White Hawkins, Upside Down

Earlier this week at NBC I wrote a piece about the half buried colonial subtext in Stranger Things. As I say in the piece, I don't think that Stranger Things is advocating for colonialism, or really even thinking about colonialism. But it's invested in nostalgic sources (Stephen King, D&D, H.P. Lovecraft, and ultimately H.G. Wells) which were obsessed with invasion and discovery of debased primitives dwelling in savage realms. As a result, it more or less accidentally reproduces colonial tropes and fantasies. Science-fiction and horror in the West are built out of colonialism. You can push back against that history, as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany have. But if you don't, it's going to push you around.

Or to put it another way, because it has no ideology, Stranger Things ends up reproducing the ideology of whiteness. You can see that in its treatment of colonialist tropes. And you can also see that in its treatment of black characters.

There are not many black people in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The one major cast member who is African-American is one of the kids, Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin). There are a couple of other black people seen in the background, but they don't feature prominently. 

You could argue (and on social media many people have argued) that the lack of black people in Hawkins is true-to-life. There are not a lot of black people in rural Indiana. This is true—but it's true for an uncomfortable reason. Indiana was the birthplace of the modern Klan. Black people who moved north during the Great Migration and settled in the rural Midwest were met with systematic white violence and terrorism, as James Loewen documents in the book Sundown Towns. Black people don't live in places like Hawkins because they were driven out of places like Hawkins, on pain of death. If Lucas is alone, it's because his neighbors, or their parents, burned crosses on a lot of lawns to keep folks who looked like Lucas out. 

The lack of black people in Hawkins is true to life because Hawkins, in real life, is a deeply racist place, steeped in white supremacist violence. Stephen King, one of Stranger Things' main sources, addressed rural racism directly in It, but the Duffer Brothers aren't up for it. Instead, the one person with possible racist motivations in Hawkins is an outsider: white trash California transplant Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery). Billy is incensed when he finds out that Lucas is friends with and more than friends with) his step-sister Max (Sadie Sink). Billy never utters a racial slur, and doesn't explain why he hates Lucas, but the most obvious explanation is the most obvious explanation.

Billy is a bully and a jerk. His racism is a personal character flaw; it's further evidence that he's a bad person and one of the series' (low key) villains. But outside of Billy, who isn't even from the town, racial animus in Hawkins hardly exists. There's even a joke startle scene where Police chief Hopper (David Harbour) is accosted by a black child with a toy gun. Hopper laughs it off, and the viewer is supposed to laugh it off too. Tamir Rice, a black child who in real life was shot by a police officer while holding a toy gun, is adamantly not supposed to come to mind. 

There is one other person of color in the show with a large role: Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), Jane's  sister, who was also subjected to government experiments in Hawkins. Kali is never actually shown in Hawkins, though; Jane goes to meet her in the big city, where people of color are, presumably, more natural. Kali hangs out with a punk gang, including a number of African-Americans. The gang visits vigilante justice on the people who formerly experimented on Kali, and as a result they are followed and attacked by police. This battle of the marginalized vs. the authorities is confined almost entirely to a single episode and a different locale. Then the series and Jane go back to Hawkins, to fight alongside the cops rather than against them.

Hawkins is a shockingly violent place. That's true to real-life Hawkinses, which were taken from native peoples at gunpoint, and then kept white with fists and terrorism and more guns. But the violence in fictional Stranger Things Indiana is carefully displaced. Outsiders are racist; the big city police target the marginalized. In Hawkins, cleansing fire is deployed, not against the property of black people, but against the humanoid savage primitives and their crawling jungle vines. The good, (mostly) white people of Hawkins don't fight black people who they have convinced themselves are debased nonhumans. Instead, they fight actual debased nonhumans. The moral crusade is actually a moral crusade, rather than an abomination. That's how you make nostalgia feel good. 

Over the last week, a lot of people on social media have told me, with some urgency, that Stranger Things is not political. And they're right. Stranger Things avoids politics. Even the Reagan/Bush signs on all those green lawns owned by white people aren't meant to signal political affiliation to viewers; they're just there to provide local color and verisimilitude. Hawkins is a retro-adventure stripped of history, a sunny hateless land of upside down. If there were politics here in Hawkins, how could white people be the good guys?