For a show about racism, Watchmen is remarkably easy for white people to watch.
It’s difficult for me to parse the blame: to decide if the show fails to engage whiteness with proper difficulty, or if liberal, white HBO viewers will turn any story, no matter how complicated, into mindless water cooler fodder. I suppose blaming anyone specific might be a useless activity, as my issue with Watchmen is really an issue of context, and my assessment is, admittedly, bleak.
I don’t think American whites understand racism well enough to deserve villains whose evil is defined by white supremacy. Not yet.
Whites are in a transitional phase of history right now, in which no one dare claim they are racist (except in truly homogenous, white spaces where we won’t suffer social consequence—increasingly rarer territory as the American population grows Browner and Blacker). This is especially true of whites who watch HBO, who identify as liberal. So no one is a racist, yet racism is everywhere. We, the educated whites, understand this to be “institutional racism,” the omnipresent byproduct of a country built on slavery. We are not racists, but we live in a world of redlining, voter suppression, and police brutality. It is all so very heartbreaking.
The cognitive dissonance lies in the separation of people from institutions: of well-intentioned, Good individuals from heartless, Evil institutions. However, institutions are importantly historic bodies of people. “Institutional racism” is not the ill will of any single university, media conglomerate, or textbook. Institutions are enacted through people, so institutional racism must always be enacted by individuals, even and especially by well-intentioned Good ones. Redlining, voter suppression, and police brutality are the constant work of people who would never identify as a “racist”—that piggish, binary term for all the Bad Whites.
“Institutional racism” is a favorite bedtime story to soothe historical guilt: it falsely places the onus of racism on faceless bodies, otherizing white supremacy as someone else’s banner cause. While white supremacists who identify as such still very much so exist, white supremacy is more insidious than a show like Watchmen would have us believe. By separating its cast into Good Whites and Bad Whites, i.e., whites who fight white supremacy and whites who uphold it, Watchmen lets its largely white audience off the hook by encouraging us to identify with our fellow Good Whites.
But the “institution” of institutional racism is ultimately whiteness, which lives and breathes in the white skin of Good and Bad actors every day. Racism is less and less frequently enacted by “racists” (in white parlance, Bad Whites who are proud white supremacists), but by white people who aren’t paying attention to the way they police normalcy—both in everyday interactions and in the actual carceral punishment of Black and Brown people.
The hard, unswallowable truth is this: there are no Good Whites, because there is no such thing as good whiteness. Whiteness is inherently evil, and all white people, no matter how good, will enact it without thinking. Being a Good White Person is never a stable identity; it’s an ongoing practice of engaging critically with racial privilege. It is a commitment to continuous, uncomfortable education. Overall, it is paying attention to what whiteness takes for granted, which can only be known via the pain of people of color. Importantly, whiteness has caused so much of this pain already that whites need not cause any more for the sake of educating ourselves, only open a book, or turn on the television.
I believe Watchmen is an excellent show, and it only fails, by my own measure, if we agree that good television is supposed to radicalize its viewers. While the contemporary practice of criticizing a show for lacking correct politics might be useful at getting us to engage with our own beliefs, it’s limited in explaining why this is useful in the first place—why political representation is meaningful in the world of entertainment. I believe very few people watch television to change their minds. Most people just want to be entertained, and Bad Whites are entertaining.
But Good Whites are not particularly entertaining or instructive. They are avatars of normalcy, and convey as much. They serve to pacify white, liberal audiences looking for a face to identify with in movies featuring primarily people of color. Think of the slave master Harriet Tubman forgives in Harriet, Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, or even the CIA agent in Black Panther. At worst, these figures function as white saviors. At best, they function to convey a world in which white people can comfortably assimilate to non-white worlds. However, white people cannot “assimilate” to worlds that exist in spite of whiteness—this is just not the right word to describe the power differential at play—nor is this “assimilation” ever comfortable.
I guess, then, I am not asking for Watchmen, or any TV show, for that matter, to articulate progressive racial politics. I am asking prestige television to complicate their Good Whites as much as they complicate their Bad Whites: their Walter Whites and Don Drapers, antiheroes whose slippery morality reflects our own. When whites get involved in telling stories about people of color (which, due to the color of Hollywood power, is almost always the case), they flatten white characters into Good and Bad, Anti-Racist and Racist, in ways that don’t invite real relation and thus, real personal reflection. In the same way white screenwriters have historically reduced people of color to two-dimensional caricatures of their race, white screenwriters reduce themselves to racial caricatures in stories they perceive to be about race (aka, any story about non-white people). The caricature of the Good White is just as harmful as any other non-white racial caricature, if not more so, as whites are largely inept at recognizing the flattery. The Good White is a poorly-developed character we identify with anyways, so bad is our desire to be absolved of guilt.
What I’m saying is, if you can’t recognize the Good White/Bad White divide as harmful, at least you can recognize it as bad writing. Maybe entertainment doesn’t have to realize our politics to be good entertainment, but it should accurately capture the seeds of reality it intends to reflect. The most fantastical characters in Watchmen are not the superheroes, but the whites who fight racists for a living but do not engage with the racism inherent in their white bodies.
Because there is no mask we can take off at the end of the day to forget the whole thing. We are always wielding our whiteness and it is always violent, even when we are cozy in the dark, lit only by the screen of our televisions.
is still figuring it out.