Netflix’s new series Dear White People is already being celebrated for its nuanced and complex black characters, and the hype is definitely real. In ten episodes, creator/director Justin Simien addresses topics that are nearly unseen in black media. [Spoilers from here.] For example, a main character’s sexual awakening as his male friend tenderly cuts his hair portrays a level of black male vulnerability that has only been mirrored in show collaborator Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. The Jenkins-directed episode “Chapter Five” is a harrowing look at the violence black people, and black men in particular, live in fear of daily.
But less upfront in the mostly male-led production are the show’s leading women, Samantha White (played by Logan Browning) and Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Antoinette Robertson). While these two are little more than rivals in the film, the Netflix series establishes both characters’ experiences within the frameworks of colorism, intersectionality and respectability politics to battle the classic motif of two black women pitted against each other. For the viewer, this makes it easier to understand the exact forces that are driving these two women: their friendship and eventual rivalry isn’t motivated by a fight over a man or popularity, but deep insecurities created by a system of racism.
Shockingly, the current TV landscape has very few examples of black female friendship. Even established hits that are often cited as achievements for intersectional feminism still lack solid black female relationships. Scandal’s new black female FBI director seemed as though she’d be a natural accomplice for Olivia, but instead they just fought over Fitz. On Empire, Cookie is a force of nature, but she literally has no black female friends other than her sisters. Even in comedies like Black-ish, we don’t see the show’s black female characters enjoying the community of black female friendship. If there were a black Bechdel test, modern TV wouldn’t pass. This is why HBO’s Insecure felt like a breath of fresh air. Molly and Issa’s friendship realistically looked at the role of black female connections as a healing tool in our white supremacist society. But Molly and Issa were lucky––they’re both integrated into black communities and enjoy their ability to code switch between their black friends and white coworkers. Unlike Molly and Issa, Sam and Coco exist within a campus microcosm that forces their identity issues to the forefront.
The two quickly become friends when they can’t find a place within the traditional black groups on campus. Sam feels out of place because she’s biracial and most groups on campus don’t believe she’s black enough. Coco, on the other hand, is questioned about her blackness because years of attending entirely white private schools have conditioned her to mimic the respectability politics of whiteness. She straightens her hair, she speaks carefully in front of her white friends.
It’s hard enough being a black woman and it’s even harder when you’re isolated from other black women. This is why it’s so important that Dear White People establishes the support Coco and Sam had for each other during their freshman year. When Coco decides to get painful sew-in hair extensions, Sam is there to ease her pain with a joint. While weed is commonplace in white-focused comedies like Broad City or MTV’s short-lived Mary+Jane, viewers rarely see black women casually smoking together. It’s a pure moment of relief and relaxation for the characters. “I feel everything,” Coco moans as Sam asks her to quiet down before people think they’re scissor sisters. It’s a moment that would’ve passed without much attention with two white protagonists, but it bonds Sam and Coco together as outsiders. Their semi-sapphic smoke sesh shows how much these two rely on each other in moments of literal pain.
But it’s how Dear White People sets up the dissolution of their camaraderie that truly works to elevate presentations of black female friendship. As the school year progresses, Sam and Coco begin to drift apart. Sam, desperate to prove her blackness, has thrown herself into activism and the Black Student Union. Coco, who dreams of fulfilling her prep school goals of finding a husband and going to law school, tries to join a black sorority. While Coco’s desperation to mimic whiteness could be simplified as mere self-hatred, Dear White People takes the time to explain the dynamic of conflicting identity and racism within Sam and Coco’s friendship.
Sam, as a lightskinned black woman, has experienced racism differently from Coco. Sam shares a personal story with Coco from about being left out of a sleepover because she’d be the only black person there. Sam’s experience with racism is largely external: because she’s black, she’s barred from certain experiences. For Sam, the best way to combat this growing up was to fully defend and embrace her blackness. She obsessively performs blackness because it’s the best way for her to highlight the racist society we live in and she’s desperate to prove her identity as a biracial woman.
