No Stranger Thing Than White Supremacy
The racism is coming from inside the house
In 1923, Indiana was home to the largest branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the country: almost a third of all white men in the state called themselves members. The New York Times wrote that Easterners were “surprised” by the KKK’s popularity in a state “which seemed of all our forty-eight the least imperiled by any kind of menace.” As someone born and raised in Indiana, I’ve always been interested in coastal fantasies of Indiana as a place where nothing happens except the corn growing yellow under a blue sky. It is thinking that explains why, almost a hundred years later, the show Stranger Things is set in 1980s Hawkins, a fictional Indiana town. The purpose of Indiana in this show – and in shows like Parks & Recreation and The Middle – is to be “everywhere,” but also be nowhere, really. It functions basically as a synecdoche for “America,” or, more accurately, for an idea of America that isn’t the one anyone working in television lives in.
Metropolitan delusions of wholesomeness aside, Indiana is, like many states, a place where bad things happen (for example, launching the political career of vice-president-elect Mike Pence). In the early 1920s, the KKK in Indiana and several other states was led by a charismatic, blue-eyed white supremacist named D.C. Stephenson. He had undue political influence on Indiana’s governor, famously boasting, “I am the law in Indiana.” In March of 1925, Stephenson abducted and raped a 29-year-old woman named Madge Oberholtzer. “[He] bit my neck and face, chewing my tongue, chewed my breasts until they bled, my back, my legs, my ankles and mutilated me all over my body,” Oberholtzer testified as she died from those wounds. The public furor around the trial is credited for a nationwide drop-off of KKK members; in Indiana membership fell from around half a million to only (only?) four thousand.
Stranger Things does not present a recognizable version of Indiana (it was filmed in Georgia) or even a verisimilitude of Indiana as much as an exercise in explaining why The Middle and Parks & Rec take place in the Hoosier State: it is the place where nothing happens – the ideal location for a post-9/11 feel-good comedy – and therefore the place where the worst possible things happen, not least for the simple fact of their happening. It’s not a geographical and historical fact as much as an idea of normalcy, a heterotopic place that attempts to avoid the question of what America is, now, by showing what America was, then – or what America has fooled itself into thinking it was.
The hokey Midwestern nostalgia of Stranger Things occurs in both a geographical and temporal heartland – far from ocean and “culture,” before cell phones or internet – which makes its sudden inversion from neon colors and fuzzy lighting into a cold, dark world with a monster in it explicitly ideological. Because all of a sudden we’re not in Indiana-as-no-place anymore: we’re in Indiana-as-somewhere – else. And if Indiana is a place without consequence, its opposite is the most consequential thing of all. Just as aliens began appearing in science fiction movies during the Red Scare because Americans were afraid not of space invaders, but of communists, Stranger Things plumbs what we’re actually afraid of, what’s lurking just out of the reach of our waking brains: the knowledge – hidden, or ignored, by white Americans, for too long – that we live in a racist hellscape, where murderous, vicious acts of cruelty are committed over, and over, and over again, with our unwitting approval, even at our unspoken request. It’s the knowledge that white supremacy shapes every single thing we do, from the schools we attend to the water we drink; that this country was built for murderous slavers by the people they enslaved before murdering, and that these power dynamics persist today; that this racism built our houses and shaped the neighborhoods our houses are in. And we didn’t realize – almost triumphant was our failure to realize – it was there, lurking in the background of our photos, next to our in-ground swimming pools, lighting our lamps. Like Will, now, we’re trapped, all of a sudden, in a lightless realm that looks a lot like home but is full of blood and suffering induced by the vicious, hateful, faceless whitish thing that lives there. The racism is coming from inside the house.
It’s almost a cop-out, these days, to call racism “systemic” or “institutional”; the impersonal jargon masks the appalling and all-too-human consequences of the racist systems and institutions that gave it the name. There is, however, a subliminal insidiousness, a facelessness to the contemporary manifestations of this endemic racism, which is why white people are always insisting it doesn’t actually exist (betraying how little they understand what “systemic” means). Average white racists don’t really understand the ways bigotry has shaped their thinking: they’re not in the KKK, they’ve never said the n-word, they even have a black friend. The truth is, as white people everywhere are having to articulate to themselves, is that we are racist in our cores, by virtue of who we are and where we live and what we own and what it means to us that things stay that way. And we’re sick to our stomachs, and we’re terrified, not least because we recognize the atrocity hidden beneath our having lived so well and so happily this way for so long.
Though I doubt intentionally, the shadow realm the characters in Stranger Things call “the Upside Down” presents an almost perfect metaphor for mainstream American racism within its nostalgic setting: there is a parallel universe, a literal dark side, existing concurrently with this one, even complementarily to it, and there lives a hideous, sinewy, bloodthirsty, scrabbling thing there, which is going to eat us alive. The facelessness of the white monster even evokes the representative image of this country’s racist past: men clad all in white, pointed white hoods instead of faces, two black holes instead of eyes. Onscreen and off, the horror Hoosiers (as a stand-in for white Americans) don’t realize they’re dealing with is the fact that, vicious monster or no, active chapter of the KKK or no, Indiana/America is already a place where people are killed virtually indiscriminately by something none of them are willing to admit exists.
