Nia Long’s Lesbian Character in “Dear White People” Sure Was Underwhelming

Two weeks ago, Netflix gifted us a series based on the acclaimed 2014 film Dear White People, and what’s more, they gave us the incredible gift of seeing Nia Long play a lesbian professor. Those are significant gifts, to be sure, but unfortunately the show overall, as well as its handling of Nia Long’s character specifically, often misses the mark despite its best intentions.

In case you missed it, Dear White People was a film chronicling a group of Black students’ experience at Winchester University, the ninth Ivy League university. They deal with what every student of color at a predominantly white institution (PWI) deals with — racist macro and microaggressions. The show expands off of the movie’s main conflict — a blackface party hosted by the school’s satire magazine Pastiche — and gives us background on each of the characters.

And in Chapter III, we get the best addition ever. Nia Long plays Neika Hobbs in my dream job as an African-American studies professor and a beautiful self-proclaimed lesbian. She’s engaged to a beautiful Black femme with short blonde hair, she can’t be a politician because she says she needs to tell people to “go fuck themselves at least four times a week”, and she doesn’t want to get married because she wants to, “enjoy our love pure and untouched by the heteronormative culture, the way God intended.” Amen and me too.

But then something weird happens. She hooks up with a student! With a guy student! Did we have to do that? Haven’t we been fighting against this ridiculous trope for decades? Plus, hooking up with a student makes her seem predatory, and not in the hot kind of way she seems predatory when she slaps her girlfriend’s ass and says “let’s go baby,” when it’s time to leave. This is a gross misuse of power, and honestly it’s my least favorite thing about her. Friends, I wish they hadn’t written that part in. I wish Neika Hobbs was just happy and partnered and didn’t sneak off with men under 21. Plus, we don’t get a lot of black queer female characters on television, period, and when we do get them, we almost never see them in a serious relationship with another black queer woman. The Wire and Queen Sugar are two of a very small number of mainstream television shows where a black woman dated another black woman for more than one episode. It was encouraging to see Dear White People show a black lesbian couple, but the majority of Neika Hobbs’ screen-time was dedicated to her affair with Troy. And why, if she is attracted to both men and women, did they choose to have her identify as a lesbian instead of as bisexual or queer?

I think the writing of this storyline is indicative of what Dear White People is overall. It’s a show that is literally co-opting activism and activist culture. And I get it, activism is in right now. My social media feeds are filled with friends, celebs, and politicians who are taking pictures of themselves and their signs at a different protest every weekend. And I am not here to say don’t protest — please, protest, because we live in a garbage world right now, and we need to change it.

However, watching the show just felt like watching someone who knew how to use buzz words correctly. Like, the writers knew what they were talking about, but it felt rehearsed. I mean, the main character is a very light-skinned, mixed-race straight black woman. She has not one, but two dark-skinned sidekicks. Other than Nia Long’s character, there are no queer women students all season long. With a few slight variations, Sam is a 2017 version of the “tragic mulatto” stereotype: never fully able to be understood by anyone because of her “unique” positionality. And so when I think about the show as a whole, it makes sense to me that the writers thought it would be okay to write a lesbian professor who preys on a male student.

I wanted to like Dear White People. I really, really, really did. It has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes! But as a black person who attended a PWI for undergrad and attends a different PWI right now, it felt contrived. My friends and I don’t say “woke” to each other because we are woke. Because we have to be. We already know town halls are staged, we already know the administration is always looking for one of us docile enough to be in conversation with so that they can say they tried. We know.

So next season (because I do want a next season) I want more queer women who aren’t abusing their power or cheating on their partners. I want their sexuality on screen, too. Neika has full-on sex with a guy, but we never see her be affectionate with her own fiance. I want the writers to work on finding language that feels natural and doesn’t make it seem like they’ve been lurking on DeRay’s twitter.

Would I suggest this show? That depends. If you’re white, or even non-black, yes totally 100%. If you’re Black and want to see a dramatic reenactment of your undergrad experience, with a few great one-liners thrown in, then sure. If nothing else, Nia Long slapping another woman’s booty will be enough to get you through the season.


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Alaina is a 20-something working on a PhD in Performance as Public Practice. They are a mom to three cats, they listen to a lot of NPR and musicals, and they spend a lot of time on Pinterest lusting over studio apartments. They are actively trying to build A Brand on twitter @alainamonts. One day, they will be First Lady of the United States.

Alaina has written 108 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. 6

    “Because we have to be. We already know town halls are staged, we already know the administration is always looking for one of us docile enough to be in conversation with so that they can say they tried. We know.”

