There’s a moment of levity early in Dear White People’s second season that signals an impending shift in the show’s exploration of blackness, and race more generally. While they discuss a new direction for their campus radio show, Dear White People, Sam (Logan Browning) tells Joelle (Ashley Brown Featherson) that “’Don’t touch my hair’ quips are wack.” What Sam really means is that, after last season’s finale, in which protests erupted at a campus town hall meeting, there are more pressing issues to parse. Among them: a Twitter troll with the handle @AltIvyW who’s stirring up white racial hostility on the campus of the fictional Winchester University.
Sam’s remark seems to reveal writer-creator Justin Simien’s intentions for Dear White People in its second season, which urgently formulates a trenchant assessment of America’s deteriorating national dialogue. The series offers a dim view of communication in an increasingly tribal world. Once it proposed discourse as a bridge between whites and blacks, but as @AltIvyW and insurgent white nationalists plunge Winchester University into unrest, Dear White People now questions whether such a discourse is possible at all.
Season two picks up in the immediate fallout of last season’s climactic protest, with an exhausted Sam featuring more music than commentary on her show. Armstrong-Parker, the historically all-black house on campus, has been crowded with white students displaced by a fire at a nearby dorm. From its earliest moments, the season vibrates with tension. In the wake of his confrontation with campus police, Reggie (Marque Richardson) struggles through school-mandated therapy, incredulous that the officer who pulled a gun on him is still employed by the school. Meanwhile, Sam agonizes over how best to wield her influence on campus—or to continue wielding it at all.
Simien is adept at asking questions without purporting to have any answers. The mostly black students who reside in Armstrong-Parker have individual and unique reactions to the events of last season, but they’re united by a crisis of confidence. Student union meetings across campus are clouded with uncertainty, as students struggle to move forward while Winchester is increasingly divided along racial lines. Despite being as quick and witty as ever, the characters’ conversations unfold with a demoralizing sense of fatalism. After their best attempts to quell the unrest that took place last season, discord at the university is at a fever pitch.
The season begins in earnest once Sam resolves to engage @AltIvyW, in an exhilarating online skirmish that Simien frames as neither noble nor particularly effective—just cathartic. Dear White People grasps the futility of Twitter discourse but forgives the impulses of even intelligent people like Sam to engage with online trolls. We’re beckoned to root for Sam, while understanding that the only victory available to her will be rhetorical, and fleeting: @AltIvyW will never concede defeat, and their exchange inadvertently boosts the troll’s profile. And that ultimately frustrating dynamic is the season’s thematic focus, as the students’ best efforts at progress are stifled by opponents who have no real interest in fair dialogue.
Dear White People maintains its circuitous storytelling in season two, as each episode weaves a different character’s story into the overarching narrative. This structure highlights the ideological stratification within Winchester’s black population, as each student is endowed with singular pursuits and perspectives. Some, like the nakedly ambitious Coco (Antoinette Robertson), strive to succeed within what they might consider a white establishment. Others, like Sam and Reggie, are self-styled disruptors, speaking truth to power from the margins. The series is both emotionally resonant and thought-provoking when motivations are complicated by personal experience, such as Sam’s biracial parentage, or Coco’s resentment of her white peers.
The world of Winchester is uncannily familiar, with Simien harnessing the zeitgeist to obliterate the barrier between a fictional college campus and the real world. A new radio show, Dear Right People, features roundtable talks about “white genocide,” and targets “social justice warriors” for using buzzwords such as “wage gap,” “institutional racism,” and “rape culture.” Sam’s Twitter mentions recall the vitriol spewed by anonymous internet users posturing on behalf of free speech. Even @AltIvyW’s identity is, in retrospect, an obvious reference to at least one well-known campus provocateur.
Because it isn’t built around a single cataclysmic event, Dear White People’s second season is often less propulsive than its first. Some of the most resonant episodes unfold away from the campus fray, and offer glimpses of the students’ personal lives. In one, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the school’s erstwhile golden boy, struggles to form an identity separate from his imposing father. And one emotionally devastating episode takes place away from Winchester entirely, focusing on Sam’s relationship with her white father.
Dear White People’s second season ends in melancholic doubt, with Sam questioning whether she helped contribute to campus tribalism. The answer is frustratingly complex: It’s an Escher painting of causality, and almost entirely unrelated to her motivations. One can imagine Simien sharing Sam’s exasperation. He’s written characters with insightful, cutting, hilarious, and sad words to say. Would it be unreasonable for him to wonder if the right people are listening? Certainly, in season two’s most disheartening moments, Winchester’s students wonder what good they’ve done by speaking up at all.