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‘Dear White People’ addresses racial problems

Elizabeth Britton, ‘Doah Staff Writer
February 4, 2015

“Who doesn’t love a good movie?” Andy Gyurisin, President of the Winchester Film Club asks. “Better yet, who doesn’t love a great movie with a message?”

“Dear White People” is exactly that. This movie was shown in the Alamo Drafthouse on Wednesday, Jan. 28, as a result of the joint effort of the Winchester Film Club and Shenandoah University. The movie created such a buzz that Andy Gyurisin says, “I am proud to announce that [Wednesday] night was film club’s biggest screening ever with a total of 157 tickets sold.” Directed by Justin Simien, the film focuses on African American students attending Winchester University. The college is a predominantly white school, immediately introducing topics such as white privilege, racism and controversy to the audience.

“Part of what I do in my position is have difficult conversations that talk about things that are kind of hard to talk about,” Maggie Lien, Interim Associate Director of Student Engagement, says, “… and I think that a really good way to talk about these things is through film.”

In “Dear White People,” Sam White, played by Tessa Thompson, is a mixed race film production major at Winchester University. She owns a radio show called “Dear White People” and has self-published a book entitled “Ebony and Ivy.” After entering an election for head of dormitory at an all black house on campus, Sam wins by a landslide. And from there on, things start to become complicated. With her satirical humor, intelligence and inner conflict, Sam White pulls the audience into her world and brings a deeper meaning to this film.

Karen Cornejo-Guillen says, “Humor is an effective way of forming connections with people, so it’s amazing that an issue that divides so many was presented in such a creative way and effectively delivered a powerful message.”

“Dear White People” addresses racism with humor, but the film got serious when a blackface party was thrown at the predominantly white dormitory on campus. The audience had gotten deadly quiet during this part of the film. Not one person moved as they watched on in horror while the actors portrayed different racial stereotypes in the black community. It included snapshots of a “Purple Drank” fountain, a white male with black face, a rap battle, men with grills and white women wearing black wigs and weaves.

“Often times in movies (specifically those that deal with strong race issues), the core message becomes soft,” Andy Gyurisin says, “Or the edges are too round for what feels like ‘real life.’ In ‘Dear White People,’ director Justin Simien pushes the envelope and backs it up with intelligent humor and honest social commentary while connecting this to the world of academia (and beyond).”

Before the movie, Shenandoah students shared their stories on racism and white privilege.

“I just wanted to let you know that we’ve been talking about how we could get more aware of diversity, race and culture without being rude –– how to have these conversations without being afraid,” student DJ Gayles says, “The truth of the matter is we just gotta be willing to not be ignorant. We have to be willing as individuals to not live in the idea that ignorance is bliss. For knowledge is power, and it’s only power if you use it. So from that we must all open ourselves up and be available to listen to other people’s problems… I’m not just saying that white people only need to listen to black people or that black people just need to listen to hispanic people –– People just need to be listening to people… and remember as we watch this movie, all good jokes contain truth.”

Leanne Wonesh, a white female student at S.U., also shared her experiences with white privilege.

“Being on [the] college campus and being a white female, I can go to class and never look around the room and be the only one who looks like me,” Wonesh says. “I can walk down the street in Winchester and not be worried that someone is gonna stop me. Or look at me in a store and worry that I’m taking something. I can talk about my religion freely without being worried that I’m going to be judged. And that’s what white privilege is. And I think it’s important that people recognize that you have this by default. [We need] to pay attention to it and be aware of it every day.”

Speaking with Karen Cornejo-Guillen after the event, she says, “My experience with racism hasn’t been one where I have been outwardly and directly discriminated against for being Hispanic, but I do feel that my status here in the U.S. holds me back from a lot of opportunities that are open to my non-Hispanic peers. I don’t want students like me to be facing the same unreasonable obstacles in the future––it’s not fair, and it has to change.”

Karen Cornejo-Guillen also spoke about Estudiantes Unidos, a new group on campus that “will bring issues faced by the Hispanic/Latino community and unjust situations to mind, encourage open discussion and create a momentum for change.” According to the Estudiantes Unidos facebook page, their mission is to “create a sense of unity among Hispanic and non-Hispanic students through open discussions, service work and fun!” It is a group open to all and any students who are interested. If you are interested in this group, please contact Karen Cornejo-Guillen for more information at kcornejo14@su.edu.

Last but certainly not least to speak before the movie began was Taylor Butts who works with Intercultural Programs in the Office of Student Engagement.

Butts said, “I am black. I am not mixed––I’m just light skinned. My parents chose to raise my sisters and I in a predominantly white school so I would fit in and ‘talk white’… and it’s really easy for me to fit in with white people, but it’s not as easy to fit in with black people. And a lot of people judge me for that. I feel like I automatically have to be better than everyone else because I am black and because I am female. So, it’s like, I can’t show up to class late because they’re gonna be like ‘oh, that black girl is late again,’ or ‘oh, that black girl doesn’t want an education––she doesn’t deserve to be here.’”

After the movie, Andy Gyurisin said, “While racism and white privilege are the core messages surrounding ‘Dear White People’, I found the fact that this was set on a college campus to be important. A role I found very interesting throughout this film was the role of faculty and leadership roles within ‘Winchester University.’  The instances between Dennis Haysbert and Peter Syvertsen (Dean Fairbanks and President Fletcher) seemed to mirror that which was happening to the students, but largely hinting towards racism within the workplace or outside of the college years or lifestyle.  On another side, not to spoil the film, the ending made a point to expose an interesting element to the world of college funding and the values of a University in the throes of financial struggles.  I recently watched the documentary ‘Ivory Tower,’ which talks about the changing world of college campuses in the US, and I found this (along with other scenes) important to add to an already heated conversation.”

Papers printed and approved by S.U., the Alamo Drafthouse and the “Winchester Film Club 3.0” were passed out to the audience listing ways to support diversity. “The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect,” the paper reads, “It means understanding that each individual is unique and recognizing our individual differences.”

Different ways to explore diversity include talking to people who are different from you as often as possible, breaking the mold to get out of your comfort zone and asking questions instead of believing a stereotype or one side of a story. Taylor Butts said, “The easiest way to get to know about something else is to ask questions and be friends with people who are not like you.”

Andy Gyurisin contributed, “In the end, ‘Dear White People,’ whether you enjoyed the film or did not, it is one of those features that opens conversations, begins new discussions and potentially changes viewpoints.  As our world changes and cinema and television move to mobile devices and at-home streaming, gathering to watch a film like this with members of our community means that ‘Dear White People’ will have a ripple effect. Minds will open, voices will be heard, change will happen.”

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