After Stranger Things season one aired Saturday Night Live decided to take aim. Not at the multiple 80s sci-fi movie tropes or at Winona Ryder’s brilliant-yet-manic portrayal of a mother searching for her child, but at the lack of Lucas’ parents. Lucas is one of the four main middle schoolers who are caught up in the strange goings on in Hawkins but only his parents are missing from that first season – only the black kid’s parents are M.I.A.
With the arrival of season two, it seems the Duffer Brothers have taken note from SNL‘s Kenan Thompson and Leslie Jones by finally giving Lucas not just a mother and father to interact with, but a younger sister too. However, it seems that the show’s creators have gone one step further by actually addressing the issue of racism, without ever resorting to the use of a racial slur.
There is a scene early on in season two which sees the four middle school boys arriving at school in their Ghostbusters outfits. Dustin comes as Dr. Raymond Stanz, Will as Dr. Egon Spengler and both Lucas and Mike as Dr. Peter Venkmen. They have an argument over it. Mike was under the impression that Lucas was going to go as the fourth Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore, who not so coincidentally is also black. Lucas argues that he never agreed to go as Winston – to which both Dustin and Will back him up on – and that the character is the worst one of the four because he wasn’t an original Ghostbuster or a scientist.
It’s very clear here that Mike assumed that because Lucas is black he would play the black Ghostbuster, a situation that most people of color can relate to. In my pre-teen years, my white girlfriends and I dressed up as the Spice Girls and I had to play Scary Spice because I was the only ethnic minority. When I suggested one of them dress up as Mel B they winced at the idea, just like Mike does when Lucas suggests that maybe he should play Winston if the character’s that “cool.”
“I can’t,” Mike says. “Why not?” Lucas replies, “because you’re not black?”
This interaction is indicative of one of the many microaggressions people of color have faced for years. Mike isn’t purposefully being racist towards Lucas, but he is exhibiting a prejudice that suggests black people should stay in their lane. In this case, wearing the racially “appropriate” Halloween costume already steeped in prejudice.
In 2014, Ernie Hudson wrote about his experience of playing Winston in the Ghostbusters franchise and how disappointed he was that the character went from being an “Air Force major” or “demolitions guy” to appearing halfway through the film as just an average joe looking to cut a check.
“The night before filming begins, however, I get this new script and it was shocking. The character was gone. Instead of coming in at the very beginning of the movie, like page 8, the character came in on page 68 after the Ghostbusters were established. His elaborate background was all gone, replaced by me walking in and saying, ‘If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.’ So that was pretty devastating.”
It’s no wonder that an intelligent boy like Lucas didn’t want to play Winston because it was a representation of black culture that he didn’t identify with. Rather, he identified with Bill Murray’s character Venkman, the funny and super smart scientist, and he had every right to when filmmakers weren’t writing black characters to the same standard.
It’s important that Lucas called Mike out on this microaggression because it would hopefully inform his attitude towards race going forward, and help him better understand that racism doesn’t always come from an overtly racist place. In children, it often comes from a place of ignorance perpetuated by white parents who refuse to engage in a discourse. Dr. Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas, has been studying social cognition in children with regard to race and gender for over twenty years. She says that children notice racial differences far more than adults give them credit for and if these differences aren’t explained then they make up their own explanations.
Given that Lucas’ family seems to be the only ethnic minorities in the town of Hawkins it’s unsurprising that the white folk may have gone “colormute” when the subject of race has come up at home. Lucas’ parents, on the other hand, have probably been discussing race and prejudice with their children throughout their childhood in order to prepare them for any sort of discrimination they may face in the outside world, and, to encourage them that the color of their skin should never hold them back from achieving their dreams.
While this scene offers a direct nod towards the microaggressions suffered by people of color, there is another more aggressive narrative in the new season that is surprisingly far more subtle. Max and Billy are the new kids in Hawkins and they are far less laid back than their Californian origins would have you believe.
Max is a tomboy who impresses the gang with her arcade game skills while her older step-brother is an angry bully who takes out his issues on her and later Lucas. Billy never outright says to Max that she can’t hang with Lucas because he is black but it is heavily implied. “There are certain type of people in this world that you stay away from, and that kid, Max, that kid is one of them,” Billy says to his sister. “You stay away from him, you hear me? Stay away.”
Dacre Montgomery, who plays the mustachioed thug, says that when he first read the script he thought the character was a “racist dick” but later concluded that Billy is not racist but rather threatened by male figures coming into his life. I’m not convinced. The way that Billy targets Lucas, even attacking him specifically out of all of the boys even though he has shown no protectiveness towards Max at all throughout the season, looks to me a lot like racism, just not an explicit form.
As mentioned earlier, racism isn’t all about throwing around racial slurs and hateful words. Its influence can be felt through silent means and microaggressions, thus contributing to far more insidious prejudices. Barbara Trepagnier’s book Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide, details how often white people who consider themselves “not-racist” are often “instrumental in the production of institutional racism.” She argues that by labeling themselves “Racist or Not Racist,” white people are perpetuating racial discrimination.
“We all learned silent racism growing up, but most of us don’t notice it because the oppositional terms Racist/Not Racist hide it. These racism categories are profoundly out-of-date: Before the Civil Rights Movement, people in the Not Racist category were few and far between and took a courageous stand against segregation and unfair voting practices. Today, Not Racist is a default category—people must perform hateful acts or make patently racist statements to lose Not Racist status and earn the label Racist.”
Dacre Montgomery may well be considering Billy’s attitude in these binary terms and by doing so, excuses his character’s discriminatory behavior towards Lucas as a result of his own daddy issues. But having racist-leanings and family problems aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, and Billy may well have both.
What this narrative highlights, intentionally or not, is that silent racism is just as prominent an issue today as it was 30 years ago. That the stereotype of a racist is not limited to Southern rednecks and neo-Nazis who throw racial slurs around as easy as they say “amen.” Just look at this year’s Get Out, which highlighted a liberal form of racism specific to the uncomfortable experience people of color can suffer when in situations involving the white middle class.
But this storyline also shows that you can present racism on film without perpetuating the use of racial slurs. Many viewers have understood that both the Ghostbusters costume scene and Billy’s animosity towards Lucas are examples of racism without any of the ethnic minorities being outwardly insulted with racist terms. That, I think, is a testament to the writers who are able to create this racial tension without throwing the N-word about. It’s a similar skill that should be applied to scenes of sexual violence. Do we actually need to see a woman being raped to understand that it has happened? No. The same can apply to the presentation of racism, be it extreme or subtle, especially when the writers are white and male.
A racist character does not have to say a racist word for the viewer to understand that they are racist.
The Duffer Brothers have clearly taken note of their season one criticism and I commend them for acknowledging the experiences of young people of color in season two. Lucas aside, Kali was another brilliant addition to the cast who showed strength and intelligence, and wasn’t defined by her ethnic background. Interestingly, it seems that one of the only perks of growing up in captivity together is that neither Eleven or Kali were exposed to the racial prejudices of the day and were taught to live like sisters despite their physical differences. When they meet up again, the sisters treat each other as though they are siblings by blood which is heartwarming to see.
So, while season one ignored any form of racial discourse, season two has opened up conversations covering both tension and harmony. Here’s hoping Stranger Things season three provides an even more diverse narrative that even more of its fans can relate to.