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Lions Roar : September 2017
S IMIEN HAD HIS FIRST TASTE of racist backlash in 2012, when he launched the crowd funding cam- paign for Dear White People. One of the first internet comments about the trailer read: “What are you complain- ing about? This isn’t the sixties, it’s 2012. Do we really need a movie like this?” Simien had started practicing Buddhism just as his career—and the online backlash—was ramping up. Contro- versy stirred up around Simien as he traveled from screen- ing to screening after the film’s release. Some Black viewers complained that Simien was telling “Black stories for white audiences.” Some White critics argued the title was inher- ently racist. Simien hadn’t yet learned how to cope with the criticism. He would trawl through racist comments on his work, find- ing the responses heartbreaking yet mesmerizing. Buddhism taught him not to shy away from the pain and heartbreak of racism, and as the backlash continued, he tried to learn from it. “The human mind, we’re designed so we can put things away, so that we can keep going,” Simien said in one interview. “But as a storyteller, it’s my job to go back to those places inside and re-examine certain things.” “Alt-right trolls fascinate me,” he says. “Whether or not it’s true, these people feel they’re oppressed. They feel like they are strangers in their own lands. Ironically, that is exactly how it feels to be an actual minority in this country. That feeling is something we can all relate to.” By relating to the experience of his attackers, Simien found the empathy to understand his characters, helping him write complex, nuanced humans for his show. “Pema Chödrön, who is one of my favorite Buddhist authors, says that when you’re experiencing something that feels too big for yourself, you can recognize how many other people are feeling the same way,” says Simien. “That’s a way of not only cultivating empathy, but also dealing with hard feelings—to know we are all having them.” Recognizing shared humanity is the core of Simien’s creative process. He creates compelling characters through empathy. “I talk to people,” he says. “I really try to listen and figure out what it is they’re trying to say and where it’s coming from.” The title alone, Dear White People, has touched a nerve. For many, being lumped together in a broad stereotype as “white people” is a new and uncomfortable experience. As Simien toured the film, the issues of racism and racial identity became ever more charged in America. Between the film’s release in 2014 and the TV series’ release in 2017, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Phi- lando Castile, and Sandra Bland—people of color accused of minor crimes—all died while being pursued or held by the police. In 2015, “Black” activist Rachel Dolezal was outed as white by a journalist. Dolezal claimed to identify as “culturally” Black. In an interview, Simien argued, “What Dolezal’s saying is racial identity is something that everyone should have the right to pick and choose. But, the rub is, most Black people don’t have a choice in the matter.” In his book, Simien writes, “The pressure to be quintes- sentially Black in every moment, whether it comes from the outside world or is self-imposed, keeps Black people from being our authentic selves.” Simien’s message is that, in America, white people can choose whatever identity they want—even blackface. Black people don’t have the choice to be white. Often, Black people don’t have the choice to be anything—they’re boxed into stereotypes, sometimes by threat of violence. That’s why one character in the show, Reggie, says, “Sometimes just being Black and carefree is an act of resis- tance.” “It’s true,” Simien told an interviewer. “If you let it crush you and get you down, then they’ve won. They don’t want you to be free. Self-care is something I want people to really take to heart.” P RODUCTION OF THE SERIES wrapped the evening of November 8, 2016—hours before the presidential election results came in. “We ended up speak- ing to the America that we would be in, in ways that didn’t occur to us while we were writing,” Simien said later. The day after the election, he tweeted, “Today, my faith as a Buddhist becomes political. To learn & share how to heal our hearts so we can stop blaming ‘the other.’” In February of 2017, Netflix released a teaser for Dear White People on YouTube. Outraged racists—including former Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard David Duke—organized to give the video 100,000 “dislikes” for every 10,000 “likes” it received. This time, Simien was ready for the racist backlash. “I felt no panic, no fear,” he wrote. “The key to happiness isn’t getting what you want, but realizing that you can survive what you don’t want. By chanting through a period of my life when I was very depressed, I learned to not take it personally. I was so much clearer PHOTO©ADAMROSE/NETFLIX The show’s protagonist is Samantha White. She hosts a student radio show called Dear White People in which she calls out racism. LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2017 38