Netflix's Dear White People wants to send you to college — and make you think about how your experiences with higher education may have been informed by the casual racism that permeates many colleges and universities. The goal of the series, like the film it's adapting, is to evoke real life, but is Netflix's Dear White People based on a true story? Well, the series may want you to feel like it could be real, but it's actually completely fictional. The characters and situations are original ones, and while there are a few actors and behind the scenes crew members who are sticking around in the idea's transition from film to TV, none of them are playing themselves or any real people. However, the series is inspired by both some real experiences and some real headlines — loosely, of course.
According to The Orange County Register, creator Justin Simien, who wrote and directed the original Dear White People film, says that his experiences attending a primarily white school did inspire him when coming up with the idea. Simien explained to the outlet that he grew up in a more multicultural area in Houston, so "it was a culture shock… I was used to seeing people a little bit more mixed up and all over the place." Simien continued, "I encountered people who had presumptions about me, about race. It made me uncomfortable."
In an essay on Medium, Simien explained in great detail how Dear White People was created, and how it simply began when he and a friend would trade jokes back and forth about corny and embarrassing ways white people would interact with black culture back in the mid-2000s. The college angle predates the title; Simien wrote, "it dawned on me that 'Dear White America' would make a great name for the radio show hosted by firebrand Samantha White."
As far back as 2009, when Dear White People was still titled 2% and still just a file on Simien's computer, he already saw it as "a way for me to express the everyday conundrums and challenges of being a 'black face' in a 'mostly white space.' A way to comment on the 'black experience' as I knew it to be, but rarely saw reflected in the culture."
But while the series is critical of being a black student in a primarily white school, Simien tells The Orange County Register that ultimately, he feels he got a good education at his school, and feels it prepared him for his career as a successful director and writer. "I loved my experience there. … It’s a beautiful film community there." So, in that way, Simien is a little different than Sam, even though she's the character through which much of Dear White People is told, and she's a film student. Instead, Simien has combined both his experiences with casual racism and the intersections of white and black culture with the setting of a primarily white school and its black students, a place where he describes feeling racial differences acutely. So, no, Dear White People isn't a true story in its entirety, but it's very much based on real life.