On The Walking Dead, an Allegory of White Supremacy

The "Everybody ate Chris" meme was necessary comic relief , because that death was too much.
The “Everybody ate Chris” meme was necessary comic relief , because that death was too much.

Outrage over the hit AMC series The Walking Dead has fractured its audience into faithfuls, hate-watchers, and deserters; and at the root of this outrage is the demise of most of its black characters. The death rate of black people in Robert Kirkman’s survival horror story reminds many black Americans of the real-world situation in which they find themselves: constantly targeted with inhuman treatment by a senseless oppressor. And as such is the case when confronting the undead, little to no indication that a peaceful solution to real-life terror appears on the horizon. That black characters have fallen victim not only to zombies, but also to living villains in Kirkman’s world makes the echo of oppression between reality and fiction ever more sonorous, for threats to real black life come in all skin tones.

As a result, the escapism that black audiences seek when watching The Walking Dead may have inherent limits. Many viewers have grown weary after seeing all the characters with whom they most identify get taken away. And with this form of escape invoking the confinement black people feel daily, all audiences gain access to an irony of black existence that long predates television: the American ideal of equality for all, wherein “all” is has been exclusive since its first uttering.

So goes the experience of watching one of the more diverse casts of a popular TV series. As The Walking Dead amasses narrative casualties, it alienates more viewers, many of whom are already disenchanted by everyday illusions of racial progress.

From this context comes a question: is The Walking Dead too racially problematic to focus solely on its narrative merit?

For some, the answer is an emphatic yes:

“The most racist show on TV! #thewalkingdead” – @HeyArcher

“#WalkingDead Season 5: The one where all the black people die for no good reason. Either the writers are racist, or they think we are. #TWD” – @Syd_Lexia

“Holy walking dead. Also racist as hell that they pretty much left every black character off the bus #RosaParks #walkingdead” – @d_inthe_Vanec

For others, the show is entertaining enough to ignore the implicit reinforcement of a preexisting race paradigm, hence The Walking Dead’s confirmed 7th season, the success of the follow-up companion show Talking Dead, and a spin-off of little interest. In its casting, The Walking Dead presents as diverse enough to pacify mainstream criticism while still provoking valuable online buzz, especially via Black Twitter (the entity that the mainstream thanklessly mines for zeitgeist while continuing to deny its importance).

But the reason why some black viewers return every Sunday may be for the subversive commentary on American society. Through its characters, The Walking Dead symbolizes how racism limits progress, under the guise of a crisis that transcends race. The conceit that socially constructed biases erode in a shared crisis gets tested in every socially relevant parallel the show illustrates. Most recently, for example, Nicholas, white, embodies America’s aversion to diversity. The figurative resistance to cooperation for shared success primarily comes in the form of the tense relationship Nicholas has with Glenn, a Korean-American who is more adept at survival than Nicholas in every way.

Ultimately, Nicholas’s debilitating fear fatally hinders the entire community’s prosperity (with people of color suffering the most [RIP Noah {and Glenn?}]). And in recognizing fear as fuel for this bias, viewers also recognize Nicholas’s role symbolizing the widespread consequences if a radically conservative culture were to prevail. The recurrent impact of Nicholas’s decisions on people of color begs the question of whether his role exists for deliberate commentary purposes. Therefore, when understanding horror as a metaphor for society, The Walking Dead can be considered poignant in ways that rival zombie pioneer George Romero’s Living Dead series, a sociopolitical commentary in its own right.

Of course, the metaphor also extends to the outcomes of the oppressed, for whom most audience grievances are expressed. Noah’s beyond-gruesome fate is one of several reflections of black American life, his death a graphic representation of the isolating endangerment to which black people are exposed due to white fear. And in both instances, allies (Glenn in Noah’s case) must risk their own lives to defy the entire system of oppression (zombies) on behalf of the oppressed.

When you have a Masters in Engineering, but they got you teaching Gym.
When you have a Masters in Engineering, but they got you teaching Gym.

Another character, Tyreese, symbolizes the malleability that black people adopt in order to keep a predominantly white community from feeling threatened. As the most physically imposing character for a substantial period of the show, Tyreese gives Rick’s band of survivors unprecedented strength and confidence. Alas, Tyreese abandons the traits that keep him alive against nearly impossible odds and becomes a nurturer. This re-identification leads Tyreese to an end that he could have avoided had he not become merciful in a world where doing so gets you killed.

