Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What Did Discussing The Walking Dead TV Series at the Daily Kos Teach Me About White Privilege?


Popular culture is one of the primary means through which people are socialized into the political and social values of their society. The realm of "the cultural" is so powerful because it is (on the surface) so very innocent and benign. We internalize these values without thinking about them. This is the very definition of culture: a set of beliefs and norms that are not interrogated, reflected upon, or challenged--they simply are the "truth" and are understood to be "normal."

I thoroughly enjoy writing about popular culture and thinking through its relationship to questions of race and representation because the interaction between those concepts is a crucible for the truth.

My recent posts on the TV series The Walking Dead are a reminder of how different members of the public are invested in popular culture, and the various ways that a seemingly benign and "just fun" horror TV show is a mirror for broader attitudes about race and gender. As someone who writes about race and popular culture both for fun and professionally, the intense and spirited reactions I received at the Daily Kos (more than 300 comments so far) to my two essays on race, gender, and the Walking Dead TV series only served to reinforce a standing premise: popular culture "matters."

Nevertheless, I remain surprised and fascinated by how people invest themselves in popular culture. Some folks dress up and go to conventions. Others, craft a religion around a movie. In the case of The Walking Dead TV series, a great many people have invested themselves in the dystopian playground of a world where the dead eat and kill the living.

Simultaneously, many of these same fans and viewers are unwilling (or unable) to understand how popular culture is actually a representation of the struggles, anxieties, and fears of the present--what is the real world--as opposed to a fictional one on a TV network.

Because people live through popular culture, the latter becomes a site on which they see themselves, and where their own values are projected. The claim that a given TV series (or film) can be racist, racially regressive and conservative, or embody white supremacist norms and values, becomes not a claim about a given show or movie. Rather, such observations become moral statements about the existence of racism (or other types of social inequities).

If said person concedes that racism or sexism exists in popular culture, it may in turn exist in society. From this conclusion, they may then have to ask themselves about their own relationship to bigotry and prejudice. Few folks are willing to take on that difficult task. Denial becomes an easier and more appealing route.

I understand this dynamic on an intellectual level; I am still surprised when I see said processes play out before my eyes.


Racism over-determines life outcomes. This is one of the most well founded and repeated findings in all of the social sciences. Consequently, it would seem clear and logical that if a society is steeped in various types of inequalities of Power--racial, gender, class, sexuality, ability status, etc.--that said dynamics would impact its popular culture. When discussing The Walking Dead over at the Daily Kos, such assumptions would appear moot.

One of the biggest lies of post civil rights America is that racism is a thing of the past. Because racism and white supremacy are now largely structural (as opposed to violent and personal), this has freed up a space in the collective consciousness for what social scientists term "colorblind racism."

This is the fiction of "reverse racism", or when racism is minimized to consist of only KKK members and lynchings--as opposed to daily micro-aggressions or well-documented racial disparities in wealth, income, housing, and the criminal justice system.

In total, the racism of "colorblindness"--and the common refrain by some white folks that "I don't see your color, you are just my friend"--is in many ways as ethically pernicious as the formal white supremacy of Jim and Jane Crow. Both colorblind racism, as well as overt racism, see people of color as somehow defective because they are not white. Each system works through this logic in its own particular way. Consequently, there is much overlap between the two.

Some of the exchanges about The Walking Dead TV series over at the Daily Kos were grounded in well-considered disagreement that took into account questions of race and gender in an honest way, and where we simply arrived at a different conclusion. Some reactions were from those fans of the TV series who are not willing to critically interrogate the objects of their own pleasure.

Fanboys and fangirls are notorious in this regard.

However, there were a great many comments that reflexively recycled the logic of white racism in the post civil rights era. Racism denying exists...even in conversations about the horror genre, and a TV series whose narrative is focused on zombies.

Popular culture is a potent and rich site for discussing politics because folks let down their guard and tell the truth. When the mask is down, we are able to clearly see the racial logic that is largely expressed in private spaces, and which also manifests itself through subconscious and implicit bias.

Conservatives have their own brand of racism and white supremacy. Liberals can also be racist as well. The convergence comes in a deep investment in white privilege, white supremacy and the white racial frame. Seemingly divergent ideologies serve as a template and script for how both sides choose to display what are really an overlapping set of core values about maintaining and securing white privilege in the United States.

