“Dear White People” creator Justin Simien talks Buddhism, finding empathy for trolls

One element of Justin Simien’s identity isn’t obvious in his new Netflix hit: Buddhism. But it’s there.

Sam Littlefair
29 May 2017
Justin Simien.
Dear White People creator Justin Simien. Photo by Rick Proctor.

Talking to Justin Simien, it’s clear that the characters in his show, Dear White People, come from within. Each episode of the Netflix comedy, which debuted last month, follows a different character at a fictional Ivy League college in the aftermath of a blackface party on campus. There are parallels to Simien’s life in each character’s story.

Simien has a love for classic cinema, just like Dear White People’s “woke” white film studies major, Gabe. Simien didn’t learn he was black until elementary school, just like the show’s protagonist, Samantha. Simien went to a performing arts high school, an abandoned dream of Dear White People’s hunky student president, Troy. Simien is a gay, black writer whose father died when he was a child, just like Lionel, the dorky school newspaper reporter.

But one element of Simien’s identity isn’t obvious in the show: Buddhism.

Since 2013, Simien has been a dedicated practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism. He says Buddhism has taught him how to find a happiness that goes deeper than the temporary satisfaction of Hollywood success. For Simien, Buddhism has served as a sort of prism, helping refract his personal narrative into the diverse character storylines of Dear White People.

He talked to me about how the empathy and creativity that he discovers in his practice helps him turn the pain of racism into empathy, compassion, humor, and good entertainment.

Sam Littlefair: You say that you try to acknowledge that there’s no right and wrong in Dear White People, that you’re not taking sides, and yet still the series is very challenging to ego.

Justin Simien: Yeah. Yeah it is.

That really resonated with me in terms of the Buddhist view, that without attacking somebody, you can still challenge their sense of “this is my identity.”

I’ve never really thought of it that way, but you’re right. Challenging the ego is what we’re doing when we’re practicing Buddhism. It’s realizing that the little voice in your head is not the be-all-end-all experience of life.

I went to a performing arts high school. We were taught that if a story somehow challenges you, you shouldn’t just turn it off and say it’s bad. Ask yourself, “What are the unspoken assumptions? Is this choice intentional? If so, why?” I was always encouraged to dig deeper, and I think that’s why certain works prevail; they challenge the ego, generation after generation. I want to make work that does that.

How does your Buddhist view crop up in the film or the show?

I think part of it is a bit subconscious. I never really go into a project trying to make some kind of dogmatic statement, and I think that might be a reflection of what drew me to Buddhism in the first place — that there isn’t an “other” to blame. It always comes down to how we react.

It’s not magic, but I couldn’t deny that since I started chanting there was a dramatic shift in the way my life was going.

Something that I do in the series is ponder all the sides of an issue. I never say “I’ve got the answer,” because that’s foolish. Because, the longer I’ve been meditating and chanting, the more I realize how much deeper you can go.

I never really said, “I’m going to sit down to make an artistic Buddhist statement.” I might, one day, but for now it just feels like it bleeds into the work subconsciously and allows me to listen to my instincts better.

How did you get involved with Buddhism?

It was a natural progression. I was raised Catholic. At some point I started meditating. I was on a spiritual journey. I got into Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle and I started doing a daily meditation practice for a couple of years, but it just fell off a bit.

It was summer 2013. I had quit my job and I was trying to make Dear White People happen as a film and I was almost out of money and out of opportunities, and a friend was invited by Nichiren Buddhists to come to a meeting to chant. So, I said, “Why not [go along]?”

What was that meeting, and the experience of chanting, like?

To begin, you chant for what you want. That’s the opening invitation for people who start chanting in Nichiren’s Buddhism. So I went and I started chanting. In that first moment, I had such a heart connection with it. I just felt something.

Once I started committing to the practice, I couldn’t deny the changes in my life: the first person who turned me down for the movie suddenly came back with an offer. We got into Sundance. I met my partner. I had income to pay my bills. It’s not magic, but I couldn’t deny that since I started chanting there was a dramatic shift in the way my life was going.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was really just the beginning of my Buddhist journey, but it certainly encouraged me to really take on the practice.

What happened next?

The first thing that was that, once I got all the things I thought I needed to be happy, I realized how profoundly unhappy I was. I had everything I had been praying for, and I still couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I was still a pretty miserable person. People were congratulating me on the film and telling me how excited they were, and I wasn’t able to take any of it in.

I think that the key to happiness isn’t getting what you want, but realizing that you can survive what you don’t want.

