As someone who writes genre fiction myself, I understand the difficulty in writing fully actualize minority characters and the fear of doing it wrong. I understand that it’s just easier to ignore race all together or succumb to the idea that minorities don’t watch genre shows anyway, so choose not to bother. This attitude, though, leads to problems as evidenced by the big fat racial disaster in the Walking Dead.
The show is not necessarily a disaster because of the plot, though it’s slow and there are few likeable characters. It’s such because of the elephant in the room.
It was Toni Morrison who said that the “black presence*” is placed in fiction (and in this case TV) according to the needs and desires of its white creator and that the presence has been there since the creation of the construct of race—or at least the beginning of the American slave trade. Most notably, though, she says that the black presence is there even if it’s ignored and especially if it is unrecognized. In other words, blackness is a part of our social consciousness (in binary opposition to whiteness) and to ignore it shows more about the society than about the people the society hopes to alienate.
The Walking Dead is prime example: in the heart of downtown Atlanta, which has one of the largest black populations in the country, there should be blacks. Lots of them. Everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to imagine writing about Atlanta without having a significantly black cast. Other than perhaps Gone With the Wind. We’re damn near 60% of the population.
Blacks would have been within the homeless which turned into zombies that invaded the city, they would have been within the working population, and obviously they would have been a significant part of the survivors. Assuming you couldn’t find walk-ons to play the zombies, it should have been imperative to cast more than a few for main roles. Instead the unique Atlanta location was ignored and with it the opportunity to do race better than its genre predecessors.
The show began with so much promise. In a small town somewhere near Atlanta (close enough to ride a horse to into the city) a white cop, Rick, awakes to the world all zombiefied. He eventually runs into a black father (Morgan) and son (Duane). I’ll be honest with you. To me, these two characters are the most interesting characters in the entire series. They had all of the makings of a long thematic future: inner turmoil, focus, a father’s fight for his son while suffering visits from the child’s dead mother. From a viewer’s standpoint it was very effective to see this dead woman appear at the door, menacingly spying into the peephole torturing the pair. There has been only one parallel moment in the show (those who watch it will remember the shocking ending to the third episode in the second season).
But from this point it becomes wholly unremarkable and even problematic. The white man leaves the blacks behind. Naturally this is what the “characters” want (this becomes important again later) and so Rick doesn’t have any choice but to leave them. Now, this is completely ridiculous premise or at least needs a better set up. Not only do I think this dude would have taken his son the hell out of there, but he would have done it long before the cop even showed up. Of course it’s easy to talk about the character’s motivations and whatnot, but the truth is that this is written. It’s not real life which has no plot or reason. No. Instead someone wrote this fantastic duo out of the show after manipulating them to set up Rick’s search for his own son.
The show moves on (slowly) and the father finally finds his family—with a group of approximately 20 other survivors. The racial makeup: two blacks (woman and man), a Latino couple and two children, one Asian and the rest were either white or looked so**.
Two of the characters are redneck white dudes. They’re racist and they are used to show us how bad racism is so that anything else pales in comparison. At least they show us how bad obvious racism is. Instead the show uses long hidden biases within our society because by the time the finale comes around the black woman has out grown her usefulness.
One possible highlight: Somewhere around mid season, the group runs into a gang of Latino “thugs.” We know they’re thugs, because, well they’re Latino**. However, at this point the show does something interesting. It turns our preconceived notions of minority thugs on its head and shows us a group of individuals who are taking care of the elderly. Of course it’s done through a gang like structural group which is wholly different than our obvious “good guys” and the viewer realizes that Rick and his group cannot stay less the head gang member outshine him.
This leads me to one of the most obviously fucked up moments in the show. After discovering the CDC they’ve taken shelter in is going to explode, one of the white women decides to stay, taking her own life. Likewise the black woman, Jacqui, does the same. A white male character comes back for the white woman and tells her he refuses to let her die. Obviously she’s worth more than blowing up in the bunker of an obsolete federal building. Too bad Jacqui isn’t also. The white man tells the white woman that he will stay with her and die too if she doesn’t leave. Not wanting to risk the white man’s life, the white woman leaves and her life is spared. No one tries to save the black woman—none of the white characters or the minority ones. It can be assumed then that even the minority characters realize that this woman is not worth saving.
The two whites share an odd glance with the black woman as they leave. The glance speaks volumes and the “black presence” stumbles all over itself trying to ignore the obvious ideology within the show: black women are valued less and are not worth the effort it takes to save them; and minorities must be left behind, they are expendable, useless to the new society. Of course Jacqui blows up at the writers’, I mean …. um… her own insistence.
Somewhere around this time the Latino couple and children decide to leave off on their own. They probably saw the warning signs and chose to rough it out, less being considered expendable within the group structure. Or, you know, the writers didn’t have a use for them anymore.
At this point, there are a few main characters left in the show, but the remaining black man is certainly not one of them. The Asian guy could be argued as such, but only in that he is the errand boy for the rest of the group. Seriously, he’s “small and fast” and sent to get stuff, like pregnancy test for the white characters. Yep, they’re reproducing while the minorities are dropping off like flies. Actually, now that I think about it, isn’t that the basis of the eugenics movement of the last century and one of the major concerns of whites of the time. If the people of the last century had only known that a zombie apocalypse was the answer.