Concurrently, black identity adapting for white comfort is an everyday negotiation among black Americans, and sometimes that compromise is irreversible. The lengths to which black people feel compelled to betray their identity to survive in a world that would otherwise further marginalize them can leave them stuck between two worlds, ultimately accepted by neither. And Tyreese’s final episode, which he spends in a feverish limbo between life and death, depicts a state that code switchers and respectability politickers ought to know quite well.

Speaking of respectability politics, The Walking Dead also has a character reminiscent of CNN’s Don Lemon in Gabriel, the most hated priest in television. Gabriel’s cowardly betrayal of the congregation that relied on him resembles Lemon’s disinterest in using his role as a journalist to counteract the negative perception of black life in the media. And instead of championing the concerns of the people who would support them, Lemon and Gabriel seek instead to save themselves, assuming a combative stance against their communities. But this parallel should not be surprising; some of Lemon’s remarks are as confounding as the mere notion of a black Catholic. And to the horror of black CNN and The Walking Dead viewers, Lemon and Gabriel continue to be exempt from the struggles that their communities face, with cowardice proving a successful tool for black survival both in reality and in fiction.

Such parallels have occurred from the beginning of The Walking Dead, with Jacqui embodying oppressed resignation at the in the show’s first season. Michonne and Sasha have since emerged as strong heroines to revere, but Jacqui’s surrender to the chaos—choosing not to flee certain death—invokes in viewers that defeated feeling when confronted by a world that seems designed against their survival. In such instances, the path of least resistance is to stand at the mercy of the doom that lies ahead, forfeiting agency because it feels pointless to assert any.

Morgan's new "all lives matter" outlook is gonna get everyone killed.
Morgan’s new “all lives matter” outlook is gonna get everyone killed.

These connections between experiences on the show and in real life suggest that instead of The Walking Dead being racist, it may speak to black people with an honest care that most shows do not. Besides, looking to a horror story to be aspirational, especially while based on the world as we know it, denies the core properties of the genre. And although jest and unwritten doctrine states that black people never survive horror situations on screen, The Walking Dead treats every death with more dramatic weight and relevance than the movies that inspired the rule. The show’s sharp contrast to how the news, media, and society writ large often frame black life as expendable puts The Walking Dead in a relatively progressive position that even race-critical viewers can embrace.

As it happens, the question of whether black characters are purposely being sacrificed has been explained. The Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson recently defended casting choices of the three black characters that die in rapid succession as “the best actors to play those parts,” which certainly stokes both sides of the racism debate. But the intent of Kirkman, Erickson, et al has little relevance in the sense that the audience ultimately assumes control of interpretation. And for some, the raw feelings that the show’s imagery elicits prove too powerful to allow those storytellers the benefit of the doubt.

3 seasons, and no one even asked T-Dog what his real name was. We've all been that black friend.
3 seasons and no one even asked T-Dog what his real name was. We’ve all been that black friend.

But the distrust of The Walking Dead is only part of an ongoing relationship black audiences have with the entertainment industry. The retreat from The Walking Dead on the grounds of recurrent black suffering resembles the fatigue some black consumers feel from the continued output of 19th-century American Slave narratives and other period pieces depicting blacks in roles of servitude. Recent examples like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Lee Daniels’ The Butler were both directed by black men, but Hollywood executives (most of whom are white) supporting these projects more often than contemporary stories of black triumph hints at the insidiousness of white liberalism in power. By acclaiming reminders of how bad black people used to have it, thus mitigating concern over how much further we as a society still have to go, Hollywood can appease black audiences through representation without disrupting the conservative status quo.

Citing such duplicity at work in The Walking Dead may be unfair, but the sensitivity about the treatment of black characters comes from an authentically painful reality, which supersedes the hyperactive echo chamber also known as the Internet. And although it is just a television show, The Walking Dead can be appreciated a sociopolitical commentary despite the pain it is up against. Whether black audiences will remain fans or continue denouncing it as racist, black presence in the show has largely redefined how the genre is perceived, meanwhile creating a memorable moment in the history of American television by moving horror into the mainstream unlike any series before it.

Such an acknowledgement may sound like a “Meh, they could be doing us worse.” But in reality, it’s more of a “Watch it or don’t, but there’s some seriously interesting stuff happening here.”

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