'Dear White People' Season 3 Shows That "Lean In" Politics Never Included Black Women
Spoilers ahead for Dear White People Season 3. Topics of identity and intersectionality are structures that encompass and dictate everyday conversations offscreen, but this rings especially true in Netflix’s Dear White People. Last season we saw protagonist Sam White (Logan Browning) hand over the mic to her right-hand girl Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) to host Winchester's controversial campus radio show. This time around, we bear witness to Joelle as she builds on that previously established momentum. One of the first topics she tackles in Dear White People Season 3 is intersectional feminism, during a radio conversation with none other than Muffy Tuttle (Caitlin Carver), best known as the closest frenemy to Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson).
In their conversation, Muffy says advocating for women’s rights should never be equated to the denial of men’s rights. When Joelle points out that the argument is similar to that of the Black Lives Matter movement, Muffy segues into talking about how white women shouldn’t be blamed for racism. When Joelle explains that white women have a racial privilege that they need to acknowledge, Muffy brushes it off and asserts that women should all band together regardless of race to fight sexism, rape culture, and the patriarchy at large.
“I mean, aren’t you mad?” Muffy huffs.
“I am, I just can’t express it the way you can,” Joelle says calmly.
When Muffy responds with confusion, Joelle explains the angry Black woman stereotype, which presents Black women as people who have no control over their rage or emotions. This label makes Black women feel like they need to be docile and quiet, even in the face of oppression and injustice, if they are to be taken seriously. Muffy once again completely ignores everything that Joelle says and tells her she just has to “lean in” and “stop putting limits on herself.”
After undoubtedly having enough of Muffy’s microaggressions (and intentionally avoiding the very stereotype she brings up) Joelle ends the show early to avoid any further frustration. She angrily recounts the conversation to Sam shortly afterward, criticizing Muffy and saying that “telling Black women to lean in is like telling Shamu to think positively.”
Muffy and Joelle’s exchange rings incredibly true to everyday conversations among self-identified feminists. There is a strong call to action for women of all races, sexualities, abilities, and more to band together in unity to fight the patriarchy. But there remains a disconnect that lies in the understanding and acknowledgment of a woman’s intersections, particularly and most prominently with race.
While white women have been socialized to sit down and be quiet by their male counterparts, they are still more likely than Black women to be celebrated by the public for taking a stand at work, in politics, and beyond. According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace Study, women of color generally receive less support from managers than white women do — and Black women receive the least support of all. Black women have been historically socialized in a way that dictates they cannot walk in the world the same way that white women can for fear of rejection, belittlement, and in more severe cases, incarceration or death. Additionally, many times when we speak up about these very real societal structures with white women, our issues are silenced or brushed off as unimportant or irrelevant. But in reality, these experiences inherently shape our identity as women.
Later on in the season, things take a turn for Muffy as she confides to Coco that she’s been sexually assaulted by the new charismatic professor at Winchester, Moses (Blair Underwood). In spite of Muffy’s previous negative interactions with the Black students at Winchester, all the Black women on campus band together and stand behind her without question. In the end, the Black caucus works together to get justice for Muffy and the men apologize to her for not believing her initially.
There is almost always justice for white women, but no universal solidarity is shown for the Black women standing behind her.
But through it all, there is no moment of justice for Joelle or the Black women of Winchester, who have endured microaggressions for the past two seasons. There is no apology from Muffy, or a thank you for rallying behind her. This storyline, while minor in the grand scheme of the season’s plotline, wasn’t an oversight of the show’s writers and producers, but an accurate portrayal of how these norms present themselves in society. Muffy’s character represents an archetype of white women: she experiences oppression based on her gender identity, but because of her racial privilege, the world conspires in her favor — even if it’s by the thankless labor orchestrated by Black folks.
There is almost always justice for white women, but no universal solidarity is shown for the Black women standing behind her. It demonstrates a heartbreaking, but not uncommon theme in feminism: Black women are down to ride against rape culture as a united front, but white women are much less willing to acknowledge the complexity of a Black woman’s experience.
The season’s ending can easily be mistaken to a white audience as a wholesome and even winsome moment held by the collective ensemble, the Black caucus, and Muffy banding together against rape culture. That’s not to say that justice wasn’t served — but true justice occurs when there is solidarity across all intersections of identity, which can hopefully be addressed if the show is renewed for a Season 4. It would be a perfect segue for Muffy to weaponize her privilege to elevate the issues of Winchester’s Black community. If not, it would be interesting to see if, by that same token, the Black community calls Muffy out for not doing so after they rallied behind her.
Whatever the outcome may be, it’s an important question that must be raised to the audience and the feminist community at large: What will it take for the Muffys of the world to recognize that while all women face a universal experience in patriarchal oppression, Black women will never receive the same benefit of the doubt or comforts that white women experience? For these conversations around unity to be genuine, there must be a base level of understanding that inequality does not look the same to every woman. Until this is consensus is met, the idea of unity amongst all women cannot exist.