By Evan Lambert
The second season of Netflix’s Dear White People isn’t coasting on the steam generated by its debut season. By framing each of its episodes around a different protagonist, this season has created a new, hypnotic engine of its own. But within the comfortable familiarity of this structure, the season has introduced a concept even more jarring than the fourth wall-breaking looks its characters gives the camera: We, the audience, are closer to these marginalized characters than we thought.
One of the best and most topical quotes of the second season is that “when the truth is suppressed, it doesn’t die; it just goes underground.” And just like its hyperliterate characters, Dear White People has found a variety of interesting ways of expressing that idea. However, the most obvious way has been by sending its protagonists on a literal quest for truth: Throughout season two, Sam and the now openly gay Lionel become locked in a mission to investigate Winchester University’s rumored black secret society, the Order of X. Eventually, they discover that the secret society not only exists but is connected to a shadowy man played by Giancarlo Esposito.
Of course, Sam and Lionel don’t realize that the voice of Esposito’s character is also the voice that has been narrating every episode of Dear White People. Only we, the viewers, realize this — and only after hearing the character’s voice as he introduces himself to Sam and Lionel for the first time. But the revelation that this previously unseen man is an actual character in this universe indicates that Dear White People has been breaking the fourth wall since the very first episode.
The voice of the narrator has not just introduced us to the characters of Dear White People, but has made us active participants in their lives. He has implored us to learn disturbing details about our country’s history of racism and homophobia and use these details to solve the mystery of the Order of X ourselves. And now that we realize he is also a fictional character in this show’s universe, we understand that the racial tensions at Winchester — and the toxic homophobia that led to the creation of the Milo Ventimiglia-like Silvio — are problems that have affected him as well. He hasn’t just been asking us to empathize with these characters’ pain; he has been asking us to empathize with his own. And for white and straight viewers who would not otherwise grasp the intricacies of institutionalized racism and homophobia, this story device forces them to see that racism can affect people very personally. Thus, the narrator has served as a bridge between those particular viewers and the complicated world of Dear White People. We couldn’t ask for a more effective tool for change.
All of these ideas are perfectly conveyed when the narrator, at the end of the episode, mimics what so many characters on Dear White People have done at the ends of prior episodes: He turns to the camera and looks us right in the eyes. Finally, he is a living and breathing human being — as are the queer people of color that he has spoken for.