Antoinette Robertson (Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)

I have a female friend I’ve known since high school, a gorgeous dark-skinned black woman with arresting eyes and a complexion so smooth it’s maddening. She periodically tells a story about a time she was walking down the street and a car full of black men rolled up to her, shouted at her about how ugly she is, and sped off. Her telling of the story has an element of sense memory that makes it all the more horrifying. She remembers every moment of that incident, what she was doing, wearing, and feeling, as if it happened more recently than two decades ago. I hate that she thinks about it so often—I’ve heard the story no less than a dozen times in a variety of contexts—but it’s not my place to tell her to let go of something I’ve never had to carry.

My friend’s story kept coming to mind as I watching “Chapter IV,” the Dear White People episode that deals with the incredibly thorny issue of colorism within the black community. The entry point into the conversation is the chilly Coco (known to her family as Colandrea), who we haven’t seen much of since the show began. She was responsible for the pivotal moment in “Chapter I” when everyone at the Black Caucus found out about her secret relationship with Gabe. All we know about Coco thus far is that she used to be friends with Sam until a falling out of some kind, and that she’s got it bad for Troy. In “Chapter IV,” Coco gets her close-up.

The Coco-centric episode is Dear White People’s first curveball. The second and third episodes branched off in intuitive directions, spending more time with characters that seemed prominent enough to carry their own episodes. Everything always comes back to the Pastiche party and each character’s role in and reaction to it. Sam instigated the party and filmed it for posterity, Lionel knocked over the speakers, and Troy called in the cavalry to break the party up. Coco’s connection to the Pastiche party isn’t quite as direct. She showed up at the behest of her white friends, was horrified at what she saw, and stormed out after giving Sam a piece of her mind.

For the other black students at Winchester, the party is a call to action, but for Coco, it’s a cruel reminder of business as usual. Coco gets the standard childhood flashback with voiceover, and her memory is of picking toys to play with in class and being assigned the “ugly” doll with a complexion much like her own. That flashback becomes a framing device for Coco’s relationship with race and explains why she doesn’t share Sam’s passion for social justice issues. As a dark-skinned woman, she’s acutely aware of her race and is more interested in correcting for it or trying to get people to forget about it. She didn’t have to come to Winchester to learn that dark skin can be a burden. She’s always well aware.

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Coco and Sam’s run-in at the Pastiche party gives rise the latest escalation of their long-running feud. Coco took her shot by outing Sam’s relationship with Gabe, and now it’s Sam’s turn to retaliate, which she does by adapting Coco’s rant at the party into an “Auto-Tune The News” style GarageBand ditty. All the girl-on-girl violence provides Dear White People the perfect opportunity to flashback to when Coco and Sam met freshman year and became fast friends and roommates in Armstrong-Parker. In fact, in one awfully sweet scene, we learn that Sam’s radio show has its origins in a parlor game she and Coco used to play in their dorm room together.

Their paths quickly split off as the ethnically ambiguous Sam White starts embracing her black identity, while the dark-skinned Colandrea eschews conversations about racism and tries to blend in with her white girlfriends. When that doesn’t work—the Shakespeare-themed make-out party is a bust—she gravitates toward an elite black sorority. She tries to look the part by getting her first weave along with the traction alopecia that comes with it, and she struggles to keep up with the rest of the line. When Sam refuses to bail Coco out after a mix-up leaves the sorority without a venue, the tension between them boils over.

Then again, to say the tension is “between them” is probably overstating it a bit. Sam, who suffers from “light-skin privilege,” has no reason to sense the tension growing between them. She’s the one for whom everything comes easy, whether it’s falling into a social clique, dating the hottest guy on campus, or grooming her hair in the morning. It’s Coco who feels like she’s getting, at regular intervals, reminders from the universe that nobody is checking for her. She’s the doll that was left after everyone finished choosing toys. ”Chapter IV” is a well-crafted and observant profile of a woman who has a really complex relationship with her skin and has spent her life trying to make herself more broadly appealing.

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I liked “Chapter IV” enough that I wish I had loved it. Antoinette Robertson does a terrific job of animating one of the show’s trickiest characters. The main issue is that the episode feels like Coco is getting short shrift, like her story is being used to fill out Sam’s. The bulk of the episode takes place in flashback, and even though Coco is holding the spotlight, when “Chapter IV” concluded, I felt like I had a better idea of Sam’s journey at Winchester than Coco’s. (The first image are of Thane Lockwood in his final moments.) But it’s kind of exciting that the episode exists at all. Dear White People didn’t have to delve into colorism, and to do so probably risks muddying the water for some viewers. The show may be called Dear White People, but no one’s getting off the hook but their racial anxiety, including black people.

Stray observations

  • Why does everybody on this campus abbreviate everything? It’s totes annoying.
  • There’s a ton of grace and nuance in this script by Njeri Brown. I like that it doesn’t condemn Coco’s perspective.
  • Tanika: “Ain’t nobody talking to you, Abigail.” Seriously Abigail, can it. You’re the worst.

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