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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.

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