Is AMC’s The Walking Dead Racist?

This article covers the first half of season 3. Looking for a season 4 version? Click here.

I’m going to take a break from politics this week to address something that must be addressed about the hit show, The Walking Dead.   The show on AMC is based on the comic by Robert Kirkman yet only loosely follows the original plot.  SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE SHOW AND COMIC will follow below.

The series first tackled the issue of race in the second episode, painting a redneck character as blatantly racist and thus being dealt swift justice by the show’s protagonist, Rick.  Hooray for people overcoming prejudice in the apocalypse, unfortunately the writers and producers haven’t come nearly as far.  In the opening of the second season we first started to glimpse that the show was unable to unshackle itself from traditional stereotypes.  The female characters provided all the source of conflict, being panicked, incompetent, stubborn, and leading some to label the show as sexist.  For instance, one of the first scenes of the second season involves the group encountering a zombie horde.  Andrea, at first oblivious to the danger, immediately starts panicking and only barely manages to fend off an attacking zombie, Carol begins exhibiting signs of hysteria and must be physically restrained, and Carol’s daughter Sophia runs off for no reason twice.  The first half of the second season was based entirely around Sophia’s disappearance and the drama between Lori, Rick, and Shane with Lori’s most notable contributions being her patented “deer-in-the-headlights” look and her inability to drive a car.  However perhaps I am being too harsh, for all the sexist fall-traps of the second season, by the third, the female characters have become strong and capable.  Furthermore, we are introduced to Michonne who is pitched as a badass zombie-slayer that completely reverses any instilled notion about gender and the ability to dispatch zombies.

However, the appearance of Michonne carries with it the realization that the writers and producers can’t handle black characters.  “Showrunner” Glenn Mazzara has already made it abundantly clear in interviews that he  values the show’s marketability much more than the show’s source material.  Given this consideration perhaps the writers are merely  reflecting a deeper consciousness about race that prevails in society rather than their own personal projections.  Nonetheless, this third season has been the most problematic in terms of race and like the sexism, would not necessarily be racist in itself, yet when compared to the comic, production and character decisions become much clearer and quite frankly, much more racist.  Let’s start with T-Dog.

First, the name T-Dog is problematic from the start having already successfully been mocked for its connotation in the 2005 film Waiting… where a young wigger called Theodore insists on being called “T-Dog, yo.”  Then there’s the whole T-Dog/Tyrese controversy.  Tyrese was a character from the comics whom Rick’s group meets early on in the series.  He’s a big black guy that quickly becomes Rick’s good friend and essentially (and perhaps more literally) his right-hand, if not the group’s leader altogether.  Tyrese has a relationship with Carol and his daughter is also in an interracial relationship yet both are absent from the show.  Tyrese is the one who goes on a zombie-killing rampage out of rage instead of Rick and plays the foil to Rick’s poor leadership at times.  In other words, Tyrese is a huge character in the comics.

Meanwhile, the show has insisted that T-Dog is a completely different character, yet the fact that Tyrese is absent, T-Dog is there, and both their names start with “T” is enough to raise some eyebrows.  In some sense Tyrese’s spot is also filled by Shane and Daryl, both appearing in the show when they are absent in the comics.  So there’s the first decision, a positive black character is replaced by either meek T-Dog with hardly any dialogue or two white characters.  When T-Dog inevitably passed, there were two main threads of comments on his character, one that you knew it was coming because T-Dog had an unusually large amount of dialogue that episode, and two, that as soon as he was killed, he was immediately replaced by another black character.  This has led to speculation that the “T” actually stood for “Token.”

And then there’s Michonne, a character far too big to exclude, yet quite possibly the biggest letdown of the entire series.  On last night’s Talking Dead, AMC’s never-negative self-review, black actress Yvette Nicole Brown compared Michonne to the Terminator, calculating and deadly, yet this is perhaps the most forgiving interpretation out there.  In the show Michonne is always angry, confrontational, and paranoid.  She is a killing machine no doubt, but her humanity is non-existent.  Even her implied friendship with Andrea never gets past the implied part.  Every discussion they have together Michonne is cold and stubborn, which might be a side effect from a zombie apocalypse, but a horrible trait when dealing with other survivors.  She lacks any sort of cunning or saavy, or any ability to hide her feelings.  Instead Michonne becomes the stereotype of a Zulu warrior – brutal, aggressive, and distrustful of others, certainly good traits for surviving zombies, but also pretty racist, especially compared to her character in the comics.  Michonne enters the comics as a lone survivor approaching the prison where all of Rick’s group is, including Andrea.  She came there for refuge, preferring to be in a community then left alone on the outside – the exact opposite of the show.

