The Racism of the Walking Dead

This essay was almost called Binge Watching the Walking Caucasians.

Caution: If there is anyone in the world (besides me) who hasn’t already watched the Walking Dead, please be aware: this blog post contains spoilers.

Author’s note: I’ve been told that the Walking Dead made huge changes after it’s first few seasons and is now one of the most diverse and feminist shows available to binge on streaming sites. 

For the past two months, I’ve been binge watching the Walking Dead.

Sort of.

I don’t watch much TV. With the exception of the two recently ended weeks that included the Olympics—a period when I watched about forty-five minutes of TV per night—I probably don’t watch more than ninety minutes a week. Maybe four twenty-two-minute episodes. And all of those shows are watched with the rest of my family. For me, TV is simply about spending time with my kids.

Does that sound strange? It seems odd to write. The thought of two adults and two kids sitting slack-jawed in front of a TV watching cops solve violent crimes is about the worst family image I can conjure up. But we don’t watch cop shows. Mostly we watch clever sit-coms like Modern Family. And during those shows, we interact. Sometimes we hit the pause button and stop to discuss something, but usually we talk right over the action. TV with my family is time set aside to communicate.

This past Christmas, we got ourselves a spin bike as a family gift. The plan was that through these crappy winter months, when everyone typically sits around inside, we would each take a daily turn riding the bike. Even before it was delivered, I knew this was wishful thinking, our bike would get a solid week of use and then sit idle. But that never happened. Two months later, the four of us need to negotiate when we get our shift on the bike. As an example: it’s now 8:40 p.m. and Eli’s on the bike. He’s riding so late because I just got off.

When I ride, I watch the Walking Dead. My binge. As I ride, thirty minutes per day, I watch part of an episode. When one ends, I launch right into the next. Binging. I’m on the third season.

“Dad, a half an hour per day isn’t binge watching.” That’s Sophie giving me a reality check. I took a little poll. It seems that most people agree with her. Apparently for it to be a binge, you need to watch full episodes… at least two.

I can’t imagine sitting down for two full episodes. The Walking Dead just isn’t that good. It’s got to be the most redundant show ever written. By the time I got through the third episode (after four days of watching), I considered bailing on the series altogether. There are only so many ways you can “kill” a zombie, and I assumed by then I’d seen them all.

But instead, the Walking Dead snared me. I started becoming invested in the characters, and it was easier than finding a new series to watch while I ride. I still think it’s redundant and as slow moving as a soap opera (half of season-two took place over a couple of days in a traffic jam), but I’m still watching. And while watching, I’ve noticed something about the show:

The Walking Dead has a problem with minorities. From the start, minorities are almost non-existent in the roster of characters. Yes, there is a prominent Korean-American character. He’s strong and capable, but that’s where diversity ends.

I looked up the racial makeup of Georgia—the state where the action takes place (so far). According to Wikipedia, the white population of Georgia is fifty-five percent. Half of the Walking Dead characters should be non-Caucasian. Early on, there was Latino family. Not prominent in the action, but I recall the father having a few lines. They were gone by the middle of the first season. They struck out on their own. Leaving the safety of the lily-white group to find what they called “our people.” No kidding.

Regarding African-Americans, the show is abysmal. The black population of Georgia is over thirty percent. Yet the show started with only two black characters: Cartoonishly-named T-Dog and his mom. Even the walkers (zombies) are all white. Like the Latino family, T-Dog’s mom also quits the group. She commits suicide rather than continue as a marginal black character in an exclusively white show.

For the next season and a half, T-Dog does almost nothing. In every season-two scene, he is on the periphery, leaning against a tree, taking up space. There are only a dozen characters. You’d think the writers would give him something to do. Season-two’s role for T-Dog: badly cut his arm while scrounging around in derelict cars looking for cigarettes; get rescued from a tight jam by the resident redneck; and kill one walker. If he had a dozen lines that season, I’d be astonished.

At the start of season three, T-Dog was suddenly more vocal. He was more engaged. He was actually prominent is several scenes. Alas, the writers were simply trying to build some interest in him; a few episodes later he was eaten.

So, was the Walking Dead left with no African-Americans? No, around the time T-Dog began being prepped for death, the producers introduced Michonne. She’s a bad ass. Fit and grumpy. Her weapon of choice is a Samurai sword. She’s empowered and in control. But I wouldn’t call her a strong character. She has no character at all. All she does is brood and kill. Another African-American, another one-dimensional character.

Pretty much the only time a minority population has been well represented in the entire series so far is when our group of main characters discovers a handful of living inmates in the federal prison they take over. Three of the five inmates are black. Ah, finally! Some African-Americans in the story. Let’s ignore the fact that they are all criminals. It doesn’t matter, anyway. This group is completely killed off the show in a couple of episodes.