Either way, the black man hardly appears in the show at all and he’s actually one of the most pathetic people on TV. The whites on the show are running around, protecting the group while the black guy gets his ass kicked; drops a key, effectively killing the racist white dude; and gets a blood infection. It could be argued, though (and I’m willing to accept this argument to some extent), that the character is the exact opposite of the typical black male in other shows. And it’s true. Other than the name “T-Dog” (WTF?) he’s not obviously the black “hood,” he isn’t the black “businessman” and he isn’t the black “intellectual.” No instead he’s a completely blank slate. We don’t know anything about him which is not the case for any other character in the entire show.
Rick, a white cop has a wife and son and we have flashbacks back to them before the apocalypse. He’s the leader for whatever reason, but he’s not particularly good at it. But he’s a cop, and can shoot a gun, so why not?
Shane: the other white cop is his friend and is in love with his wife. For the life of me, I don’t know why. She seems to be the only chick who doesn’t find a way to shower and she’s constantly dirty. He’s also a leader or was before Rick came back. He shoots things and protects the group.
Lori, the wife is torn between two men. She has a son, she was having problems with her husband before he died and then moved on right after. She’s pregos and whiny and we don’t know who’s kid it is. But she assures us it doesn’t matter. She’s a woman so naturally she cooks. That’s what women do. But she helps the group this way.
Andrea lost her sister and is suffering from depression. She wanted to die but the writers interfered. She’s turning out to be a good shot. Even she hunts and helps the group now.
Carol’s husband abused her. She has a daughter who’s missing/dead and suffers for it. Woman = cook. And she’s sad which shows she’s a real person.
Daryl sacrificed his racist brother for the sake of the group. He is a great fighter and does what has to be done for everyone to survive. He is the only person who didn’t give up on the little girl—which show he’s a real (not racist like his bother) person. He hunts and protects the group and has an awesome silent shooter.
Dale: the old man. He’s in love with Andrea—whether physically or just in a daughter way, I can’t tell. He sees everything around him and doesn’t like Shane. Who can blame him really, but it’s none of his business and he can’t stop interfering. He often keeps a look out and protects in that way.
Glen, the only other minority, is sleeping with a white girl. They’re a cute couple and we’re supposed to like them. He’s a gofer for the group because…he’s Asian and small and fast. Oh and at one point the group decides to put him in the well with a zombie for no clear reason at all. And why not, the U.S. has been putting Asians in dark oppressive holes since the beginning of the transcontinental railroad.
T-Dog?…. I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know if he was related to the black woman. I don’t know if he was married or if he has ever had sex in his life, to tell the truth. If the show told us this, I don’t remember because it wasn’t important. Nothing about him is. Nothing about him is memorable, either.
I take that back. He did have one memorable moment other than getting his ass kicked by Daryl’s brother and losing the key.
The only other time race was mentioned was after T-Dog (seriously, what the fuck’s up with the name?) cut himself and became infected. The redneck, Daryl, saves his life which is meant to tell us something really important such as if the redneck has finally gotten over race and become “colorblind” then by god everyone should. Including the viewers.
But not, of course, their own character. After getting saved by Daryl T-Dog gets a blood infection (he truly is pathetic). In his delirious state he goes on a racial diatribe, complaining that everyone around him is “racist” and explaining that it is not safe for a black man to be around southern Georgia cops and too many white folks. Of course these are valid concerns but he is shut down effectively by Dale. T-Dog hasn’t really appeared in the show since that time which, I suppose, is the proper smack down for daring to challenge the white powers that be.
The interesting thing here is the implication that race is only ever a problem when minorities mention it. And obviously it’s only mentioned when the person is crazy or delusional. Race, within the show or otherwise, is never an issue for practical, rational thinking people—only infected black men. Racism is either blatant in your face (the racist redneck) or it is an accusation (the black man) and doesn’t really exist. Either way, it does not belong in a zombie apocalypse.
Ironically the character during this rare moment of honesty is probably right. At least about the show and the black presence that Morrison has outlined. The show does race in a really poor way and this is highlighted by the fact that they have until this moment ignored it and then out of nowhere attacked it so aggressively, as if to silence any dissenting voice daring to challenge them.
The truth is that race is an issue and it will still be an issue after the apocalypse, no matter the source. It’s not realistic to ignore it. Of course the real message seems to be that black and minority people are expendable—no need to replace them—just keep moving, ignoring the obvious. They don’t belong in our new (soon to be zombie free, we hope) society.
The real question of course lies with the Walking Dead staff—the presumable white creator. Will they continue to play ignorant with the “black presence,” ignoring it but never truly succeeding because of the inherent nature of blackness in our society? Or will they challenge themselves, realizing they will probably get things wrong but that doing it wrong, and trying, is often better than not doing it at all?
Practically anything is better than what we have now.
*Toni Morrison refers to the black presence as the “Africanist presence” in her literary criticism Playing in the Dark. It’s brilliant and I wholly suggest reading it.
**I realize that some of the actors’ racial identity may be different from the characters they play, but that is irrelevant to the stereotype we are given on screen.
Originally published December 20th, 2011.