On Seeing 'Dear White People' With My Biracial Son

Mom and kids on a bench

"Mulatto! Mulatto! Mulatto!" a character in Dear White People yells about halfway through the rated-R movie, which opened last month and is now playing in theaters nationwide.

My 15-year-old son leaned over and whispered in my ear, "I thought no one was allowed to say that word anymore."

The question is of particular interest to him because my son is, technically, a mulatto. No, not a sterile mule, but the offspring of one white parent (me, though I identify as Jewish -- please don't tell me it’s a religion; where I was born, in the former USSR, it's considered an ethnicity and listed that way on your internal passport) and one Black parent (his dad).

My son identifies as Jewish (which is easy as it’s matrilineal) and as African-American. Which is a lot more complicated.

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My son has tight, curly hair that kids at school are constantly asking to touch. ("Dear White People: This is not a petting zoo.") But he also has blue eyes, which, in the movie, is used against a character deemed not sufficiently Black. And he has light enough skin that, if he wanted to, my son could "pass." At another point in the movie, a character is told, equally derisively, "When I first met you, I thought you were Puerto Rican."

My son gets that a lot, too.

Dear White People takes place on the campus of a fictional, Ivy League-ish liberal arts college, where only 2 percent of the student body is Black.

My son attends the most selective public high-school in New York City, where less than 1 percent of the student body is Black. They are, however, 73 percent Asian. Throughout the film, my son kept demanding, "Where are all the Asian people?" One finally shows up at the end to offer that she attends Black Student Union meetings because they serve better snacks.

As a sophomore, my son -- like all teenagers everywhere, I presume -- is currently in the process of figuring out who he is and where he belongs. He is very lucky to go to a school that prioritizes academics, so there are no problems with kids being teased if they love to study and learn. He is doubly lucky that, in an institution made up of bright and talented outliers, nobody finds it weird that he wants to work in the school theater's costume department or come to class wearing an intricate balloon sculpture on his head for Halloween.

He is less lucky, however, when it comes to issues of race and identity. He's been told that he's "not really Black" by everyone from immigrant Africans to those who ask, "Are you sure you're not Asian?" when they hear about the kind of discipline and work ethic that goes on in our house. He’s been trying to join the Black Club since freshman year. But, despite giving them his email three times, they have yet to contact him with a date and time for their meetings. It could be that they're just disorganized. It is a student-run club, after all. It could be something more.

That was the main reason I took my son to see Dear White People.

I wanted to get his reaction.

His reaction was primarily one of confusion.

"I don’t understand what the movie was trying to say," he pontificated as we walked home. “They kept talking about what it means to be really Black, but they didn’t answer the question. Are you supposed to want to live in all-Black dorms, or are you supposed to want integration? Is it okay to like sci-fi, or are you only supposed to watch sports? Can I listen to music that isn't rap? What if it's the wrong kind of rap? And what about speaking proper English? Does that make you a sell-out? Am I supposed to feel guilty about not wanting to go to a historically Black college, or should I go to the Ivy League so I'll be in with the power structure? I am so confused. Why didn't the movie explain anything clearly? Why didn't they tell me what to think?

The fact that the movie didn’t explain anything clearly (and didn’t tell the audience what to think), though, was what I liked best about it.

Dear White People showed a variety of facets of Black life -- at least as it pertains to the educated middle class, which, like it or not, is what my son is solidly a part of (and one that is rarely represented in popular media otherwise). They showed clean-cut strivers eager to fit in with the 1 percent, and retro-revolutionaries offended by the suggestion. Girls who straighten their hair and girls who struggle to make it more "authentic." They showed Black computer nerds alongside Black aspiring journalists, lawyers, politicians, comedy writers, and filmmakers. They showed Black romantic couples, interracial couples, and even a (potential) gay, interracial couple who, for the record, were the most interesting and appealing pair on-screen.

They showed that there is no one way to think Black, act Black, or be Black.

My son may believe that the movie confused him.

I prefer to believe that it gave him food for thought. And, one day, maybe even a remedy for his confusion.

 

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