Despite the nuances around Sam’s storyline, it still lingers around the tragic mulatto stereotype. We’re supposed to feel bad for Sam as she listens to traditional white girl folk music, but quickly changes it to rap when she walks past a group of black people. But Sam is still eagerly accepted by groups on campus and has no issue speaking up. She is given the spotlight over her dark-skinned friend Joelle and has no issue with attracting the boys she likes. Despite Joelle’s clear crush on Reggie and Reggie declaring to his friends that he wants to marry a “dark-skinned African queen,” he’s still attracted to Sam and doesn’t consider Joelle as anything more than a friend. (Sadly, Joelle merely feels like a backup player to Sam’s story. We never really get to know Joelle beyond her interactions with Sam and Reggie, an example of how relevant colorism still is to this day.) In the end, Sam’s biggest conflict in the show is whether she should date the black guy who likes her, or the white guy who likes her. Sam benefits from lightskinned privilege, a fact that Coco and Dear White People don’t let us forget.
Their conflict is, in part, because Coco has experienced internalized racism. In episode four, a young Coco fights over dolls with her classmates. They tell her, “you can have the ugly one,” of course, pointing to the black doll that looks just like her. When she attends an event freshman year where female classmates wait around for men to pick them up, she’s left all alone as the only black woman. She goes home, dejected and tired, only to find Sam and Reggie glued to the evening news: a police officer was cleared of shooting a black child. She asks them to turn it off, but Sam says no, they need to “stay woke.” Coco is seen covering her ears in bed, but it’s not because she wants to ignore this event, it’s because she’s already woke; more woke than Sam can imagine.
Coco didn’t need classmates to exclude her from sleepovers to know she was seen as lesser than or to wake her up, the status was ingrained in her skin. The second people look at her, they believe she’s less educated or ghetto, stereotypes that Sam never has to deal with. Coco is able to escape Chicago’s South Side and these stereotypes by appeasing whiteness. She changes her name from the blacker-sounding Colandrea to Coco. And even though Coco can be found dropping “Dear white people” knowledge in the safety of her dorm with Sam, she can’t jeopardize her scholarship or relationship with her white benefactor by speaking publicly like Sam. Unlike Sam, it’s easier for people to stereotype Coco as an angry black woman, a characterization she works to escape.
What makes Coco the more enlightening character is her relationship to this performance. She doesn’t mirror whiteness to prove anything to anyone, she does it for her own benefit. There’s nothing tragic about Coco. She knows what she wants when it comes to men, her sex life and her career. If you thought it was rare to see black women smoke weed together, the sight of Coco smoking a gold joint while the most popular boy on campus goes down on her is truly iconic. When the campus is reeling over Reggie’s brush with police brutality, she’s the only one who has the words to address the situation. She’s seen her friends and family members shot. She understands the political machinations necessary to make real change while Sam fights for mac-n-cheese day on campus. Unlike Joelle, Coco’s character moves beyond the stereotypical dark black sidekick role.
Most importantly, the show doesn’t ask audiences to choose one character over the other. When Sam accepts her privilege and apologizes to Coco, the two are able to reach common ground again. With so few representations of black female friendship on TV, it’s important that the series has the two end on a fairly positive note. Dear White People manages to not only look at the complexity of black female friendship, but centers a dark-skinned woman and her experience in the conversation. The fact that it does so while delicately examining her insecurities, pleasures and triumphs is truly a revolutionary moment. When it comes to black women, the most celebrated portrayals still mostly focus on the anger and sassiness of a Cookie or the strength-defying “fix it” capabilities of an Olivia Pope rather than anything close to relatable. Dear White People’s two identity-conflicted, messy black female leads feel like the antidote.
Ashley Ray-Harris is a Chicago-based pop culture expert and freelance writer. Her writing showcases a nerdy obsession with TV, music, and film that blends historical and social analysis, media insights, and personal anecdotes.