Dear White People, the bingeworthy, irreverent Netflix series, returned with its second season (v.2) earlier this month. The show is based on creator Justin Simien’s 2014 film of the same name and offers topical comedy about race relations on a fictional Ivy League college campus. Though the show is notable for its fearlessness in tackling various elements of blackness, the new season also dives deeper into black queerness.
Each episode rotates through the cast of characters, offering new insight into the central plot from various perspectives. Sam is the fiery activist who hosts the Dear White People radio show, Coco is a social climber who tows the line between Black identity and white acceptance, Troy is the privileged son of the college’s dean, Joelle is the girl with razor sharp wit who plays second fiddle to Sam, Reggie is the cool yet emotionally complex tech nerd, and Lionel is the gay journalist who often finds himself at the center of the campus’ juiciest news story.
V.1 dove deeper into the movie’s themes, offering more robust character studies and a complex exploration of racial insensitivity on America’s college campuses. V.2 goes even deeper, incorporating “of the moment” issues like social media trolling, the alt-right, and the Black community’s relationship with the Democratic Party.
All of it truly resonates, but what I really loved about this season, and related to the most, was the focus on Lionel. While each character had their own time in the spotlight in v.1, Lionel wasn’t really centerstage. That season was driven by Sam’s activism. But here, Lionel plays not only a major role in advancing the primary plot line of the season (uncovering the truth about an alt-right Twitter troll and a Black secret society), but he gets a proper romantic storyline and a few other little queer nuggets.
Perhaps what’s most intriguing is that Lionel doesn’t have a Black love interest. He exists at the center of a group of extremely proud Black people, his main love interests, Silvio and Wesley, are both of vague Hispanic descent, and no one makes a big stink about it. Though this decision subtly reflects how some gay, Black men, who are nerdy and/or academic, don’t always find comfort or acceptance among other gay, Black men (I say this as a somewhat academic, gay, Black man with a Mexican husband).
Though the series does indirectly address this in episode 3. While at a party, Lionel makes eyes at the only other Black gay in the room, and this potential suitor quickly reveals that he doesn’t date Black guys.
There’s also an interesting dynamic when Lionel tries to relate to a group of gay, Black men later in that same episode. In the scene, five men banter about cultural appropriation with Sam, complete with shady Katy Perry jokes. Lionel chimes in, “Yass girl queens, slay,” and laughs nervously. The room goes quiet. Then, guest star Todrick Hall reads him for filth: “Lionel, your shoes suggest that you enjoy Caucasian music. What do you think of the current pop landscape?”
What happens here is subtle but important. Lionel is immediately perceived as not Black enough, and the group tries to shift the subject matter to something he’s more comfortable with, all based on assumption, and most definitely meant as shade. There’s a “you can’t sit with us” vibe, one that I’ve definitely felt navigating Black, gay spaces in New York.
This season also followed Lionel’s sexual journey, as he stumbled through new intimate experiences and encountered conflicting views about monogamy within the community.
There were moments during this season where I felt someone had either ripped pages out of my journal or secretly followed me around during my early New York years. Dear White People offered a glimpse of the Black, gay experience that’s not often reflected. It’s exciting and empowering to not only see it reflected, period, but to see it done so accurately. It’s also comforting to know that other gay, black men out there have shared these experiences with me. Often, the struggle isn’t just against people beyond the community; it’s also within.
Kudos to Justin Simien for adding in so many extra nuances and layers this season. The only downside is that I’ll have to wait another year to see what’s explored in v.3.