest post on Loving Me More.  I was curious about her take on the movie Dear White People, and I wanted to share with you what she had to say.  Enjoy!

Dr. Kane

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I must not have completely worn out my welcome with Dr. Kane, because he’s asked me to write another guest blog for Loving Me More, and I’m super honored, as usual.  This time, he wanted to hear my take on the movie Dear White People, which I saw with him 2 weeks ago.

I won’t spoil the plot too much, but based on his blog last week, we had vastly different takeaways coming out of that movie– which I think was the point of it.  There was so much to digest and to process, I would be surprised if we had the same feelings about it.

However, where the general depiction of young black people at an Ivy League college grabbed him, I found myself particularly drawn to the key black female characters: Samantha “Sam” White, the mixed-race, light-skinned black revolutionary played by Tessa Thompson, and  Colandrea “Coco” Conners, the dark skinned black woman who wants to be accepted into privileged white society played by Teyonah Parris.

I’ve written before about the portrayal of black women, particularly young black women in cinema, and I found the female characters in Dear White People to be refreshingly three-dimensional and well-developed– which was, in and of itself, a double-sided sword.  On one hand, it was great to see black women realistically portrayed, and on the other, it was kind of like the lyrics of Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly;”  they were strumming my pain with their fingers and singing my life with their words.

In my mind, the entire movie is about finding and living the truth of your personal identity in the midst of a society that wants to force you to quiet down and conform, in the case of Sam White, or in the case of Coco Conners, being your own comfort in the face of rejection from a society that doesn’t accept you, no matter how much you try to conform to what they want.

Melissa Harris-Perry, in her amazing book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women In America, calls this “the crooked room,”  referring to post-WWII cognitive psychology research on field dependence.  In these studies, which focused on an individual’s ability to find the upright in a space, subjects would be placed in a crooked room, and then asked to align themselves vertically.  In some cases, people were tilted by as much as 35 degrees and still felt like they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images around them that were equally tilted.

Harris-Perry relates this to the condition of black women in American society in this way:

“When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up.  Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion…To understand why black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted in ways that accommodate the degrading stereotypes about them, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior.  It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.”

And that’s how I felt in watching Sam White and Coco Conners– like we were all in our crooked rooms with transparent walls, watching each other trying to stand up straight.

Sam White

For all of her passion, fire and bluster, Sam White, at the end of the day, was simply the “Strong Black Woman,”  a trope that has been used since time immemorial to describe (and sometimes trap) black women.  She is the voice of the minorities on campus, and the nagging conscience of the white majority, with her controversial “Dear White People” radio show, her successful campaign to lead the predominantly black residence hall on campus, and the rallies that she organizes on campus.  She is an instrument, a tool– the black and other minority students use her to advocate for the rights that they want, but either cannot or will not achieve for themselves, the white students use her as the common enemy to unite themselves, and the men in her life see her as a possession, this powerful person that they can have as an ally to further their own egos, or someone to challenge and take down because she is a threat.  Yet, she continues to do this because she only sees herself through those images, and although she is aligned with those images, she is still tilted.

The scene that broke this for me– and made me cry– was the scene where she was heading across the quad to her friends/revolution team in preparation for a rally, and Sam gets a call from her mother, telling her that her father’s health wasn’t doing well.  Her father’s sickness has been an undercurrent through the whole movie– showing the internal stress that Sam silently deals with on a daily basis while she is fighting all of these battles at her school– but it’s only at this point, with these large tears streaming down her face, that she turns to her crew after the call, and instead of any of them, these black people who have followed her, instead of ANY of them simply asking what’s wrong, they just ask “Are you ready to go? We need you.”

That hit me right in the gut– I’ve been in that situation before.  When I replay that scene in my mind, I see my mother, sister, aunts, grandmothers, so many other pivotal black women in my life, who have been in that situation, and instead of running away like Sam did at that moment, they dry it up, suck it up, and perform, only to break down in a spectacular way at some other point in the future– but this actually was  Sam’s breaking point.

Until that moment, when Sam finally breaks under the pressure, nothing would have changed– and indeed, as she runs back to her safe haven to find a respite, they follow her, banging on her door, demanding the strong black woman that they have stood on, even Gabe, her white lover, who is the only one she actually lets in.  And even that is fraught with guilt– because she’s the black revolutionary, she couldn’t be seen with him, but her heart and her true identity yearns for him, because he is the only one who truly sees her.  He is the only one she can really be vulnerable, and thus, be truly herself, with.

It is after this realization that Sam disappears from the story for a bit, and while everyone focuses on how “Sam has let us down,” and “We can’t do this without Sam here,”  Sam chooses to take her hair down– effectively taking off the uniform of the revolutionary, and chooses to truly accept who she is, a black woman with a white father whom she actually has the nerve to love, and a white lover that she also trusts and loves — and through this, she does really become her own person, and more powerful than she ever was before.

Coco Conners

Coco, on the other hand, is the anti-hero, and although as a black woman, I am conditioned to be on #TeamSam, there is something amazing about the Coco character and the phenomenal young actress Teyonah Parris, who plays her.

