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The season finale of The Walking Dead airs on AMC this evening. There have been some great discussions online about how race and identity are operative in the series. The dominant question about the show is a simple one: is The Walking Dead TV series "racist?"

As someone who thinks a great deal about questions of race and popular culture in my professional life, and also because I am a ghetto nerd who loves The Walking Dead graphic novel, I have followed this conversation with great interest. The zombie genre is one of the most compelling and powerful ways through which to meditate on the relationship(s) between politics and identity in society. If politics is about popular culture, and if popular culture is indeed "political," there are few narrative devices more potent and ideologically rich than the big "what if?" that is life after the rising of the dead.

George Romero taught us that zombies are stand-ins and mirrors for human society. In keeping with this premise, The Walking Dead comic and televsion show highlights how the zombies are a manageable threat--the real "walking dead" are the living; the big question then becomes, how does humanity choose to adapt (or not) to living in a new world, one that is a veritable state of nature.

I am not particularly interested in if The Walking Dead TV series is "racist." Such a question is flat and uninteresting to me. Instead, I would offer the following intervention: how do we begin to think about The Walking Dead and its relationship to race and the reproduction of racial ideologies? How do we go about asking these types of questions? What is the process? This framing pushes us beyond simple "yes" or "no" answers, and by doing so, leads us to a terrain which is much more productive and rich.

To that end, let's work through some questions.

1. Is The Walking Dead TV show racist? If one accepts that the United States been been made post civil rights and post racial by the election of President Obama, then the answer is "no."

However, if we work from a different prior, that race is still significant, and American society remains influenced by white supremacy, then The Walking Dead cannot help but be a "racist" show.

As I suggested above, neither of these conclusions are productive or particularly insightful. Together, these answers may reveal something about The Walking Dead: but such findings and conclusions do not dig deeper than the superficial. The more compelling and interesting question is "how?" and "why?" and "in what ways?" could The Walking Dead be communicating meaning(s) about race? In addition, how do other identities such as class and gender relate to race in The Walking Dead?

2. What are the broader politics of The Walking Dead? What is The Walking Dead revealing about American society in the post 9/11, Great Recession, perpetual War on Terror, and neoliberal moment? How do these fears relate to more basic questions of race, citizenship and inclusion? Whose hopes and fears are foregrounded by The Walking Dead? Whose social locations and identities are made central to The Walking Dead's narrative?

3. The Walking Dead is a text with characters, plots, symbolism, visuals, and other elements that should be analyzed both in isolation, and as part of a coherent whole. To this point, the story (in the television series and graphic novel) has been many things. It is a moral parable, a road story, an action adventure, an exercise in the horror genre, and an exploration of how people negotiate a new normal in a dystopian reality. The Walking Dead is also a work of speculative fiction. In particular, the TV series uses the device of the zombie uprising to think through questions of (white) male patriarchal authority as Shane and Rick (and to a lesser degree characters such as Hershel, Daryl, and Dale) try to maintain control over the group as a whole, and the individual women in the community.

The Walking Dead TV series has also repeatedly emphasized debates over child-rearing, domesticity, and family. While there are men of color on The Walking Dead, Glenn and T-Dog, they are peripheral and ancillary. Both are largely submissive and obedient to Shane, Rick, and Dale. If we are examining the particular intersections of race and gender in The Walking Dead, these are critical points that cannot be overlooked. In total, questions about authority, race, and gender are inherently "political."

4. The Walking Dead TV series also offers some obvious and problematic examples of how race is related to gender and masculinity. T-Dog, the only black male character on the show, is silent and subservient. He also goes by a nickname, thus further signifying how he is denied a full and complex personhood. In all, T-Dog is a zombie TV version of the magical negro. He is a helpful, harmless, assistant for the white characters on the show.

The tensions which exist around masculinity, race, authority, and sexuality between black and white men is an old trope in American popular culture. From Huck Finn to The Lethal Weapon movies, the solution is to either neuter the black male character, reduce him to comic relief, or render him silent as a means of removing race or racism as problematic elements in a given story. This choice reinforces the normality of whiteness and the white racial frame. In turn, white audiences are made to feel comfortable, safe, and secure. If black men, and men of color more generally, fit a set of carefully proscribed roles relative to Whiteness, then the racial hierarchy remains safe and secure--even during the end of the world as depicted in The Walking Dead.

