The way I see it, Dear White People centers its focus primarily on two pervasive themes of modern American racial injustice: the first being the juxtaposition of white Americans’ romanticization of black culture and vilification of black people, and the second being the simultaneous demands of racial assimilation and authenticity that a predominantly white America forces onto its black communities.
The movie weaves instances of fetishization of black culture into the plot throughout its entire development. Kurt comes to the Armstrong dining hall for chicken and waffles, Sophia incorporates AAVE into her conversations with Troy and sexualizes his black identity, and the Bugle editors play with Lionel’s hair like he’s a pet. Meanwhile, these same characters reject the characteristics of black communities that don’t benefit them as white people. For instance, immediately after Kurt praises Armstrong’s black soul food, he complains about the supposed disadvantages that affirmative action places on white students. This theme becomes far more extreme at the Pastiche Halloween party, a parody of Sam’s Dear White People radio show. Among white students dressed in literal blackface and proudly saying the N-word while singing along to rap music, Coco tells Sam that white people love black people’s lips, tans, and curves and that they just wanted to be like them for a night. In reference to black beauty culture, Coco’s not wrong. The white characters in the movie, by clearly problematic methods, tend to embrace a lot of material aspects of black identity. Where she’s wrong lies within white students’ attitudes toward racial issues on campus. While the white students at the party may be celebrating the “fun” aspects of black culture, we can’t forget that the party’s theme was proposed as a parody of Sam’s discussion of the inappropriate racial behaviors of white students at Winchester. While white students love material black culture, they completely reject the notion of a cultural shift to dismantle the university’s pervasive whiteness.
Meanwhile, the movie introduces a complicated narrative of the pressure that white society places on black individuals to racially assimilate. Sam explains this through her differentiation between 100%, Oofta, and Nose Job identities. She explains that to act as 100% is to behave unapologetically black without fear for the response from white society, ooftas adjust their blackness to best cater to their audience at a given time, and nose jobs soften their blackness completely to compensate for white society’s negative assumptions about them. We see all three of these expressions of black identity in different characters. Sam is primarily unapologetic and is seen by some as “blacker than thou,” Troy is depicted as appealing to Pastiche’s vision of his blackness and the university donors’ expectations of assimilation into white culture, and Lionel is seen as “only technically black.” No matter how the black characters in the film express their black identities, they’re somehow criticized for it. These varying standards of racial identity reveal the pervasiveness of the walls within which white society has continuously tried to confine black identity.