What Did Discussing The Walking Dead TV Series Online 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.