Michonne

Once inside the prison they take her weapon but she doesn’t seem to mind and treats everyone in a fairly congenial way (especially Tyrese), again the opposite reaction from the show.  As the story continues we learn that Michonne used to be a lawyer and will often hallucinate and talk to her dead boyfriend, something she and Rick bond over.  Later we even see Michonne feign interest at a dinner party, at least for a little while.  The Michonne of the show exhibits none of these traits and therefore her character comes off as racist.  Perhaps over time she will become more coy and trustful, but then we still encounter the racist narrative of the civilizing of the African savage and so at this point her character is too far gone to be saved from racial undertones.

Commercially successful shows must be based on familiar archetypes in society and therefore I don’t blame the show’s creators fully.  There is a serious problem with black characters in shows diverging from more positive portrayals in the source material.  Game of Thrones and Harry Potter both changed the race of characters out of convenience.  Shows not based on earlier works have a much harder time being labeled racist because they create their own characters.  Even if all the black characters in an original series have negative traits you could still explain it away as there being plenty of bad blacks in the world, the same way there are many bad whites and simply chalk it up as a coincidence of personalities that makes the show work.  Even while that is stretching to apologize for some shows, it takes an even farther leap to justify the choices surrounding the black characters in The Walking Dead.  When you take from source material you are forced to make very conscious decisions about the characters and the show’s creators were completely unable to provide any distance from the formulaic black character types.

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23 thoughts on “Is AMC’s The Walking Dead Racist?

  1. I agree with just about every point you made in this post. I think it’s believable enough that T-Dog wasn’t a Tyrese replacement, but there are just too many ways to point out how the show can’t (or won’t) portray black people in-depth, and can’t have too many of them in the cast even though the setting should lead for a higher percentage of them.

    More spoilers(to mid-season 3 finale):
    70+ year old Hershel, who’s supposed to be dead in the comic, gets bitten but manages to be saved and survives. Yet the stronger, younger, and black prisoner(Big Tiny) gets the unlucky bite in the shoulder and is killed soon after. Then we have Oscar, another prisoner, who just started to integrate with the group getting killed as they are trying to leave Woodbury. Out of the 5 people escaping in the fire fight, he’s not even in the most exposed position to get shot, but somehow he does get shot and fatally too – or at least fatal enough for another character to decide they couldn’t save him and made sure he was dead. To sum it all up and introduce another view of events — out of all of the prisoners, they all are currently dead except for the white one(Axel).

    I still like the show, but it needs to take some serious strides to curb these patterns. Developing a third dimension for Michonne AND keeping Tyrese and Sasha alive would be a step in the right directly.

  2. If it makes you feel better pretty much every white character in the show is shit too in my opinion. Even the formerly likable Rick is turning into a raging shitbag. Maybe that’s just the way it goes. Maybe Breaking Bad has rubbed off on the series and they are trying to make every character except Merle & Carl awful.

  3. Speak the Truth Brother I am so tired of Hollywood killing us off in the movies for real this is some crap I am actually working on a script for a movie about this if you all know anyone that can support me.

  4. It’s as I was watching the Killing last night that I realised how racist AMC is as a channel. If you think about it Walking Dead, The Killing, Breaking Bad, Mad Men among others are all examples of TV shows which put a strong emphasis on the White man.

  5. well don’t forget the video game series like The Walking Dead video game done by Teltale. I mean they killed off the main character Lee and yet they haven’t killed Rick in the series. This was all approved by Robert Kirkman.

  6. You may as well remove this article because season 4 has made all of your points redundant, with the black cast being the highest as well as the appearance of tyreese and the formerly white character bob stookey being converted to a black character.By the way lees death was just a way to end the game.

  7. I think you missed a major point. The Walking Dead’s setting is in the South except for when they move in the comics. The TV show rarely has many African American walkers. In season 4 the camp only added one new black member since the end of season 3. They’re in the south. The south is America’s largest African American population. Where are the black people?

