This was our first week without a new episode of The Walking Dead this season, and we know it can be hard to get through Sunday’s doldrums without it. So let’s use this break to consider the bizarre racial politics of a show that continuously draws millions more viewers each season. Utilizing Slate’s Lorraine Berry’s premise that the series is a “white patriarchy” as a jumping off point, what interests me is putting the popularity of the show in conversation with its problematic aspects. I don’t have any statistics about the demographics of The Walking Dead’s audience, but I do know that when I discuss the show with friends and acquaintances who are also people of color, I find that we are engaging in a particular way with a show that we both love and hate.
We love it for a lot of the reasons other people love it. We love the zombie apocalypse genre. We love the horror, the gore, the difficult choices, the moral dilemmas, the strained relationships. Let’s face it, we lovers of the apocalyptic like seeing the world at its most broken and dysfunctional. However, for a lot of people the actual world is already broken and dysfunctional, and what is striking about The Walking Dead is not how things are different in this dystopia, but how, despite the collapse of everything, some things — like race — are too clearly the same. Just like in real life, race on the show seems almost invisible for characters steeped in white privilege. But as the weekly roundtable over at Racialious reminds us, many viewers are just seeing a reflection of a world we already know.
Take poor T-Dog for instance: Are we told even one thing about his life before the zombie outbreak? Oh, he drove a church van and saved a bunch of old people? But we only learn about that secondhand and after he is already dead. Not once when he was among the living did we ever get a chance to know something about Theodore. Did he have a job? Did he have a family? How did he feel about running around in a group of all white people?
Hmmm. Maybe there is an answer to that last one. In the Season 2 episode “Bloodletting,” T-Dog says to Dale, “I’m the one black guy. Do you realize how precarious that makes my situation?” Suddenly, racial politics seem to come to the fore. T-Dog has some awareness of what is invisible to his fellow survivors (save, perhaps, Glenn): that just because the world has gone to hell doesn’t mean that the prejudices and privileges of white people won’t bubble up to betray him — and might already be working against him. Or maybe he just has a fever because his wound is infected and he’s talking crazy. It is in that moment that, as viewers of color, we are reminded that white dudes are writing this, because despite T-Dog’s realization being very much in line with the world we know, on TV such a notion can only be the product of temporary dementia. The Walking Dead can’t give the impression that any “regular ole white people” (from the South!) would ever turn on a person for being black. But still, later, when T-Dog (Lord, why must he be the only character with a nickname?) tells Dale to ignore what he said, it is not difficult to imagine that he’s not really rejecting the reality of his fear, but needs to cover for his moment of honesty. The rejection of his previous words point to T-Dog’s understanding that people accused of bigoted notions can react defensively, because that accusation can become an excuse for treating someone exactly as they feared they might be treated.
In the absence of knowledge about characters of color, whether it be more about their past or meaningful depictions of their current relationships, race becomes the only defining characteristic by which to interpret scenes. T-Dog gets a “heroic” end, but at some level he is just giving himself up to save the white lady that we know more about (abuse victim, mother to a lost-then-zombified child, budding romance with Daryl, learning basic medical procedures). T-Dog is expendable and easily replaceable. Oscar the ex-con, who is also black, and who we also know very little about, is incorporated into the group immediately afterward.
Related question: Why does Oscar volunteer to help save Glenn and Maggie? Does this make sense based on how he was treated by the survivors? I guess he must be grateful for the opportunity to prove himself trustworthy by killing Andrew, the only other remaining black former prisoner. The good Negro proves the depth of his goodness by defeating the bad Negro to make friends with the white people. In the absence of any other sense of character or representation of his relationships between people hunkered down together in a prison cafeteria for ten months, this violence between black characters becomes suspect. We can have an entire episode that takes place in Woodbury so we can know more about this season’s villain and the fate of Andrea, but we can’t have even a five-minute scene that tells us more about these prisoners, or T-Dog, or Jacqui (remember her?). The Walking Dead takes the “funny-cause-it’s-not” trope that “the black guy dies” to absurd levels.
We instinctively know that when Tyrese and Sasha appear on the scene, Oscar is not long for this world, and a bullet proves us right. Furthermore, I’d predict that Michonne’s presence on the show (and her role as a central character from the comic-book series and a katana-wielding bad-ass) means that Sasha won’t be around for too long, either. You heard it here first: Once Michonne is more incorporated into the group, Sasha will die soon after (or vice versa).
And much like Oscar going along on the rescue mission, we have to wonder why Michonne would even want to become part of the group. Her treatment upon her arrival at the prison is not so different from what she found at Woodbury. Even after she brings them baby formula, tells them about Glen and Maggie’s capture, and leads them to Woodbury, they still draw weapons on her, refusing to trust her. Why?
Again, in light of how little we know about Michonne, how are we to interpret her treatment except in terms of her race? She is the epitome of the ever-grimacing, often-snarling, monosyllabic angry black woman. She supposedly has a friendship with Andrea, having spent months with her on the road, but Andrea is quick to mistrust her, to abandon her for the promised safety of Woodbury. For Andrea, it seems that despite having been a civil rights attorney in her former life (see, we know something about her), security means a place where a white man is in charge. Michonne knows better, and that makes sense. Having white people with guns in charge wasn’t exactly a safe situation for African Americans before the zombie outbreak, so why would that change afterward? And, of course, Michonne is right, but she is not vindicated or understood. Instead, she moves from one set of dangerous white people to another.
Hell, with a little more self-awareness, The Walking Dead could use its setting to make some real statements about racial politics, but it fails at every turn. Instead, it leaves the audience to interpret the show’s problematic events within a skein of racial understanding that remains unchanged despite the end of the world, unwittingly demonstrating its current pervasiveness in popular culture.