Here are a few examples of the types of comments offered up on the Daily Kos about the role of race in the Walking Dead TV series. I have translated these comments into the Lingua Franca of colorblind racism in the Age of Obama.

1. You see racism everywhere, The Walking Dead is just a TV show. Translation. People of color and others who talk about racism are just imagining things. Please stop. It makes us white folks upset. Racism is a figment of your imagination.

2. T-Dog, Michonne, and Oscar are on the show. What is the problem? People of color are present, what is the big deal? Translation. Be happy that we chose to include you.

3. T-Dog may not talk. Oscar may have died when Tyreese showed up. We also learned that T-Dog helped save people before we met him on the show. Michonne is a bad ass who can fight. There were minorities in the first few episodes. The show can't possibly be racist. Translation. Classic cherry picking straw man argument. I can find a few examples of people of color being present and "doing stuff." This undercuts any claims about institutional or societal racism/inequality as revealed in the show.

4. It is a bit weird that when one black guy shows up on The Walking Dead another one has to die. Okay, not cool. But, the show is awesome and get over it! Plus, if you have too many black characters on the show they will be over-represented and the show won't be "realistic." And audiences won't watch it so there won't be any Walking Dead TV show anymore. Is that what you really want? Translation. The show may have some racist elements to it. Get over it. The show is fun. Make your concerns secondary. Don't rock the boat! If white folks don't like The Walking Dead there won't be a TV show. In life "you people" need to compromise because you are the minority anyway. Deal with it.

5. You are exaggerating and complaining. If you don't like The Walking Dead make your own show. Translation.  The reasonable concerns or claims of people of color or others about white racism or sexism really don't matter very much. If you don't like what is going on do your own damn thing and shut up.

6. T-Dog is our favorite character, what is your problem? He isn't depicted in a racist way. We love him. Translation. White folks are the universal "I" and "We." White people are a stand-in for all of people's opinions and sentiments. If we do not see a problem, one does not exist. Go along with the program and be quiet. 

7. The writers and directors of The Walking Dead are not racist. Even if things are not perfect from your point of view, they did not mean it that way. Translation. Racism only matters and occurs according to the standards of Whiteness, and those people accused of being racist. If we did not mean it that way, said action can not possibly be "racist." We have the power and are the ultimate decision makers on such matters. Know your place.

8. Okay, the show may be racist or sexist in some ways. Just enjoy it. What do you want? It is just TV! Translation. White racism and white privilege are just inconveniences. If you just overlook it, as opposed to critically engaging it, things will be okay. Ultimately, talking about racism is the real social problem. If you just relaxed, things would be okay.

9. I have black, Hispanic, and Asian friends who like The Walking Dead TV show and never complain about this stuff. There is even a black actor who plays Tyreese who says all this racism talk is silly. Translation. "I have a best friend who is black, brown, Asian, etc." they said what is going on is not racist. Their opinion trumps everyone else's because he or she tells me what I want to hear.

10. The Walking Dead TV show is an accurate depiction of how people would act in a bad situation. This is what I would do. I wouldn't trust anyone at all. Stop all your racism and sexism talk. Racism and sexism would not motivate people in a zombie apocalypse. Translation. Racism and sexism are normal types of behavior from my point of view. In fact, I may deny that these dynamics actually exist in other situations or when questioned. But, I will excuse-make for racism or sexism--and defend such motivations--when I see them in TV shows or movies. 

11. Okay, you may be able to talk circles around people on this racism stuff. So what? Who cares? We are right! Translation. The evidence about how this society is structured in inequalities and hierarchies of Power along lines of race and gender may be accurate and true. But, I do not want to hear it. Defer to white authority or I may get angry and have to cry, call you names, or play the victim. Those who talk about racism are the real racists! Shut up!

12. All of the stuff you are talking about regarding racism and sexism in The Walking Dead doesn't bother me. It doesn't bother anyone else. Stop bringing it up. Translation. White privilege 101.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying what needed to be said.. Walking Dead is a fucking mess. .Its a damn shame that in 2012 white TV writers are still stuck on the tried and tired tropes as they related to black characters.. Its so blatant and obvious.. just a damn shame !!

If another Asian character shows up, Glen's time is gonna be up... Im gonna bet we wont see another Asian character for the remainder of the series, male or female.

Marc McKenzie said...