Glenn, an Asian American character, is also a complement to T-Dog. As an Asian-American male, the character struggles with being "feminized" in the white popular imagination as asexual, looked at as a perpetual outsider, and being deemed a "model minority." Glenn fulfills many of these roles. Unlike T-Dog, he is "granted" the "privilege" of being with a white woman in an intimate relationship. However, Glenn is also one of the few, if only, male characters to confess his fear and terror at living in a world overrun by zombies--thus, playing into the cowardly Asian stereotype.

5. At this juncture, it is also helpful to consider explicit discussions of race by the characters in The Walking Dead television series.

The opening episodes set up a simple binary where racism and "the race problem" were explicitly discussed, and then easily resolved. One of the great "white lies" of post civil rights racial discourse is that racism is now uncommon and the exclusive domain of "rednecks"--as well as other stereotypical bigots. For example, Daryl's brother Merle is a stock character who hates T-Dog because he is not white. In much the same way that the movie The Help presents a fictitious world wherein white racists were rare, and most white folks good (or at least bystanders) during Jim and Jane Crow, The Walking Dead television series immediately sets up white racism as an anachronism: the colorline is not a realistic concern in a time of crisis, loss, chaos, and upheaval. Merle is a throwback, too old school and bigoted for a place among good, tolerant, white folks in this new society.

Continuing with this theme, in the episode "What Lies Ahead," race is introduced in a conversation between T-Dog, who is black, and Dale, an older white character, where the former suggests that both are expendable because they are "outsiders" and "different." Given the history of racism and ageism in this society, T-Dog's observation is a realistic one. However, in the narrative frame offered by The Walking Dead, T-Dog is presented as unappreciative of the kindness and support offered by the white characters, an unreasonable bigot, playing the "race card," and introducing race to a situation where it is not relevant. The narrative is critical here, as T-Dog, an African American, later apologizes for holding such a "ridiculous" and "unfair" attitude about white people.

This move is more than typical colorblind, Orwellian, conservative, racial newspeak--it is an embrace of the notion that blacks commonly hold anti-white attitudes. In addition, the black community's many decades and centuries of life experience, and reasonable concerns about white racism as channeled by T-Dog, are presented as somehow bizarre and conspiratorial. Racism is dead in The Walking Dead TV series because the white characters, with the complicit agreement of people of color such as T-Dog, say it is. This is a common fantasy of Whiteness, one that offers a raceless world on terms which are agreeable to white people.

Glenn, in keeping with the model minority myth, complements a conservative, colorblind view of race, identity, and citizenship. Hershel, who at first disapproves of Glenn's relationship with his daughter, eventually discusses the matter with his soon to be son-in-law. There, he extends a hand of friendship and discusses his progressive views on immigration and community with Glenn.

As an Asian-American, Glenn is a perpetual foreigner, "the alien" in the midst of the body politic. His identity as a full and equal American is taken as less than authentic. In keeping with the model minority myth, Glenn is "good enough" for Maggie because of his "character" and hardwork. By implication, other people of color have not earned such a distinction. They are unassimilable, anti-citizens, and not worthy of either honorary whiteness or full civic inclusion.

Gender and race matter here as well. As Jess d'Arbonne deftly highlighted, black women are expendable on the show. For example, Jacqui is left to commit suicide at the end of the first season because she is "weak." Her character, semi-nameless and peripheral is not discussed again. By contrast, when Beth, a white character is contemplating suicide, this moment is treated with serious concern. The implication is clear: black women are expendable; if domestic order and bliss are to be recreated, white women's lives must be valued, protected, and saved at all costs.

In addition, the Latino family from the first season also disappears from the narrative with little comment. Again, people of color are peripheral and tangential to the story in terms of plot. The question of race and inclusion is metaphorically coincidental to how a predominantly white group of survivors are going to recreate society and its "natural" order.

In keeping with one of the recurring themes in classic sci-fi and speculative fiction, the future--even one that is dystopian--is one where the "race problem" is solved by eliminating black and brown people (either literally or figuratively) from the narrative frame.

6. The Walking Dead TV series is rich with symbols and metaphors. The politics of popular culture also operate on a subtle level, where aesthetic and plot choices reveal a good deal about the ideological work being done by a given text. For example, in this "raceless" world, how are "black" zombies and their victims depicted in the television series?

