Following a tirade of racist, vulgar comments being thrown against Netflix and Dear White People creator Justin Simien, the showrunner has penned a heartfelt essay on Medium explaining the origin of the title and his emotional response to the backlash.
Dear White People, a series based on a 2014 film of the same name from the same creator, is a satirical look at the prestigious and overwhelmingly white student bodies that make up Ivy League universities from the perspective of an outspoken black woman named Sam. The film was well received by critics at Sundance where it debuted, but the movie’s controversial title and unapologetic nature found its own criticism immediately.
In the Medium essay, Simien addresses Dear White People’s history with people online, bringing up a torrent of vile tweets, Facebook messages and, naturally, YouTube comments left on any page related to the project. When Simien was just starting to promote the movie, the creator mentioned the harassment was still pretty infrequent but it was horrible enough that it still stung and stayed with him every time.
“Being called a nigger and a race baiter by strangers on twitter was still infrequent at this point, but frankly it’s the kind of thing where once is more than enough,” Simien wrote. “‘You DO realize your last name means MONKEY right??’ Still stung. Even after the half a dozen times I’d read similar tweets and variations thereof.”
Simien was proud of the movie he made, but like anyone who has ever created anything in the era of social media and the internet, the negative comments he would constantly receive on every platform imaginable had begun to weigh on him.
“I hadn’t yet realized that pouring over youtube comments and measuring the dislike to like ratios on our trailers was killing me from the inside out,” Simien wrote. “Just as I hadn’t yet realized the constant struggle to leave my bed in the mornings was a symptom of chronic low grade depression and anxiety.”
As the harassment continued, Simien started thinking about whether he made the right decision to stick with the name for his movie. At one point, he decided to try out a different name — 2% — and while penning the script for the movie, set up a fake Twitter account called Dear White People in the same vein as other viral profiles like Shit White Girls Say. It was under the guise of the account that Simien started testing out phrases and questions he wanted Sam to say in his film and see how people reacted to it.
“The Dear White People account was met positively by the dozens who noticed it,” Simien said. “I prided myself on avoiding low hanging fruit and strove to provide dual commentaries as often as possible. That was not exactly the model other, more viral, joke accounts followed but it was something I felt was true to Sam’s style of expression.”
With a more positive response flowing in, Simien decided to keep the name and deal with those who were going to hate on the title of the movie and its commentary regardless of what it was called. According to the creator, the abuse calmed down for a brief period following the release of the movie but following Netflix’s announcement trailer, the insults picked back up again.
Like before, Simien couldn’t believe how cruel people online were, but was quick to point out the irony between those calling him a racist and a “nigger” at the same time.
“The hypocrisy of being called both a nigger as well the sole cause of the racism I was complaining about, was a sort of recurring theme,” Simien wrote. “I wasn’t sure if the bi-polar nature of the hate speech was intentional or not, (a kind of mind trick perhaps?) but I knew enough to know that it was nothing new.”
Simien ended his post by pointing out that despite people threatening to boycott Netflix and calling for others to cancel their subscriptions until Dear White People was removed from the network’s slate, the actual company had nothing but positive things to say about it. Executives reached out to ensure he was okay and, contrary to trolls’ efforts to get people to boycott Netflix, the company’s stock rose following the announcement trailer.
Simien decided that the name of the series was crucial to the show because it took on the tone of a viral meme — started and overtaken by a primarily white group of comedians and people on Twitter — but examined the jokes from an entirely different perspective.
“I am opinionated, well read, articulate, creative, successful and subversive just like the creators of all the projects mentioned above,” Simien wrote. “But unlike the people behind those projects, I have the audacity to be all those things as well as black.”
Simien said he’s going to try not to engage with as many trolls on Twitter going forward, but added he’s excited to bring the series to Netflix and hopefully engage an entirely new audience who may have missed the film.
Dear White People debuts on April 28.