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Dear White People, which first came out as an independent film in 2014, is coming to Netflix as a series. (eOne Films)
Dear White People, which first came out as an independent film in 2014, is coming to Netflix as a series. (eOne Films)

The shameful reality of racist backlash to Netflix's Dear White People Add to ...

Dear People of Colour,

I’m sorry. I apologize. I’m mortified that over the past week, many of my fellow white people watched a 25-second teaser trailer for an upcoming Netlflix series, and then called for a boycott of Netflix itself, just because the series is called Dear White People.

You and I know what’s going on here. There was no boycott in 2014, when an independent film came out with the same title, written and directed by the same man who’s doing the series, Justin Simien. The movie had the same gently satiric sensibility as the series’ teaser and seems to have the same characters and plot: a handful of black students navigating life at a (fictitious) U.S. Ivy League university.

In the film, black female student radio host Sam White (Tessa Thompson) gives tongue-in-cheek advice on her show, Dear White People. Students of every colour listen and react – some are offended, others amused. The story climaxes with a small group of black students disrupting an “Unleash Your Inner Negro” fraternity party full of white students dressed in blackface. Then, the closing credits are illustrated by date-stamped photos of actual university students in blackface at parties. But throughout, people of every race are called out for their intolerance of the other, and the central idea is that we should all try harder to not stereotype, and to bridge divides.

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The new teaser trailer begins where the film ends: Sam White (Logan Browning) advises white people to not dress in blackface for Halloween. So why the hubbub now? Because the film came out in pre-Trump 2014, and the trailer dropped Feb. 8, into the most chaotic first month in U.S. presidential history.

Minutes after it appeared, fearsome trolls and their bot army whipped up a #NoNetflix campaign urging people to cancel their subscriptions. Their de facto leader, professional agitator Timothy Treadstone, whose @BakedAlaska Twitter page’s wallpaper is (surprise) a photo of Donald Trump, went all the way right away, claiming that the as-yet-unseen show (it arrives April 28) “promotes white genocide.”

I can’t comprehend how Treadstone inferred that, since there’s no such suggestion in the teaser. In the film, the only thing that’s flat-out mocked is the claim that America is a postracial society.

The #NoNetflix boycott certainly proves that mockery correct. As of noon this past Wednesday, the teaser had just more than 50,000 likes on YouTube – and more than 393,000 dislikes. A shouty vlogger called it “a black revenge fantasy series,” and comments included these gems: “Because of this show I am going to be blackface Obama every year for Halloween for the rest of my life”; “I’m taking my white dollars somewhere else”; and “Netflix is owned by Jews, what do you expect?” Their parents must be beaming with pride.

In the week since the teaser arrived, Simien wrote an open letter on his Facebook page and gave several interviews, saying he feels “strangely encouraged. To see the sheer threat that people feel over a date announcement video featuring a woman of colour (politely) asking not to be mocked makes it so clear why I made this show… . Thanks, white supremacists, you really helped me promote it.”

Netflix isn’t saying how many people cancelled their subscriptions as a result of the boycott or how many people signed up because of it. But Simien says many Netflix executives, including the chief executive, e-mailed to make sure he was okay, and to assert that they believed in the show and had his back.

For a short while, Simien tried responding cheekily to nasty comments. To a man who tweeted, “Dear White People, never forget that blacks’ only purpose in life is robbing, raping, killing and exterminating you,” he replied, “It’s literally all we talk about in our secret meetings.”

But he quickly gave that up. “Even though I have the wherewithal to recognize their hatred as just a knee-jerk attempt to avoid experiencing the deep pain of feeling powerless,” he wrote, “I’ll be damned if I allow for someone else’s pain to become my prison. No. That particular American tradition had been endured by enough generations.”

Instead, he’s emphasizing what he and his haters have in common. Those boycotting him, Simien says, “feel they’ve been looked over, counted out and ridiculed by mainstream society. That’s a pain I understand deeply. It has been with me my whole life. It’s that very pain that my series speaks to.”

So, dear People of Colour, I’m not just apologizing for my fellow white people’s bad behaviour. Or for their utter inability to recognize or understand irony. Or for their woeful underappreciation of freedom of speech and the ability of art to minimize strife through empathy.

I’m also apologizing for my own complacency. An American democrat, I live in liberal Toronto. I think racism is vile, but I understand that, as Simien says, a challenge to people’s most cherished beliefs (no matter how wrong-headed) feels like a threat to their lives.

So I should not be shocked when I scroll the comments made by Simien’s detractors, and see their complaints that “racism isn’t real” sitting right beside comments calling him the n-word. I shouldn’t gasp when I read assertions that “black people destroy property” sandwiched between their own threats to burn the United States to the ground.

I shouldn’t be stunned by how blatant and brazen discrimination still is. A #NoColbert campaign didn’t arise after white man Stephen Colbert began doing a segment called “Hey White People,” where Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Hart and others take amusing jabs at white folks’ presuppositions. No one boycotted “Stuff White People Like,” a blog created in 2008 by Christian Lander, a white Canadian. But people, including Trump himself, slammed Kenya Barris, who is black, just for calling his show Black-ish.

I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, because I see how the current U.S. administration has encouraged white people to let their long-simmering resentments bubble over; how it’s made them feel that they can be proud of things they used to be ashamed of. It’s made bile such a staple of our daily diet, I fully expect that whoever Trump appoints to run the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will include it in the food pyramid.

Even on the Internet Movie Database, which was created as a resource for film and television lovers, the comments have grown so ugly that on Monday, after two decades of use, the site will permanently close its message boards. Their statement reads, “We have concluded that IMDB's message boards are no longer providing a positive, useful experience for the vast majority of our more than 250 million monthly users worldwide.” The haters won.

Yet shocked I am, and embarrassed. Dear People of Colour, if a 25-second teaser for a comedy about tearing down racial divides can stir up this much vitriol, what must you face in your daily lives? I’m ashamed to admit I don’t think about that nearly enough. I’m grateful to art such as Simien’s because it keeps pinching me further and further awake – in ways that it intends, and in ways that (I hope) it never imagined.

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