As I described here, one of the most powerful moments in regards to the semiotics of race in recent broadcast television history was a scene in which a black zombie virtually "raped" a white female character. In the episode "18 Miles Out," one of the most surprising and dramatic zombie attacks to date was that of a black "walker" who fell through a window, and by doing forced the two white protagonists to stop fighting one another (a symbolically potent moment of race and reunion), which in turn set into motion a series of events that almost led to the death of Shane, one of the show's principle characters.

The black, living, human body is also not to be spared from suffering: one of the most gruesome kills by the undead was inflicted upon a nameless African American character who was torn limb from limb, disemboweled, and eaten alive. Here, the black body is sacrificed as a means of foreshadowing what would eventually happen to Dale, one of the central, white male characters. Given the dark history of lynching, racialized violence, and slavery, this is a symbolically potent moment because crimes against, and violations of the black body, have long been a way of validating white political and social power in American society.

7. The Walking Dead TV series exists in relation to the graphic novel. While they are separate "universes," the latter does inform the former in many ways. Unfortunately, by comparison, the graphic novel is far superior in how it deals with the complexities of race, gender, and identity. Race (and gender) is central to the comic series without being overwrought or overstated. It simply exists as a variable that works between the lines, in subtle ways, that challenge the reader. The Walking Dead graphic novel features a range of black and brown characters. Most notably, this includes Michonne, a samurai sword wielding African American woman, as well as Tyrese, a former football player who famously uses a hammer as his weapon of choice to dispatch the living dead.

These characters are central to the dynamic of the group. Both have rich internal lives and important storylines. They are also indispensable to the group and are primary to the decision making processes of Rick and the other white male characters in the graphic novel. By writing Michonne, Tyrese, and other characters of color out of The Walking Dead TV series, an opportunity for rich and provocative story-telling is lost.

8. The Walking Dead TV series is a product, designed to make a profit, written by white people, for a white audience, and featuring white actors. This is not a comment on its entertainment value, nor on the ability or capacity of people of color to enjoy the joy. It is a statement of basic fact. Popular culture, in its "commercial" varieties, is profit driven. This limits the range of possibilities that can be offered by a text. There is a significant amount of research which suggests that white audiences will not watch movies or television shows with too many black characters. These shows, regardless of their quality, are stigmatized as "black"

In addition, white non-Hispanic men make up less than 20 percent of the American public, but they control upward of at least 95 percent of the senior creative and executive positions in Hollywood. Mass popular culture is a mediated reality, one that is limited by a particularly "white" worldview. In a highly segregated society, it is in fact white people who are crafting the images of black and brown people which are consumed by the global public. This racial myth making helps to create "reality." In turn, it recycles some very problematic stereotypes about race and personhood in the process.

My claim is not that there is gross malice or even overt racism or hostility at work in how black and brown people are narrowly and problematically depicted in popular culture, generally, or The Walking Dead TV series, specifically. Rather, given the dynamics of race in this society, I am concerned with how white writers can even develop characters that are outside of their social milieu, identity, and location if they are not going to actively and self-consciously make an effort to do so. Can the average white writer develop fully evolved, rich, and complex characters who happen to be people of color?

In regards to The Walking Dead, the lack of strong and robust characters who happen to be people of color eliminates some great narrative possibilities. Michonne's absence removes tensions about gender and race. In addition, her confidence and strength is a contrast to a relatively "weak" version of white femininity that has been common to the TV series through to the end of season two.

Likewise, Tyrese is a strong, confident, intelligent leader in the graphic novel. Because The Walking Dead TV series is an exploration of white male authority, he would immediately challenge the paradigm. While the graphic novel maturely deals with this issue, one must ask how would the viewers of The Walking Dead TV series respond to an African-American male lead who is a rival for Shane and Rick? While there may be a black President, are viewers of The Walking Dead prepared for an African American male character who works as an equal, and is key to remaking human society after an apocalypse?

9. Is The Walking Dead a "racist" television show? I am unsure. But, The Walking Dead is a television series designed to make white audiences feel very comfortable. In doing so, it validates the lies of Whiteness and reinforces the white racial order. Is that racist? I will leave that answer up to you.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I think sometimes a show (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a2nite, slinkerwink, worldlotus

    is just a show. I appreciate the idea that there are deeper things that underlie that need to be examined.

    My understanding is that the next season will feature a strong black woman character. Does that make the show less racist?

    What if T-Dog and Glenn start to become more central characters (as given the loss of Shane and likely a few more death of a few more characters in the next episodes seems a strong possibility)?

