Sydney McKinley: ‘Dear White People’ screening is a chance to talk about race at GW

This Wednesday, we will be given a beautiful opportunity to get a little uncomfortable. If you choose to participate, there will be moments when you will cringe, laugh awkwardly and probably – at least once – feel a pang in your stomach because a scene is just oh too real.

As part of its Controversy at the Movies series, Program Board is hosting a free screening of “Dear White People,” this week – a highly anticipated satirical movie that explores race relations at fictional, prestigious Winchester University primarily through the lens of four black students.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring administrators and students, including Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller, President of Black Men’s Initiative Larry Nwankwo, Latin Student Coordinator Marcela Torres-Cervantes, Senior Academic Advisor Shonda Goward, as well as myself. I’m writing my senior thesis on our campus’ racial climate as part of my sociology major, and as the founder of GW Students for Education Reform, I was invited to sit on the panel.

This event is the perfect place to start the difficult conversation that our self-proclaimed liberal, diverse university desperately needs to have – in our classrooms, residence halls and student group meetings.

This film is truly thought-provoking, giving viewers the opportunity to better understand the issues from a variety of perspectives. It asks the tough questions and doesn’t pretend to have the answers, which allows us to pick up the conversation where the film leaves off and create the spaces for this overdue discussion.

“There are so few opportunities to get uncomfortable and engage with the experiences of a certain group,” junior Kyle Hanna, the cultural affairs chair of Program Board who helped organize the screening, told me.

The movie exaggerates the elite Winchester University and frames the school’s racial issues in a way that makes them glaringly obvious. On the surface, some may find it difficult to recognize the parallels between the Ivy League school depicted in the movie and our own university, but the sad and uncomfortable reality is that GW, and the problems we face, are not all that different.

“There are very defined similarities between Winchester and GW,” Hanna said, even beyond the fact that they’re both private and predominantly white. “The movie draws on a few of the myriad challenges that underrepresented students experience throughout their time in university. I thought it was pretty funny because I could almost immediately put a GW face to all the characters.”

It will be tempting, understandably, to not want to see the connection – to point to the depictions of blatant racism and say, “That would never happen at my school.” But if you resist this urge, many scenes are certain to resonate with you as alarmingly familiar – like white people awkwardly changing their tone and dialect when speaking to their black peers.

Generally, GW students understand that there are racial disparities in the world. What we don’t seem to understand, however, is exactly how these issues translate to our campus. In a university setting, racial issues are more subtle, less egregious and, therefore, easier to ignore.

Bias, stereotyping, micro-aggressions and tokenism are all issues that plague our community, as well as campuses across the country – the anecdotal evidence that these problems exist at GW is overwhelming.

These issues are difficult to pinpoint and address, and are particularly difficult for white students to understand. “They don’t see it, and therefore, it doesn’t exist to them,” said Hanna.

This is not only because GW is a predominately white institution by the numbers (about 60 percent of undergraduate students are white), but also because our school, like many other colleges and universities across the country, was originally founded to serve white students. We see this legacy in the way that spaces and organizations not dominated by white students (like multicultural organizations, including Greek chapters) are still viewed as “other,” or alternates to “normal” groups.

But this is not meant to target white students – race relations on campus are an increasingly difficult topic for all of us to engage with. Plainly put, race relations are not as clear-cut as they used to be.

We all must take it upon ourselves to confront these issues – without fear that we do not know the answers. We must allow those with good intentions to misunderstand and misspeak: It’s an important part of creating a welcoming conversation about a difficult topic.

The screening and panel discussion is on Wednesday, at the AMC Loews Theater in Georgetown at 7 p.m. I hope it marks the start of an ongoing, raw and accessible discussion of race at our school.

Sydney McKinley, a senior majoring in political science and sociology, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.