Are we truly living in a post-racial society? It's a question that Dear White People Season 2, like the first season and the film before it, is committed to still exploring. The Netflix series — about a group of black students at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League university where racial tensions bubble just below the surface — garnered plenty of fans and critical acclaim in the year since the first season debuted. But despite (or perhaps because of) its frank discussion of issues surrounding race, the show also attracted the attention of people who claimed its title was racist against white people, prompting a backlash before the series had even premiered.
So it makes sense that the series has been a continued target of the alt-right, a group that outwardly embraces explicit racism and white supremacy. "I know a lot of alt-right people watch the show," Dear White People creator and showrunner Justin Simien tells Bustle. "You can just tell from the comments [on articles written about the series]. I've even seen alt-right-type people try to convince other alt-righters as to why this show is really about them and stuff, and it's interesting to see that all play out in the comments section."
Simien pauses to laugh as he admits to the sheer outrageousness of the situation. While these comments may be irritating, Simien says he realized they gave him a unique opportunity to use his platform to send a message to the alt-right — and maybe do some good in the world as a result.
Season 2 finds outspoken activist and Dear White People radio show host Sam White (Logan Browning) as the target of an alt-right Twitter troll. As one of the most strong-willed and confident characters on the show, one would think Sam would just brush off the constant threats, insults, and online attacks. But soon enough, the horrific tweets and comments chip away at her tough exterior and she gets caught up in the endless cycle of trying to fight a vicious Twitter troll ... something that never ends well. It's a plot line directly inspired by Simien and his co-showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser's own experience creating the show and enduring intense social media backlash.
"There were real threats online from anonymous trolls," Bowser tells Bustle of the show's initial reception. "As much as you wanted to just put them in a corner, it cuts. We're humans. If you cut us we bleed. I could see how personally people were taking it. As we worked out the story, Justin shared his emotional experience of how deeply it hurt and we really did go through that together as a creative community."
The attacks came first as a response just to the title of the series. People didn't take the time to learn where the name came from or what the series was about. "We couldn't digest how people were so angry about just a title and not having any sense of what the show was about," Bowser says. "Their attacks were so deeply personal and racial."
Bowser and Simien ended up finding strength in working this experience into Season 2. "We had to go at this head-on, and Sam needed to go through it. That's the price of activism. You don't go into that fray and come out of it unscathed — there are going to be some battle scars," Bowser continues. "So we decided to expose our scars. The more we laid bare, the more powerful it felt."
Ironically, Bowser and Simien ended up showing their strength by exposing Sam's weakness. In showing that even someone as strong-willed as Sam could cave to the pressure of internet trolls, they hope they're sending a message to the alt-right viewers who trolled them in the first place.
"Maybe when [the alt-right viewers] see a moment like that, there is a sense of empathy about what Sam has to go through," Simien says. "Maybe they'll start to feel empathy. And a lot of people can relate to Sam's clapback coma, vicariously or just through recognition, and think about how tiring that is to think about how you always have to respond to these people or else they win. But in fact, it is the constant responding to them that they want! I don't want to moralize because there's always a time and a place for a good clapback, but hopefully there is some empathy there, people see themselves and they know they're not alone and not the only ones going through this."
No character is going to be safe from the anonymous attacks from this social media troll. And unfortunately that's something that Simien related to on a tragic level. "Having been the author of something literally called Dear White People, I certainly knew what would happen to her, from a very firsthand experience," he adds. "Sam is certainly the first and easy target for these kinds of people, but she won't be the last."
A lot has changed in the U.S. since Season 1 of Dear White People debuted last April — the death of a counter-protester at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, in August has since laid racial tensions even more bare — but Simien said his main priority in crafting the new season was "doing a deep dive into what was happening to [him] with all of these alt-right attacks after the first trailer dropped." He became fascinated by the idea of trolls, and dove headfirst into researching their origins.
"What I found was that there is this community, some of which is propped up by Russia, and how these bots work online, and there really is this group of people who are invested in whipping up outrage and using it against the people who are so impassioned by it. I thought that was a really interesting thing that was happening in our culture," Simien says. "The more I researched, the more I found it in our history as well. This thing called fake news and misinformation is not new. It's a common theme in American history."