    What do we make of the fact that the the most psychotic and evil characters are all white? Shane comes to mind. The two guys in the bar Rick had to kill? Darryl's brother?

    As a black man, I appreciate that people who look like me aren't in front enough, or shown in a positive light enough, but at the same time, I don't think every example of that necessarily means THAT particular show story is racist or has racist tones underlying it.

    I don't think the WD is racist. I think it somewhat mindless fun to watch. I think most of the characters are somewhat dumb, annoying, and slow on the uptake, but overall, it's interesting enough to watch.

    •  that is why (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Avila, Oh Mary Oh

      popular culture is so powerful in terms of how it socializes and teaches political values because of its "innocent" nature--when in reality most of it is far from.

      that is also one of the hardest things to teach students and others who are new to Cultural Studies and this type of analysis.

      Fun is very "political" by the way...

      •  if this is the way to analyze (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        then isn't the analyst also biased/affected by "innocent" culture?

        At some point, when you focus on something that at worst is unintentional, and at best is incomplete then you end up focusing on the ants  getting into your kitchen while ignoring the zombies at your continue the theme.

        What if over the next two seasons TDog and Glenn become central characters? Positive central characters? did the racist nature suddenly change?

        •  That is complicated (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Avila, Oh Mary Oh

          these texts and their interpretations are not fixed. The way those characters develop would be central to a later analysis and reading...and even more fun to contemplate ;)

          Folks get caught up on "intent." That is secondary to these types of analyses of race and power and ideologies. I could care less what the writers intended--I am sure most folks who reproduce the normality of whiteness do not "intend" to do so. That does not make it any less pernicious.

          There is a great documentary based on the Henry Giroux book on the politics of the Disney films called the Mouse that Roared. It is on Youtube, check it out you may find yourself surprised and enlightened a bit.

          To your first question, we are all located to varying degrees relative to power and challenge/reproduce its assumptions. The role of the critic is to try to get outside of themselves, ask hard questions, and take a critical and long view.

          Playing with Foucault our society is rarely producing such types of thinkers anymore, our colleges and universities are focused on created drones for the machine who are citizen consumers that do not ask any hard questions about themselves or their world. Too bad. We all suffer as a result.

          •  since I know the comic books (0+ / 0-)

            a bit, I know in fact that what comes next is a powerful AA female character.

            I don't see anything normal about the white characters on TWD.

            Lori is a train wreck, Shane a psychopath, most of the rest were broken before the zombie apocalypse, in fact, I'm hard pressed to find one normal character in TWD. They all suffer from the need in TV drama for everyone to be filled with doubt, conflict, and flaws.

            The guy most folks identify with is Glenn, the Asian-American character, and he strikes me as the most normal guy in the group.

            I admit, TDOG is a waste of a character right now, although he has survived all the way, and his role might very well increase with Michionne coming on board next season.

            Lastly, I think intent matters.

  •  Unfortunately, in the comic *spoiler* (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Oh Mary Oh

    I believe that Tyreese is murdered during the whole unpleasantness with the Governor. That is another arc that has not yet been introduced into the television program.

    Rick has really shown himself to be as much a judgmental tyrant in the past forty or so issues of the comic as he is in the TV show, without Tyreese's (and, for a while, without Michonne's) influence.

    While I wouldn't hold up the comic as a paragon of post-racial egalitarianism, compared to the TV program, the first fifty or so issues of the comic seems paradisiacal for characters of non-Caucasian ethnicity.

    And while I'm loath to lengthen my response, I think that gender/sex roles in the TV show (and, again, the past several dozen issues of the comic) are abysmal by contemporary liberal standards. This, as you noted, is a topic ripe for discussion.

  •  Pretty notable that T-Dawg is what we'd call (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a2nite, worldlotus

    "the token black guy" within groups of TV/Movie enthusiasts. We (enthusiasts) have often noted that occasionally T-Dawg only has 1-2 lines a show, and in one he did not appear at all. While it's not necessarily "racist" imo, especially if that's the case in the comics (not reading them till this season is complete TONITE), it's tacky and silly at the very least. The comics/show's creators are imo unintentionally mocking the white/black power structure within the group of the humans.

    In the "18 miles out" episode, the "rape"...are you referring to the flipped vehicle? Also I think it might be notable that while the "black" zombie was the first out of the window, Shane and Rick are pretty good zombie killers and probably would've kept fighting had the "black" zombie been the only one to fall out...but there was a horde behind him.

