#BackChannel: ‘Dear White People,’ ‘DAMN.’ And More

May 16, 2017

In the new Netflix series “Dear White People,” conversations about racism on a college campus take center stage. The story features members of the Black Student Union at a fictional Ivy League college called Winchester University, where the main character hosts a socially-conscious radio show. The series has received praise for featuring nuanced stories of students of color, and backlash by some who consider the show racist.

Meanwhile, last month rapper Kendrick Lamar released his highly-anticipated album “DAMN.” The album is a follow up to Lamar’s seminal record “To Pimp A Butterfly,” and adopts an introspective and highly-charged tone. However, the album’s single “HUMBLE” has been met with criticism for its objectification of women’s bodies.

Host Frank Stasio talked about the latest in popular culture with Natalie Bullock Brown, professor of film and broadcast media at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, and Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University in Durham.​


On the Netflix series “Dear White People” that features a socially-conscious radio show:

Natalie Bullock Brown: The conversations we see in “Dear White People” between the black characters are really no different than what you would find on the campus of a historically black college or university. I think that’s what makes the series really interesting. It drives home the idea that black people are not a monolith. There are so many different manifestations of who we are, and some of those overlap and some of them don’t. It’s important to understand that black people, in our experiences, we share a lot of them in common. And at the same time we absolutely bring different perspectives to similar problems.

Mark Anthony Neal: It’s important that [the character Samantha White] is attempting to have a conversation. The title of the radio show is not “Damn White People,” it’s “Dear White People.” She is trying to draw them in in some way, but doing so in a way that is unfiltered. If we are going to actually have this conversation, we have to have some real talk… Most young white folks, if they are grown up in situations where they haven’t had regular interactions with African-Americans, it’s important for them to hear these kinds of narratives because it is countering these other perceptions of blackness they get through mainstream media.

ADVISORY: this video contains explicit language

On the protest of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university, and the debate around free speech on college campuses:

Natalie Bullock Brown: What we have to parse out is the fact that she was appointed by “45,” who is a president that does not understand or appreciate the legacy of historically black colleges or universities. He doesn’t appreciate or understand black folks. That’s number one. Number two: “45” recently came out with a statement that questions the constitutionality of even supporting, from a financial perspective, historically black colleges and universities. Then you add to that Devos’s ignorant comment about HBCUs being “pioneers of choice,” when there were no choices.

Mark Anthony Neal: When these black students turned their backs to Ms. DeVos, part of it is a critique of her, but it is also a critique of the institution. The thing that folks don’t want to wrap their heads around is there are ways in which black folks have been historically progressive politically around race, but there is a large segment of the black community that is quite frankly culturally and socially conservative, if not backward. There are many of these black institutions, many don’t want to talk about, that are to the right of the black church in this context. When you think about this invitation going out to Ms. DeVos, folks don’t realize that some of the leadership of these institutions share her politics, so for them this is perfectly normal.

On Kendrick Lamar’s recent album “DAMN.”:

Mark Anthony Neal: Drake is killing all of these guys on the pop side. He’s most visible and selling all these records. Then you have someone like North Carolina’s own J. Cole who is the anti-commercial rapper. Kendrick is in this middle space. How is he a successful pop artist, but at the same time still trying to stay true to the boom-bap? What we have with this new album “DAMN.” is him trying to find that middle ground. Part of it, I think, is ego. I think “To Pimp A Butterfly” became so much about the product, about the finished album and all the folks who contributed, and in many ways you lose sight of Kendrick in the context of that album. I think he was comfortable with that, but with this it became more about him and those beats.

Natalie Bullock Brown: There is a vulnerability that he has that stands in stark contrast to a lot of what I hear in rap. The fact that he is so introspective is actually something that we should applaud. I think it attracts his listeners to him, because we are able to live vicariously. I think there is something interesting and fascinating about him dissecting himself in these ways and trying to bridge these gaps that he kind of straddles that we don’t get to watch often.

On the controversy surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s single “HUMBLE.” and the criticism that the song glorifies women by objectifying their bodies:

Natalie Bullock Brown: From Kendrick’s perspective he was trying to be affirming and uplift the naturalista. But what he got in trouble for was the fact that there is a beauty standard that is imposed and projected on black women where we feel a certain pressure to meet the standard, and we do various things to our faces and our hair, and then to be told, “I don’t want you to do that. I want you to do this.” It underscores the fact that the beauty standard is a male construction. The conversation around beauty is often one that when women talk about how they feel on the standard they are told not to complain. That’s where I feel like he kind of missed the mark. He didn’t quite catch the nuances of what he was saying.

ADVISORY: this video contains explicit language

On the song “DUCKWORTH.” produced by Durham-based producer 9th Wonder:

Mark Anthony Neal: 9th and I don’t talk a whole lot about the inside business, but he gives me a call about three weeks before the album is coming and he says, “Yo Neal, guess what?” He explains to me the fact that some time ago he gave Kendrick 10 beats and Kendrick said he is going to do something with it.... 9th had actually offered the beats to some other folks. Finally, Kendrick hits him back about four or five months ago, shows a video clip playing one of the beats, and doesn’t say much else. Then, finally,  shortly before the album comes out they want clearances and the rest is kind of history.