Sometimes identity can be your salvation. It can be liberating to find your place in the world, but at some point, identity can hold you back.

Who are you? How many times have you looked in the mirror and really asked yourself that question? Chances are you that you are going to face an existential crisis at some point in your life. You’re probably going to question and even challenge your identity several times in your life. We all want to feel like we belong somewhere, but how do you fit into society at large? Are you going to conform to what other people expect of you based on the color of your skin or the language you speak at home? Are you going to follow the path of those who came before you?

It has been quite some time since I’ve been pulled into a TV series the way that I was pulled in Dear White People on Netflix. I recently binge-watched the entire first season and then I promptly went to the library to borrow the movie on which it is based. (The Netflix series is better.) And even though it may appear to be a movie about racism, creator Justin Simien insists it is about so much more than that. It’s about identity.

Dear White People follows the story of several black students who are attending a predominantly white Ivy League school. We see how each of them comes to interpret and handle their “blackness” under such circumstances. It’s witty, insightful, and provocative.

One of the facets of growing up the way I did, I never had the experience of being solely in the black community. Even my family, my mother is what they call Creole, so she’s part French, part black, and grew up in Louisiana. It’s a very specific kind of blackness that is different than what is traditionally thought of as the black community and black culture. So, I never felt a part of whatever that was.

It is entirely inaccurate to paint all of the “black community” and “black culture” with the broad stroke of a single brush. Justin Simien does a terrific job of driving this message home in Dear White People. All the students are understandably very bright — they are attending an Ivy League school, after all — but they couldn’t be more different.

The college/university setting is particularly appropriate, as it is during these years of higher education that so many people try to figure out who they are. And not just in terms of race. One student in the movie and TV show, Lionel, says he “doesn’t believe in labels” as he is still trying to work out his sexuality.

For my part, growing up as a second-generation Chinese Canadian, I embraced the “Canadian” part of me so much more than the “Chinese” part of me. That’s changing as I get older, but just as there isn’t a monolithic “black culture,” there isn’t a monolithic “Chinese Canadian” culture either. I don’t really identify with recent immigrants, especially if they’re originally from a different part of China (and speak Mandarin).

But mainstream culture is almost telling me that I’m supposed to. We all look the same, right?

I love being entertained sure, but the movies that I live for, the movies that I buy and think about and stay in my mind are the movies that entertain me but leave me with something a little uncomfortable to grapple with in the lobby.

Some people are offended by Dear White People, accusing the movie (and the TV series) for being racist against Caucasians. And maybe they should be offended. Maybe they should feel uncomfortable. Maybe not. In either case, this opens the floor for a very fruitful discussion about race relations in modern society.

I plan to read the book soon too. Racism isn’t dead. And it needs to be addressed openly and honestly.

Image credit: Shelly Provost, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)