    I do have to take exception to your characterization of Glenn, because while he is Asian (have they said Korean? I think they have), he does not have a white counterpart against which to be foiled, so to me it's not an effort by the writers to "grant" him a "white woman"....he's the only guy there that seems to be in his 20's and younger....which would also explain his level of fear and "femininity", which is imo a commentary on our generation instead of his racial heritage. I'm pretty sure the racist slant of being at math or martial arts is much more pervasive in Western society than "femininity" of Asians males.

    Great diary though...good food for thought. I love the show but mostly for the genre...the writing is not very good most of the time so we're probably giving them more credit for intentions than they deserve =)

    Today, strive to be the person you want to be.

    by GoGoGoEverton on Sun Mar 18, 2012 at 02:29:22 PM PDT

    •  Good complication (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a2nite, Avila, Oh Mary Oh

      on Glenn. Writers make choices, divining the context and what is being signaled--consciously or not--is part of "the fun" of thinking about the political work being done in a text.

      Re: the metaphorical rape, I meant the introduction of the characters from the farm and how they ride to the rescue on a white horse to save the woman being "raped" (rewatch the scene) it is intensely sexual by the black zombie.

      T-Dawg is a joke. They really can't have Tyrese as originally intended as he would upset the narrative about white male hierarchy and masculinity.

      •  Crap sorry, the episode title threw me off (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Oh Mary Oh

        I was thinking of the same episode SPOILER where they took Randall out 18 miles to drop him off, which was the episode where Shane almost bit it (pun intended).

        AMC has a lot of good shows, but when I hear the random conservative bigot saying "OH WELL ISN'T BET RACIST? "THEY" WOULD GO NUTS IF THERE WAS A WHITE ENTERTAINMENT NETWORK" they make it very easy to respond "Yeah we do, it's called AMC."

        Today, strive to be the person you want to be.

        by GoGoGoEverton on Sun Mar 18, 2012 at 02:38:16 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  You're thinking too much. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kyle the Mainer, The Nephew

    It's a gory serialized fright flick.  If you watch long enough, you will see gay walkers, Irish drunk walkers and your dead Aunt Sue.  

    Living proof that hard work can raise your apparent skill level.

    by SpamNunn on Sun Mar 18, 2012 at 02:34:45 PM PDT

  •  Very thoughtful post (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Unfortunately I don't have the stomach to watch the show so I can't comment. But thanks for your thoughts.

  •  I think (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    after tonight's episode the presence and effect that minority characters have will start to change.

    But you're right, T-Dog has been windows dressing this season.  I don't think that's so much about race though, and more a failure to have a cohesive narrative throughout the change of creative teams.  This season has been paced horribly and hasn't been able to focus on more than one thing at a time.  With he focus on Shane's slow decent into madness, and the search for Sophia, there hasn't been much room for other things.  That's not an excuse for ignoring T-Dog more than other characters, but it a reason.

    I think the Walking Dead has been fairly typical of most tv shows when it comes to issues of sex and race. Either it ignores it completely by making those characters windows dressing or tokens, or it has to over dramatize it by putting those characters in conflict with an over the top bigot (Merle, the abusive husband), rather than create a well rounded character who happens to be black and encounters subtle racism.  Hopefully with Michonne on the way will start to see a change.

    And hopefully T-Dog will start plowing through zombies with nothing more than a claw hammer.

  •  speculative genres (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    usually have colorblind tendencies.  typically, one character is Other, and conforms to the mainstream generic.  i'd love to see more ghetto nerds as protagonists, but they are few and far between.

    Success loves a witness, but failure can't exist without one. - Junot Díaz

    by Avila on Sun Mar 18, 2012 at 05:05:00 PM PDT

  •  This won't be popular (0+ / 0-)

    ...but again, bullshit like this is why IMO otherwise common-sensical people ignore cases like the Trayvon Martin case.   Blatant racism is ignored or discounted because otherwise common-sensical people are sick and tired of ridiculous "in-depth analysis" like this.

    •  now you confuse me? we can't keep more than one (0+ / 0-)

      thought in our head at a time. I can do this whole walking and chewing bubblegum thing. It ain't hard. Check out my piece on Salon regarding the Trayvon Martin case.

      You know these Internets be a big place, go do your own thing avoid "difficult" "in depth analysis such as this.

      Are you that miserable...assuming I read you correctly?

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