Mad Men And Society's Race Problem
Sept. 28, 2010

"Mad Men" does not have a race problem.

It is true that Matt Weiner's award-winning AMC show is short on significant characters of color, but that doesn't mean that the issue of race is absent. It is there when a cocky ad man corners a black elevator operator and pumps him for information on what TV sets "Negroes" like. It is there in an appalling black face performance at a garden party. It is there when a pampered housewife tsk tsks to her black maid, "Maybe it's just not time for equal rights," or some such. It is there in the ad agency's easy acceptance of a client that "refuses to hire Negroes" in the South. It is there when white men use black women as pawns to bolster their bohemian cred or work out their daddy issues. It is there in the unyielding whiteness and casual racism of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office.

The very absence of people of color in the main narrative of this show speaks volumes. To be clear, Mad Men is not about the mid-20th century. If it was, the show would deserve criticism for not making race a driving issue. But Mad Men is about Don Draper and the people in his orbit -- middle- to upper-class white Americans living and working around Manhattan in the late 50s to mid-60s. For these people, race and racism are largely invisible, until and unless the struggle for equality impinges upon their privilege.

Fellow columnist Carl Chancellor reminded me of Ralph Ellison's take on being a black man in the 50s: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." Weiner deftly illustrates this invisibility -- the way race is there, but not there in the lives of his white protagonists. The issue of race throbs beneath the narrative like a tell-tale heart. It may often be unseen, but you can always hear the thump...thump...thump. It seems an honest handling by a show that distinguishes itself by knowledgeable, delicate and nuanced analysis of humanity and 50s/60s society within a fictional context. But generally, these days, discussion of race is anything but knowledgeable, delicate and nuanced. And that is the rub. "Mad Men" does not have a race problem. We do.

It is the knowledge of the nation's racial immaturity that plagues me when I watch "Mad Men". And I suspect it is this that bothers those who have criticized the show's handling of race. It is not that I cannot hear the thump, thump of race in the show's narrative. It is that I know many other people aren't as attuned to the sound.

A few weeks ago on "Mad Men", a leather-clad socialist tried to educate hip young copywriter Peggy Olson to the Civil Rights Movement. Peggy is dismissive, noting that as a woman she cannot do many of the things "Negroes" cannot do. "There are clubs I can't go to because I am a woman." Her date snorts, "Yeah, let's hold a civil rights march for women." Peggy later insists that a black man could be successful at SCDP if he worked hard "like I did." In this scene we see a man so wrapped in his gender privilege that he cannot even recognize sexism as a real and pressing problem. We also see a white woman refusing to own her own racial privilege and ignoring the existence of black women. It makes sense that a relatively sheltered young woman, in 1965, who suffers unrelenting sexism in the office, but little exposure to black people, would think this way. But many black women spent the whole of the 2008 presidential primary season arguing with white feminists who similarly marginalized us and minimized racism. Hearing fan favorite Peggy Olson take this position felt like an endorsement of a point of view that is sadly not dead yet. I found myself cringing at the scene, irritated at the writers, but perhaps more irritated at "Mad Men's" viewers, who I guessed would miss a key element of the dialogue. Sure enough, Monday morning on show forums, many people were hailing Peggy for telling it like it is. Too many viewers noticed the sexism in the scene, but missed the racism. "Mad Men" got it right. Some viewers sadly missed the point.

Then, there is the infamous scene when everyone's favorite office manager, Joan Holloway, demeans Sheila, a young, black woman who is dating Paul, who once dated Joan. Poseur Paul introduces Joan to his (surprise) black girlfriend, Sheila, the manager of a local supermarket. When the ladies are left to talk, Joan first patronizes Sheila, intoning that maybe one day she'll be able to "pull up in a station wagon" and shop at the supermarket, as well as work there. When Sheila points out that she has already shopped there, as she grew up in the suburb, Joan turns more nasty: (paraphrasing) It's great that you and Paul are together. When we were together I wouldn't have thought he would be so broad-minded. It's left to the viewers' imaginations what else Joan may have said, but later in the office Paul confronts her and she accuses him of dating Sheila merely to seem "interesting."

The meaning of the interaction between Joan and Sheila seems obvious to me, especially given the early 60s time frame. The Civil Rights Act had not been signed. There had been no Freedom Summer. Blacks in several states could not vote. Is it such a surprise that the average American held racially-biased beliefs? To me, it is no more surprising than the sexism that runs rampant in the show. But many commenters on "Mad Men" forums disagreed. Our Joanie would never be racist.

Ours is a time when an uncomfortably large number of people either believe we live in a post-racial Utopia or that America is under attack by Mexican immigrants and a suspiciously brown president who may or may not be a member of Kenyan Muslim terrorist sleeper cell. Nuance is not our thing. We revel in the black-and-white. The media and political talking heads deal less with facts and analysis than fear and faux righteous indignation. Many of us are forced to deal with race as minorities in a majority culture. And many anti-racist allies proactively study and analyze race and racism. But despite race's significant role in the country's history and present, most Americans don't notice it and would rather not think about it. People are as entrenched in their privilege as they were 45 years ago. And race and racism remain invisible, until and unless racial equality impinges upon that privilege.

A lot of people blithely ignored the strange monochromatic New York of Seinfeld and Friends. Why should we expect them to notice the absence of people of color on "Mad Men" and analyze what it says about the United States in the mid-60s?
The issue of race is very present in Mad Men. Many viewers simply would rather not see it.

That is the problem. It is not Matt Weiner's problem. It is ours.