Through my Buddhist practice, I realized I’ve been suffering from depression my whole life, but never really knew it, and never had a name for it. It was a long process of coming to terms with that and getting to the place where I felt like I could challenge it in my practice.

And now?

I’m on the other side of that. But I wouldn’t have arrived there so quickly if I hadn’t chanted through getting what I thought I wanted and realizing that living my dream wasn’t gonna make me happy; being happy was gonna help me live my dream.

That sounds fortuitous.

There were so many coincidences surrounding it. In Nichiren’s Buddhism, if you want to commit to the practice you get a gohonzon [a scroll inscribed with the Lotus Sutra] so that you can chant to it as a spiritual mirror. I didn’t really want to take that step, but the guy I was housesitting for back then had a gohonzon, and so I chanted to it. And then, the last day that I was at the house, I was thinking, “If I’m supposed to continue, I’ll need a sign.” My friend Cameron, who brought me into the practice, having no idea that I was chanting at someone else’s gohonzon, texted me that day: “Hey, would you like to get your gohonzon tomorrow?” It was just so clear that was where I needed to go.

Justin Simien sitting in a director's chair on a studio set.
Simien on the set of “Dear White People.” Photo by Patrick Wymore/Netflix.

In a blog post, you wrote about racist attacks after Netflix released the trailer for the series, and how you were no longer fazed by attacks like that. You wrote, “Perhaps my Buddhist practice had helped to steel me.” What did you mean by that?

I think that the key to happiness isn’t getting what you want, but realizing that you can survive what you don’t want. By chanting through a period of my life when I was very depressed and was really prone to those kind of attacks and took it really personally, I think I was able to build my life condition enough to where it just didn’t take it personally. While I was doing the TV show, I was so much clearer about who I was, what I was trying to say, and why I’m here that it felt almost silly to take it personally.

I was taken aback, mind you, because I think it’s horrifying how small minds can still oppress people. But I was in a different place.

In that post, you talked about having compassion for those people. 

If you refuse to see yourself in the people who are supposedly against you, it’s very difficult to change it, and it’s difficult to take responsibility for it.

From the beginning of this I knew I was inviting some controversy, but it was worth it to me because that knee-jerk reaction was part of the experience that I, as an artist, wanted people to feel — and I was not feeling apologetic about that. Owning it. That’s something I don’t think I would have been able to do before the practice.

You say that “self-doubt is a constant companion.” How do you find the courage to do such an audacious project like this, bound to offend people on both sides? 

Part of it is that I don’t have a choice. The passion to do it is so strong, it overrides the fear that I have. The fear is a real thing. It is a daily struggle to sit at the chair and write and push a project forward. This idea of constantly doubting myself has been there since I was a kid.

Alt-right trolls fascinate me. Whether or not it’s true, they feel oppressed, like they’re strangers in their own land. That is, ironically, exactly how it feels to be an actual minority in this country.

I lost my father at a really young age, unexpectedly, and I think the expectation that things will not work out is really strong. It’s a constant struggle. Buddhism is really slowly training me to understand that struggle is how I learn how big I am and how much I can take. It’s about easing into it, surrendering to it, and not wishing it was different. And if I can get through it maybe I can help someone else get through it. Easier said than done, but that’s the cornerstone of my practice and how I view Buddhism in my life.

How do you feel you garner strength from your practice?

I feel like I’m on the right path. I don’t know that there’s an arrival point. My practice always just points back to me. It always just points back to, “How can I take responsibility for this?” That has made me a much stronger person. It’s made me less inclined to blame other people or circumstances for how I’m feeling — to have the courage to take full responsibility. You can’t help but build up courage when the group of people around you is constantly telling you to go back to your gohonzon, which is essentially like saying, “Go back to yourself, and plug away. Go deeper. Lean into the experience.”

A lot of Buddhist communities struggle to foster inclusivity, but Nichiren is quite successful. Why do you think that is?

You’re right. It’s really profound. And it’s not just racial diversity. It is gender diversity. It’s economic diversity. When I’m sitting with my district, I’ve got trans members, I’ve got black people, gay people, straight people, married couples, rich people, famous people, broke people. We’re all in the same room talking about the same struggles. That was one of the biggest reasons I felt at home with the SGI.

I think the truth of it is that the SGI really fights being pretentious. There is no several-thousand-dollar retreat to go to. There are no austerity measures. It is just like, “Come on in. What do you want? Chant for it.” It’s such a low barrier to entry. And, the truth is, the longer you practice Nichiren Buddhism, the deeper it gets. You realize it’s not just about chanting for what you want. It’s not about getting a car. The opening invitation — just chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo about what you’re bothered about — is such a low barrier to entry, people find that it works for them. It’s not this, “Come in to this temple and sit and meditate for an hour in an uncomfortable position.” When you come to an intro-to-Buddhism meeting, you don’t have to take on this huge practice. You just have to try chanting for five minutes when you’ve got time. If it works for you, you can keep coming back. It’s just so freaking inclusive.