Coco is a beautiful dark chocolate black woman, tall and svelte and sensual, with bright blue eyes and long-straight black hair.  She is always impeccably dressed, and well spoken.  Like her revolutionary counterparts, she is articulate and very intelligent, but with one marked difference– she wants nothing to do with her fellow black men and women.  She wants nothing to do with her race, opting for the silky black wig that she wears, and the bright blue contacts she puts into her eyes.  She bemoans the fact that she has been assigned to the predominantly black Anderson-Parker residence hall, and wishes that she was assigned to Becket Hall, home of the wealthy whites.  She doesn’t like to date black men, and thinks that Sam White and her ilk are terrorists and troublemakers.  She is what Sam calls a “nose job,” meaning that if it was possible for Coco (who prefers to be called  that to her “ethnic, ghetto name” Colandrea) to change her skin color and have a nose job to become white, she would.

None of this is lost on Coco.  She plays it off as being a realist– that she does what she has to do to get what she wants, and this is just the best way of doing so, but what grabbed me about the character is that she is truly a woman without a country– tolerated, but never really accepted by the white culture that she wants so much to be a part of — except to be objectified and fetishized by the white frat boys–  and ostracized by a black community that she would never be “black enough” for, even if she tried.

Coco’s experience in the crooked room is one of shame– her trope is of Sapphire, the seductress, but it arises out of shame– shame of herself, and shame over the rejection of the society around her.  Melissa Harris-Perry likens this to the experience of the character Pauline Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye: 

“Absorbing white standards of beauty and virtue made her ashamed and unable to love herself , her children, and her life. When the ugliness of her life makes beauty and order impossible in her own home, she escapes this shame by clinging to the trappings of whiteness…Two decades before clinical psychologists  conceived a theory of the collective effects of shame, Morrison’s painful tale of the Breedloves explicates the  burden of shame that black girls carry.  Through Claudia’s (the narrator) jealous rages about Shirley Temple, Morrison reveals how black girls are forced to live in a world that declares Shirley Temple beautiful and worthy… (values that are) denied to little black girls like Claudia.”

In Coco’s case, she is beset by the spectre of Sam– Sam, who is wild and unruly and disagreeable, being the natural choice for a reality show that Coco desperately wants to be on. Coco wants to be seen for who she is and the considerable talents that she has, but nothing that she does accomplishes that, short of becoming the stereotypical black woman that she has spent so much time and effort to distance herself from.

As a young black woman born in a middle class family, I recognize a lot of myself in Coco, although I have been conditioned to identify with the likes of Sam. But, as a dark-skinned black woman in a world where black people often gravitate to the light-skinned, biracial likes of Sam, I know what it is like to be Coco.  I know what it is like to want to stand out and be accepted so badly that you will shame yourself to do so.  I know what it is like to be so talented, to have so much to offer, and to work so hard, but to have things given to others simply because they can be.  I was just lucky that I found my own identity early enough so that I didn’t experience what Coco did in the movie.

Coco’s breaking point came at the Pastiche Halloween Party, where an invitation, later revealed to have come from Sam herself, invited the white students to “get their crunk on”  by dressing as black people and in blackface– a party that Coco attended, in the hopes of joining the Pastiche writing staff. She went in her blue contacts and in her blonde wig, but she, being the only black woman in a party where black people were lampooned and caricatured, her own attempt to “flip the script” went unnoticed.  Even being the lone “white girl” in a sea of “black people”, she was still invisible, still not accepted.  When she ran into the newly emancipated Sam, who only attended the party to document it for her media project, Coco tries to explain herself, saying that she’s “not going to fault these white people for wanting so much to be like black people,” and that she “won’t apologize for being a part of it,”  but that, in and of itself, was an apology.  And by the time she takes off her own blonde wig outside the party, we realize that although she may have thought she was playing the game smarter, she was actually being played herself.

Personal and Racial Identity

At the end of the film, the feeling is that everyone eventually finds themselves, but not really.  Sam has found happily ever after by accepting her biracial heritage and having the courage to step out publicly with her white lover, Gabe, even though she gets many a side-eye from her former revolutionaries, but Coco still wanders– she makes love to the popular black man on campus, looking for acceptance there, but only finds that he doesn’t want to be associated with her in public– the same way that Sam once treated Gabe, and the same way that many powerful white men treated their black mistresses in history.

However, Coco does finally get her shot at the reality TV show, and as the movie leaves off, she has the opportunity to not only create a brand new identity for herself, but also a brand new reality.

The question I’m left with, however, is this: why is Coco’s destiny such a question mark, when Sam’s is so neatly tied up?  Is it because Sam is light-skinned and therefore more palatable to men?  Is it because Sam is the hero and we are conditioned to root for the hero?  Or is it much more similar to reality, in which the light skinned black girl discovers her identity because it has already been decided for her, where us dark-skinned girls have to create our own?

So many thoughts, so many questions… until later,

Mia

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