Dear White People, after watching the 2014 theatrical incarnation of you I was ecstatic to hear that you would be returning in the form of a Netflix series. You serve as a clever commentary on race relations in the modern era and what it means to be Black in an entertaining way similar to ‘Get Out’. You tackle a range of issues that come with the Black experience from colourism to police brutality, to the subtle unintended racism that many Black people experience from White people on a regular basis. If a television series could serve as the poster child for the “Woke” movement it would be you, Dear White People. Yet ironically for a show that is supposed to be “woke” and “pro-black” there’s one element of this series that sticks out like a sore thumb to me and I’m only halfway through the season. I was really rooting for you but you let me down with your portrayal of Africans.
The show features a character who goes by the name of Rashid who is supposed to be from Kenya but sounds nothing like a Kenyan. He sounds like an “African” or should I say what America thinks Africans sound like. Something I like to call the “Coming To America Accent”. A generic accent that has become so common in Western depictions of Africans. The same generic accent Will Smith had when he portrayed a Nigerian doctor in Concussion. The same accent Don Cheadle had in Hotel Rwanda. The same accent that’s been featured in 99% of American films and television that depict Africans. My main issue with this character is beyond his accent. My problem Dear White People, is that the depiction of Rashid highlights the complex relationship Africans have with their American counterparts and how we are looked down on by many of them.
When Rashid makes an appearance in the first episode of the series it is not long before we see him being ridiculed by an African American character about guess what? Him being African! Rashid points out the fact that he can speak 5 languages (which felt like a backhanded way of saying Africans are intelligent in my opinion). The aforementioned African American character then proceeds to make fun of his accent. In a later episode this same character mocks Rashid by making clicking noises. This unfortunately reminded me of my experiences with African Americans during the 6 non-consecutive years I spent living in the U.S. One particular incident comes to mind. So it’s my 20th birthday and I’m at my first American college party dancing with a girl. After the dance I’m there smiling feeling like the man until another Black girl approaches me and asks “you’re not from here are you?”. When I said yes she then proceeded to ask if I am African and I proudly said yes. She then snidely remarked “oh I could tell”.
I’ll never forget the look on her face and tone in her voice when she made the remark. As if being African was some sort of badge of shame. This incident made me realise that in America, Africans aren’t seen as Black by our brethren. We are seen as “African” and to a lot of them, that is a bad thing. This incident made me feel like an outsider. It also put me off dating African American girls and only dating White women for the duration of my time in the States (but that’s another story for a different day). Unfortunately this wasn’t the last time I was ridiculed for being African by African Americans. I even received it from my Black American friends. “You African Booty Scratcher”. “You got slave feet”. “Hey don’t Noel remind you of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America?”. “Ghana? Angola? What difference does it make all you Africans look the same anyways?”. “That’s not going to fit your African head”. “No guys you don’t understand in Africa we use leaves to wipe our asses”. I heard it all and even if it was all “jokes”, “a lot of truth is said in jest”.
It is because of these experiences that I shook my head and literally rolled my eyes the moment I heard Rashid speak, Dear White People. For years Africa has been depicted by Hollywood as one big war torn COUNTRY where the people all live in poverty, run around naked, are dying of AIDS and make clicking noises when we speak. It has been depicted as one big mystical place that when you visit it, you have to come back having reached a whole new level of spirituality and wear a dashiki instead of just taking a normal vacation and doing normal activities such as going to the beach or cinema. (Yes that was a shot at you “woke” American Pan Africanists). Even when it comes to miniscule things about the continent like the pronunciation of cities, Hollywood can’t seem to get it right. The biggest grossing film of last year featured its main characters mispronounce Lagos as “LAH-GOS” for crying out loud.
At this point in time I really don’t expect any better from the aged 50+ white men that run Hollywood but I do expect better from American Brothers and Sisters in the industry. I expect better from you, Dear White People. If you’re going to portray Africa and its people portray us accurately. Portray whichever African country you choose to portray accurately. If the character is Nigerian, make sure they sound Nigerian. If they are from Zimbabwe, make sure they sound Zimbabwean and not from somewhere in West Africa. Finding an actor who is native to the respective country might help solve this problem (the actor who portrays Rashid is American.) At the end of the day whether you’re Ghanaian, Bajan or a black man from Alabama we are all in this struggle together. So please actually make a genuine effort. Make sure you do not let me down again next season, Dear White People.
Words by @NiftyNoel