Even twelve-year-old Carl and the new-born baby (dubbed Little Ass Kicker) get more opportunities at character development than any of the black characters so far.

This is blatantly racist stuff. There is one “token” character of color at a time for three seasons. I’m assuming this was a big debate topic as the episodes were first being aired. Because I’m trying to avoid spoilers myself, I’ve been hesitant to read much about the show. But it’s hard to avoid. Just the other day, I saw a photo accompanying a news story about the new season of the Walking Dead. From this photo, I now know that five years later, Carl and Little Ass Kicker are still going strong… and yes, Carl is still wearing his idiotic sheriff hat.

I acknowledge that I’m only a third of the way through the filmed-to-date episodes, so possibly, the makers of the Walking Dead eventually rectify their oversight(?) if that’s what it really is. There may be a change coming that I can’t foresee, but so far, the show has been less diverse than my rural Pennsylvania farming community.

19 thoughts on “The Racism of the Walking Dead

  1. I watch zero TV. Amazing right?! Instead of TV I read. Real books mostly but ebooks are easier when the pain is flaring.
    I did actually check out a series on Netflix because I was really curious. The Shannara Chronicles. I’ve read the books. There is an amazing amount of diversity in the cast. Unfortunately only two seasons were made. If you like fantasy and want to get away from white zombie killers, it’s an alternative.
    Your spin bike reminds me of a story about a family that powered their TV with a stationary bike. This was way back in the dinosaur era, aka the 80s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For about five years I watched zero tv, and then I realized my family was having fun watching without me. It doesn’t hold much interest for me, but I’m not hating it either.


  2. I don’t really watch TV either. I read more than I watch. But The Walking Dead got me. It’s the only show I put time into. The characters do develop, and zombies become the least of anyone’s problems. I see what you are saying. The show is based off the comic book series and I wonder if that has anything to do with the soap opera feel. And the characters. I wonder if the writers of the comic book were looking for characters and forgot about color – they wrote for Rick Grimes, a cop – and put a wife, son, Dr.,a preacher, a samurai, a Korean pizza delivery driver, a redneck, a victim of domestic abuse, etc around him. But you’re right – there isn’t much color. There are new characters and personalities that join “the family.” Some of color. But the story does change – and zombies become the least of anyone’s concerns.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a refreshing post having someone who is white not only noticing but writing about the lack of diversity on TV shows. Thank you Jeff. The mainstream media does really lack diversity and because of that I believe it has a knock on effect on how people perceive minorities. I haven’t seen the Walking Dead but I’m not really surprised to hear this.

    Glad the exercise bike riding whilst watching (not binge watching – I’m with your daughter on this one) tv is going well. I like to run and listen to audio books. Learn whilst you burn!!


    • My current and last 2 jobs have been at organizations heavily focused on racial justice. The concept is fairly ingrained in who I am. Plus, I also feel like an outsider most of the time so I’m usually on the lookout for biases. When I have a chance to really sit down, I have a lot to say about your dating post.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been a fan of The Walking Dead from the beginning, and I think I’ve been so enthralled with any horror show making it to TV and the fact that there were so many strong female roles, especially as the seasons progressed, that I didn’t notice the the lack of racial diversity. T-Dog did not escape my attention, everything about how his character was written and handled was embarrassing.

    It does get better as seasons progress, as does the pace, more money in the budget means more locations for filming. And I suspect money and time constraints are the reason most of the Zombies are white, creating prosthetics and make up effects are difficult and under scrutiny to look realistic down to the last detail on HD TVs, that adding in different skin tones would complicate things even more. But perhaps it would be worth the time and effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I probably wouldn’t have noticed the lack of diversity if T-Dog wasn’t so pathetic. I just started season 4 and there seems to be a much wider range of diversity. Fot the time being at least. I realize that extra people are needed now and then so that they can be killed off.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I dusted off my spin bike yesterday. I’m still trying to figure out how you can watch a story line while spinning instead of cranking music!
    I’m amazed by that alone…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I mean I always thought that TWD was slightly racist, but because I thought I was the only one I didn’t say anything 🙊 but after reading this very well put and informative post I can honestly say that what I expected along was correct!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yeah, sometimes though, the lack of racial diversity is because the showrunners don’t want to be accused of racism because of the way a certain character behaves. I don’t like that. I think a lot of the drifters and bad guys aren’t minorities because they don’t want to face those accusations. I would honestly prefer someone has the guts to do it, then call out anyone who screams and whines about it. But there is a serious lack of Asians, Hispanics, East Indians and Middle Easterners. You would think this was Queensland, Australia based on the diversity of the actors on the show.

    Hollywood’s approach to fixing the lack of diversity is just as warped; putting minorities in historical pieces in roles they have no business having. It’s just a total facepalm. They just can’t ever get it right.

    Liked by 1 person

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