A strong piece--and while I still enjoy TWD, there is nothing wrong in using the show to discuss racism that is present in pop culture and in geek culture.

After all, look at the responses to Jamie Foxx being cast as
Electro in the sequel to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Reading some of them, I swear that some people have white hoods hanging upon their closets.

delagar said...

As as fan of Walking Dead more for its pop culture dynamics than any other reason, I am loving these posts.

Thanks!

Michael Paul Goldenberg said...

Here's a different take: it really doesn't matter what happens on this TV show. What matters is that there's real racism that hurts people and which many Americans refuse to see or actively deny. I'll start worrying about the racism in a show about a zombie apocalypse when the other sort is at such a low level that it's not much of a problem.

Is there racism in the Twilight series? I haven't the slightest idea, since I've never read the books or watched a second of the films. Ditto for the vampire series on HBO. And if you want to write a dissertation on racism in the vampire, zombie, and/or lycanthropy films of the last 125 years, be my guest, but I very much doubt I'd read it, particularly not the contemporary period of these genre movies. I'm just all vamped out, my concern with blood-sucking, brain-eating, and throat-ripping is at an all time low. Back when I was 11, I probably would have been interested. Was Bela Lugosi a racist? Lon Chaney, Sr. and/or Jr.? Boris Karloff? Vincent Price? Peter Lorre? That I might find of interest. How about Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, etc., or the directors of those classic '30s & '40s horror films?

These days, in "post-racial" America, as I go through my sixties, I find it just a bit ridiculous to think that anyone takes these things seriously enough to write about them. But of course it's your life. When you write about the racism in LINCOLN, I'm interested (though I've still not seen the movie). I think how we represent and misrepresent US history is deeply relevant and cuts to the heart of our continuing racism. Horror movies/shows? Not so much.

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Glen should be safe...for now, if the comic is a road map.

@Marc. I didn't know that. Send along a link.

@Delegar. Fun to do something different every now and then.

@MG. As I say, these are all complements to each other. Don't focus just on one part of the picture.

There is a great book out from Routledge--I think it is called Black Horror Noire--that looks at issues of race and representation. Horror can be very subversive. It can also really work to support dominant ideologies too--think about the classic MGM monsters that were really ways to talk about sexuality, race, fear of technology, young people, drugs. etc.

Twilight is all sorts of messed up. It is written by an anti-sex Christian fundamentalist and is just a way of pushing the abstinence agenda. Penises are scary; vampires are great!

Marc Mckenzie said...

@Chauncey: a couple of links....

http://www.comicbookmovie.com/fansites/MarvelFreshman/news/?a=70831#comments

http://www.aintitcool.com/node/59872

I wonder if some of the comments are the result of racial ignorance as opposed to flat-out racism. They still pissed me off anyway.

Anonymous said...

All of those ignorant and dismissive comments from the Daily Kos are precisely why I do not f**k with white liberals anymore--too much denying of white privilege, and too much wanting cookies for not being blatantly racist.

Anonymous said...

Whats fascinating is Im rewatching "Night of the Living Dead" the George Romero classic and the scenes of the cowardly middle aged white man wanting to hide in the basement of the house contrasted with the black man who is trying to fortify the house and proclaiming himself to be the leader is really something. On more than one occassion the brotha tired of the middle aged white mans negativity, tells him to shut up, hahhahaha.

This was back in 1968 !!

Anonymous said...

I read a review of the last WD episode on I09 and the reviewer, some white guy, sympathized with "The Governor" and disparaged Michonne for killing the Govs zombie daugther, all the while forgetting (forgiving) all the evil the Gov as done up to this point.. SMH on that racial shit

Had I been Michonne I would have killed Andrea and then the Gov, then tipped the fuck out the door !!! LOL


http://io9.com/5965262/the-governors-sympathetic-michonnes-a-dick-and-carl-rules-in-the-walking-dead-mid+season-finale

Anonymous said...

aintitcool.com Talkback is hive of scum, racists and villainous movie hating trolls!!! Anytime any issue remotely related to race appears on that site the ignorance and racisms flows !!


The comment suggesting a white man should play the super hero "The Black Panther" is hilarious...Hmmmm The Albino Panther, anyone ? HAHHAAH

Fools will never understand because they dont want to understand! To do so, to their their mind is a threat to their white masculinity.

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