He quickly became "obsessed" with this idea that if everyone knew our history more completely, then we wouldn't be so vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. "That became the starting point for discussions in the room of what this season might be about, along with all the stuff from last season that we wanted to do with the characters," Simien says.
When it came to dealing with all the trolling and attacks directed at Simien, Bowser couldn't be prouder of how the creator handled the situation. "In Season 1, Sam actually says to her critics, 'This shit is fuel.' So all the critics that came out to dish vitriol against our critically-acclaimed show, that was all fuel for Season 2," she says. "It's really that simple."
But the social media backlash and trolling wasn't the only real-world event that shaped Season 2. "Obviously the election of our current… um, I'm trying to find the right word. Okay, the election of our current 'president,'" Bowser says. "That shaped our real world, which automatically informed the world of Winchester and the lives of our students there. Winchester is a microcosm of America and this is a satirical show, so we have to comment on the conditions that we're all existing under."
And so the election of the current administration also ended up being one of the main impetuses for Season 2. "We didn't know that when we were in it for Season 1 – we actually filmed the last scenes of Season 1 on election night," Bowser says, this time with an almost bitter chuckle. "So we immediately knew what Season 2 was going to be."
Despite how much the news cycle has changed over the past year and how negative stories have flooded the media more often than ever, Simien didn't have to course correct any of his plans for Season 2 as a result of something happening in the real world.
"Unfortunately the things that we're talking about are as American as apple pie," he says. "Institutionalized racism and how the power of unconscious racism can lead to interesting political outcomes, that's not new. Nothing that we've talked about so far in the world of Dear White People unfortunately is new and doesn't look like it's necessarily going to get old anytime soon."
And that's why Dear White People is more important than ever for everyone from all different backgrounds and beliefs to watch. While Simien acknowledges that he's creating stories about "black characters who inhabit a very racist world that is both outwardly racist and also racist in subtle ways that not everyone is even aware of," he also believes that his job as a storyteller "is to talk about the human condition from [his] point of view in a way that anybody can get it."
"At the end of the day what they're trying to figure out how to do is create a sense of self in a society where you have to pretend to be all sorts of things in order to survive, and that's really been the case for all of human history," Simien says of his Dear White People characters. "People who look like my characters get to finally see themselves onscreen, and that allows them to feel human in a way that they haven't before. And for people who don't look like my characters, hopefully they can see themselves in the eyes of people who don't look like them or they traditionally didn't know they had so much in common with, and that's very powerful."
Plus, the conversations that come out of watching Dear White People have been unprecedented in a way that really impacted the showrunners. Simien loves seeing the thoughtful, intellectual and passionate debates inspired by the series and hopes that they continue with Season 2.
"These are issues that frankly we all need to be at the table talking about," Simien says. "The biggest problem with our current way of conversing about race is that everything has to be black and white, everyone is fighting to be right but nobody is really listening to each other. Mind you I do think there is a lot that white people need to hear that they haven't necessarily heard from the black community or hasn't listened to, but all of us have to figure out how to get to the same table and talk about these things, otherwise we're not going to get anywhere."
He pauses, then adds, "Or you're just waiting for a generation of people to just die out, which has been floated as a strategy that I think is untenable and a little unconscionable. We could be having this conversation if it was framed properly and culturally and I just hope that people who ordinarily wouldn't be talking to each other about these things find themselves talking about it and feel safe to talk about it because this show made them laugh or emotional or cheer or cry. That's always my goal and hope."
And if Season 2 also leaves viewers with a sense of hope for the future, that's just an added bonus. "What we are showing more in Season 2 is activism plus action," Bowser says. "They are more active as characters and people in Season 2 than they were in Season 1 and they're taking more bold actions this year. Hopefully the conversation will shift to what people can do in their own lives and in the real world to improve their condition and also our joint condition as a society. I hope it ignites people to want to do more and have hope that we're not just sitting here marinating in this awful moment with this administration, that there is more that we can do and more change we can bring about. It's not over. We can always make a difference."
Inspiring action and impactful conversations among viewers, plus changing the hearts and minds of the alt-right, all at the same time? Those may seem like lofty goals, but Simien and Bowser are confident that Dear White People Season 2 is going to shake things up for the better... all in 10 short episodes.