    Wow, I feel this part especially. At my PWI, there are currently concerns that there will be yet another derogatory “Mexican” party tomorrow, and I just met with administrators this morning not because I’m particularly optimistic about the results, but so that I can say that WE tried. If the administration doesn’t manage to prevent this rubbish (of which I am utterly fed up – it has been happening for years) and a bunch of latinxs and other students of color end up party-crashing tomorrow night a la “Dear White People”…well, at least I tried. I am tired of meetings, town halls, focus groups, and all-but empty words, and ready for actual change.

  2. 8

    Excellent writeup, thanks! I loved the show and cannot wrap my head around why Lionel was treated so respectfully while Neika was not. But then, as you said, the character of Sam was far from innovative also.

    I felt like there were some unsaid things about Troy and how he had treated Lionel and his former roommate too. Having had two gay roommates consecutively seems unusual, and asking both of those roommates to pee in a cup for him seems… kind of like taking advantage? Was there a vibe there that anyone else read?

  3. 3

    Is it bad that I liked the bisexual fembot/model from Girlboss more than Neika Hobbs? Because I kind of did…

    (In my defense my one weakness are over the top caricatures)

    A bit more on topic: I found it pretty telling that the only other WLW I remember from Dear White People were the President of that asian student group and the president of the LGBTQI group that she was cheating on her boyfriend with.(they’re both small roles in one episode but still, I don’t remember a single lesbian relationship in the series that isn’t attached to a man in some way.)

  4. 7

    Can’t imagine the outrage it would cause if the gay male character was treated that way. But homophobia against lesbians is entirely acceptable. For a short time I thought this bigoted trope turned down a bit (I remember times when there were 12 instances a year of “lesbian fu*cking a guy and loving it” in various TV shows), but apparently mainly because, as GLAAD reports show, there’s just less lesbian characters overall.

  5. 3

    Really wonderful write up, I had watched this episode and was waiting for someone to discuss this dynamic, and it seemed that it was really swept under the rug.

  6. 2

    Great write-up! I was on the fence about the show because it’s getting so much hype and I liked parts of the movie, but was also really underwhelmed by the way colorism was dealt with (played into, but not really addressed, esp. around Coco’s character).

    I’m sure I’ll still eventually watch it and roll my eyes a lot, but I won’t be adding it to my must-see-immediately list.

  7. 5

    “With a few slight variations, Sam is a 2017 version of the “tragic mulatto” stereotype: never fully able to be understood by anyone because of her “unique” positionality.”

    I don’t really understand this part. Why is unique in quotation marks? As black/latina mixed person (tan, but not white nor white passing, curly hair). Sam does have a unique perspective because mixed problems are real shit. They exist and it can be hurtful never fitting in because of the way you look. White people will say they can’t be seen with you and black folk say your not really one of them. Other people say you’re not really black. Like so am I supposed to reject my dad’s side now? Not only do I get racist crap thrown at me because I am latina, but I get racist crap thrown at me because I am black. I’ve had moments sitting around black people who say race mixing is not okay and latinas who have looked down on me because I am not light enough. I have a unique perspective that is different from someone who appears monoracial. My experiences are the type of unique that doesn’t have to go in quotation marks. Am I special? Hell no. But my positionality is valid and unique.

    On another note, I might just stick to the movie if the series is this underwhelming. That movie gave me life.

    • 3

      Omg! Yes! All of this! I’m also mixed race (half Indian, half white) and totally get the whole not belonging in either community thing and it is super tricky and I was really happy with a mixed race protagonist doing some badass activism on campus. I personally loved this show so much. Totally agree though that queer lady representation was a bit shit with them all secretly cheating with guys. Also I’m guessing that they didn’t call her bi was for her to hide her affair with Troy?

    • 3

      i’m sorry you’ve experienced discrimination for being mixed. in this show though, sam does not. no one tells her she can’t head the bsu bc she’s mixed, and in fact the only time it’s a “thing” is when a dark skinned black woman is wearing a shirt that says “coffee no cream” and sam says “what about me??” i was speaking to a very specific theatrical (and now in movies) trope that was created by abolitionists to get white people to empathise with black people, bc they found that if their plays were about non-mixed black folks that white people didn’t care. that’s what’s happening here. sam has very few endearinng qualities in my opinion, but she’s light and pretty and “woke” so we’re supposed to feel for her.

      my bad if i didnt make that come across clearly.

      • 1

        The movie sounds better than the show. There is so much commentary that can be made about being mixed. (Being white passing, never fitting in, always looking different, hearing other people talking about race mixing diluting the blood line, et cetera) And contrary to popular belief you don’t need another white person to be a mixed black person.
        I’m not going to say I’ve experienced discrimination, because I understand dark skinned folk have it worse than I. But shit gets hard. To white people I’m black, to black people I’m latina passing (not white passing but you get it). Someone said no one would want to date a black like you? You still don’t have the right to complain cause you ain’t dark enough.
        By the comments I can already see the show probably has no afrolatinas or black folk mixed with something other than white, like Angela Yee. Where my blasians at? Sadly it seems like the show missed the mark.
        And at least someone is being honest about it.