When I’m sitting with my district, I’ve got trans members, I’ve got black people, gay people, straight people, married couples, rich people, famous people, broke people. We’re all in the same room talking about the same struggles.

And I know that serious Buddhists sometimes have an issue with the SGI because, it is low-barrier. We’re not trying to explain the history of Buddhism the first time you sit down. But, you can eventually get that deep.

Every episode of Dear White People focuses on another character and their nuanced internal conflict. How do you find the empathy to understand and write about so many different kinds of struggle?

I think empathy is something you have to cultivate. I have a great writers’ room of diverse people. That plays a big part of it. But, also, when I talk to people who have seen it — fans, people who hate it, whatever — I really try to listen and figure out what it is they’re trying to say and where it’s coming from. As an artist, I can’t help but be inspired by that.

Even these alt-right trolls fascinate me. Whether or not it’s true, these people feel that they’re oppressed, and they feel like they’re strangers in their own land. That is, ironically, exactly how it feels to be an actual minority in this country. That feeling is something that we can all relate to.

Pema Chödrön, who is one of my favorite Buddhist authors, talks about how, when you’re feeling something that feels big for yourself, you can recognize how many other people are feeling the same way. That’s a way of not only cultivating empathy, but also dealing with hard feelings — to know that we are all having them. It’s part of my process.

What is your practice like?

To be honest, I’m not always great with my practice. When I’m good, I’m chanting twice a day, every day.

One of the things that I think is cool about my practice is that it’s always from this day forward. You’re not supposed to beat up on yourself for not doing it as much as you should. Your life condition reflects where you’re at.

Through my Buddhist practice, I realized I’ve been suffering from depression my whole life, but never really knew it, and never had a name for it.

It’s really hard to maintain a Buddhist practice and do a TV show, and one day I will be able to do both, but I struggle with it, and I just want to say that I think that that’s okay [laughs]. Lest people think I’m this pristine freakin’ monk.

When you think about your practice “from this day forward,” how does that parallel your work engaging in conversations about race in America?

If you’re a white person and you don’t want to engage in these issues, nothing really makes you. Aside from that week in Black History Month, when you talk about slavery in history class, there’s no comprehensive educational mechanism by which we all as citizens of this country understand how slavery continues to affect the society we’re in today.

That’s what makes race so messy. We’re all coming at it from different stages of education and from different levels of understanding. So, you do have to go back into the past if we’re gonna talk about racism. It’s too easy for people to say “Slavery is over and I had nothing to do with it.”

I think “from this day forward” is important when we talk about responsibility. I think the misconception is that Dear White People — or, honestly most black scholars or TV show makers — is trying to blame white people. I’m not interested in blame, and I don’t think it’s productive. If we’re gonna fix racism in America, we all have to, from this day forward, say, “You know what, the past is really fucked up, but I’m willing to take responsibility for the present.”

Justin Simien sitting on a couch talking to actors on the set of "Dear White People."
Justin Simien on the set of “Dear White People,” talking to actors Logan Browning (Samantha) and DeRon Horton (Lionel). Photo by Patrick Wymore/Netflix.

This is obviously a heavy subject. How do you find the humor to talk about it?

When I’m sitting down to write, my brain is just naturally looking for the joke. Dramas are meant to be cathartic; they are meant for us to have feelings excised. Comedies are meant to have thoughts excised. I think for race, in this particular time, I wanted to have a thinking conversation.

Obviously the show had some visceral moments, too. Certainly episode five, we really wanted it to feel like a punch in the gut. But, at the same time, the humor allows you just enough distance to be able to think about it without taking it so personally.

You’ve worked as a marketer and then a TV creator. Now you’re entering a role as a thinker and a commentator. How does it feel coming in to that?

It is a function of the ego to walk into the world and think of myself as a “commentator,” so a lot of my journey has been not taking it very seriously. I really try not to take on how people see me or define me, because once I’ve started doing that, I’m gone.

I know that I’m a storyteller, and that I have a lot of things to say. My role on this planet is to observe and report. And that will never change.

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair

Sam Littlefair is the former editor of LionsRoar.com. He has also written for The Coast, Mindful, and Atlantic Books Today. Find him on Twitter, @samlfair, and Facebook, @samlfair.