  8. What is an “African-American”? There are only Americans, Franklin. They come in many races. Secondly, this article was far too quick to pull out its race card, as Michonne is an AWESOME character. She’s got plenty of humanity, is funny and badass to boot. Maybe you shouldn’t be so reactionary. It takes time in the ZA world to establish trust and to show true colors. Michonne was being guarded, and rightfully so. Of course, some idiot always has to make it about race. There are plenty of black characters, especially compared to Mad Men or Breaking Bad. They write the white characters terribly too. They write women terribly. Did you ever just think that maybe they have BAD WRITERS? It’s Season 4 now and so far my favorite characters are Michonne and Tyreese (I loved him as Cutty on The Wire, so I’m biased) and I’m a white woman. How do you write a black character? Are you implying that all black people are the same? It’s just a silly argument. EVERY character on this show has major flaws, if we’re preaching equality, shouldn’t that be fair?

    1. Thanks for the comment Lola. The point I was making with this article is that it’s one thing to just write characters badly, it’s quite another to take source material and twist characters into more negative (and racial) stereotypes. If this was just some show then yea, it would be wrong to make it about race, but it’s a show based on a comic where the black characters have much more personality and importance than in the show. That’s why some of the writing decisions come off as racist.

  9. sunstreak- Really? You’re faulting the game for killing Lee? Clem was black and she survived. Christa was black and she survived, yet every other white character died. Give me a break. Lee was an awesome protagonist. He was complex and I loved him WAY more than Rick. Why is it that some people have to look for racism where there is none? They gave you a wonderful protagonist in Lee and STILL some people aren’t satisfied. I wish he survived, but truth is that it made the finale so much more moving and poignant to have him die. Clementine will be the protagonist (another black person) in Season 2, it’s just been revealed. Get over the race thing. It’s people like you who keep racism alive. Just appreciate these wonderful character for who they are and if you don’t like it, go write your own story. Everyone loves Lee and Clementine, I’ve yet to hear anyone call their portrayals racist. I can’t believe that is all you got out that wonderful game.

  10. I was quite shocked with how Michonne’s character was portrayed in The Walking Dead. However The Killing was even worse – it was overtly racist and left a bad taste in the mouth. Was happy to see it go although it had potential to be great show.

  11. Whats always forgotten is the portrayal of Hispanics. How could you leave out the stereo-typical mexican thugs from season one? They even have the stereotypical grandma…

  12. Their was a confederate flag on the episode “Nebraska” Season 2 Episode 8, when Glenn and Rick went to town to find Hershel. That was a sign as well. T-Dog? Really? Why that name, and they killed of Jacqui which why was it spelled so differently if you will. I do find it racist a little but besides that it is a really good show that I can’t get enough of.

    1. Same thing I said.. T-Dogg Tyreese like really.. Then I noticed in season three when they broke into the prison majority if not all of the zombie imates were black I was a little offended by this..

  13. Michones speaking role in season 4 is just more proof the white writers have no idea how to write for a black women.

  14. I guess his name being Theodore Douglas has no relevance on being called T-Dog, perhaps him playing American Football for a team called the Bulldogs may have played a role in his name.

  15. Then it would make more sense to call him Theo don’t you think?
    Look, it’s blatantly obvious that the producers/writers for the show are racist and especially hostile towards the African American male.
    It’s just a shame because it’s a decent show, but the racist undertones make it difficult to watch at times.
    I actually have to take breaks from watching episodes in order to digest the large amount of bullshit. To sum it up it’s a very inaccurate portrayal of black personalities & culture.

    I’m sure being able to recognize how & why would be more difficult for SOME who aren’t African American.

  16. More so than TWD, I think there’s an issue with talking Dead. I would say 90% of the time, black guests are introduced last. Look at this past episode. Why is Eugene introduced first despite that Glenn has been on the show from the beginning. Some also had an affront to the Noah “dummy” along with pushing the strawberry in his mouth.

  17. yes, it is pretty hard to watch. the black men appear to be weak and incompetent. they are fairly useful as long as somebody white is around to keep them focused. I just watched a few episodes for the first time, and I seen “noah” who “stole” guns from daryl and left them to die. a coward preacher, who is lazy and worthless. and tyrese who of course, left on his own, in a house he “knows” may have potential walkers, gets bitten by a little boy walker. it appears that all of the black characters are mentally unstable. even in tyrese’s state of death, all he can see is the caring little white girls caring for their big incompetent black man, assuring him that “its ok”. Damn shame, because I like this series. would just like to see a strong black man character who has some time of leadership qualities and can make it thru one or two seasons.

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