  8. 5

    I gotta say, I loved it. My college was so white there were not even enough black students to maintain the BSU consistently and I had only one other black friend. So it was really validating to watch these black undergrads actually give voice to the frustration I felt like I had to keep bottled up, and to take action when I felt like I had to keep the peace. I do distinctly remember the moment I became “woke,” but even once I knew my anger was real and justified, I still had no one to talk to about it. My housemates didn’t believe racism existed anymore. My classmates jumped at the chance to read the n-word aloud in class. My college town was really liberal, like all college towns, but it still felt like four years’ worth of trying to survive Get Out. And it wasn’t until I literally got out, and moved to NYC, that I felt safe enough to speak up and get active the way the kids in Dear White People do.

    So for me, at least, it was a really fun ride, imagining what it would’ve been like to pop off the way I always wanted to. But I totally agree in that I was really disappointed by the lesbian/bi rep, not just the student/teacher thing but also the LGBT club president and her ex. Why are all the queer women in this show cheating on each other? At least they did right by Lionel, who must be protected at all costs.

  9. 3

    This show was really good, but it failed to represent bisexual people. The first “bisexual” we met is a gay guy afraid to come out, and the second is a woman who calls herself lesbian and cheats on her wife with a straight male way younger than her. I was really disappointed.

  10. 3

    I’m white, so I’m not as attuned to the nuances that some of writing addressed/failed to address, but I personally loved this show (minus aforementioned failings re: queer characters). Not for the “activist buzzwords,” which yeah, anyone can write, but because I thought they did a phenomenal job of capturing the very specific sector of activism that is student organizing politics on Ivy League campuses and the frustrations that come with it (as someone who has attended both “regular” and Ivy League campuses, I think the difference does matter in terms of the privilege that accompanies the latter and the complicated ways it intersects with your other non-privileged identities).

    I especially love the last protest scene, where Sam is talking to the white guy and he is saying typical white guy ignorant things, but the way they set up the scene, with Sam’s boyfriend in the background, you can tell that Sam is asking herself the same questions – it was great acting, scene-setting, and also such relatable self-doubt.

    Plus this show is worth watching for the Scandal parody alone.

  11. 3

    Thanks so much for your article, I really appreciated hearing your perspective.

    I think it’s important to highlight how representations like this are bad for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. They fail to represent any if us without homophobia and biphobia and make us all seem like potential predators. This is a bad representation of a queer woman regardless of identity, and how her identity was handled made it worse.

  12. 4

    I really enjoyed the show. But thank you for articulating the annoyance I felt in how it portrayed queer female characters. It’s queer male characters seemed to be treated with much more care, and even if that’s because one of them was a main character, it doesn’t excuse treating the queer females as unflattering stereotypes or trope-fills.

    I enjoyed how the show didn’t seem to try to express absolutes, meaning even the kids united behind a single point of view approached it differently, and made mistakes, and experienced things that changed their perspective. In some ways the setting (college) allowed for imperfections in the show, because: youth.

    I appreciate the discussion here, though, and the personal perspectives.

  13. 0

    I really liked the movie but was hoping the show did a better job of exploring LGBT (as in, maybe having trans characters like at all) and it disappointed me. Nia Long’s character was disappointing for all the reasons written here, and so was Lionel’s. Having only one other mlm character in more than one episode made it obvious they’d end up together even though they…don’t seem compatible to me at all.
    I liked the show overall, and was especially excited to have a Barry Jenkins directed episode, but goddamn was all that frustrating.

    • 0

      I feel you with Lionel and Silvio (the editor). Silvio felt like he could be a great friend to show Lionel around the queer community, but it felt like lazy writing for them to get together.

      However, Lionel’s crush on Troy felt well written to me, from the frantic google searches, to others observing it, and his own fantasies. Like ohhhh, I’ve been there with straight women before, and it felt authentic.

  14. 0

    I’ve met so many people in my life who genuinely don’t believe lesbians exist that when I hear it in person it’s started registering as the type of ignorance so ridiculous I don’t even care about it anymore. (Sort of like when a male acquaintance of mine earnestly said ‘women get far too much credit for the whole women’s vote thing’. Like…) But the TROPE still upsets me to no end, because apparently lesbians are secretly really bisexual even when they’re fictional.

  15. 0

    I don’t think I have a problem with her hooking up with the male student. I don’t think I have a problem with her relationship with her fiance either. You see, this is real life. And in real life straight and lesbian couples cheat on each other, they desire other things, other feelings, other people, other Sensations..

    I’m sure there’s a million ways they could have portrayed this character, but it seems real, more real than just some happy-go-lucky lesbians.

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