Madge Oberholtzer’s dying testimony begins, “I, Madge Oberholtzer, being in full possession of my mental faculties and conscious that I am about to die, make as my dying declaration the following statements” and then details her abduction and rape. She notes that she begged both Stephenson and one of his henchmen to shoot her, but at some point, she says, her thinking changed: “I wanted to kill myself then in Stephenson’s presence,” she explains. She had not only been abducted and raped, she’d been bitten so violently chunks of her flesh were missing (some accounts of the assault say Stephenson “partially cannibalized” Oberholtzer). Her suicidal intent here is borne of desperation, but also of a kind of righteous vengeance. Her ability to take her own life was her only way to wrest control of it back from Stephenson. Suicide must have seemed a reaction matched exactly to the depravity of Stephenson’s crime, a reclamation of her most basic human agency. She wanted him to see it.
Eleven, too, chooses a witnessed death. Witnessed not only by the monster that wants to kill her – who the witnessing undoes – but by the boys who have fed, clothed, and kissed her. Like Madge, Eleven has found herself, to her surprise, the object of male desire. She’s been kissed, she’s been deemed lovable, and she’s going to be taken to a dance on the arm of her pursuer. But neither Madge nor Eleven is a character in a romance: each woman, real and fictional, tells – as we all do – a story that’s mostly about power: who has it, and who doesn’t, and what happens when the one confronts the other. Both Madge and Eleven are women pursued by a man. Both Madge and Eleven find themselves forced to stand in front of a screeching white chasm of violence and be seen, straight on, by the thing they face. Both Madge and Eleven confront the terror, and the rest of us (the horrified Hoosiers then, the spellbound Netflix watchers now) watch the confrontation, seeing them see it and then seeing them cease to be. In their disembodiment, they disembody the horror they face.
It is only when confronted by these women that the terror truly and fully reveals itself, and the act of that revelation is its undoing: the monster literally screeching its head off as Eleven disintegrates; the KKK dwindling after Oberholtzer’s death revealed Stephenson’s evil. For what makes white women so precious is exactly what makes the thing drawn to them so horrible; neither could exist without the other. What happens to these women is so terrifying because they are white, and white women are supposed to be protected from rape and pain and fear and death by the men who often end up perpetrating it upon them: Oberholtzer’s story encapsulates this all too well, and in Stranger Things, it is Eleven’s captor/tormentor/father-figure, Dr. Brenner, who releases the monster in the first place. White womanhood both endangers and protects Madge and Eleven (and a myriad of Law & Order: SVU protagonists), because it makes them visible, universally so. When something happens to them, people (that is: men) notice, in large part because they’ve already been watching.
The social order that fetishizes the innocent, vulnerable white woman is the social order that condemns the dangerous, criminal black man: two sides of a white supremacist coin.
The crazed dialectic between acts of racist terrorism and hysterical protectiveness of white women – or, more accurately, of white women’s bodies – is the history of America. Patriarchal control protects what it has decided it owns: this is the pathology of rape, in which men believe they are entitled to women’s bodies, simply because they’re women. It’s this social order that criminalizes blackness and idealizes whiteness, white women above all; it’s this system that lets Eleven fly undetected under teachers’ and adults’ radar, once she puts on a dress; it’s this system where rape is worse, for Madge, than death; it’s this system where the rape of a white woman is more horrifying than the lynchings of black men, and it is this system which looks the other way as black people are killed, daily, by white supremacist agents of state-sponsored terror.
It is only in television shows that white women can really fix anything (and even then, there’s always season two). In reality, of course, white women are no one’s savior. The world that expects the good, innocent white woman to fix it is already broken, and the white women who live there are built on that brokenness, living happily within white supremacy. Take, for example, the fact that Oberholtzer worked as Stephenson’s aide for months before he attacked her, knowing full well he was a “Grand Dragon” in the KKK and even helping him write a book for use in Indiana public schools, or the fact that the majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It’s Trump’s America, now, which proves it has always been. Since at least 1610, America has been a country prosperous white men made for other prosperous white men. The idea that white women can save us is a fantasy that even television can’t sustain: Eleven may have vanquished the monster (for now), but Will is in the bathroom coughing up a dread leech, and on these United States, the KKK is back, baby, and they have the president’s ear. It’s tempting to think that a white woman president would have revealed to us a better world than the one we’re currently facing, but we don’t know that’s true: Hillary, also, was imperfect, as all white women are, and complicit in maintaining white supremacy, as all white women are. A world a white woman could fix is a world where what it means to be white, and be a woman, would be fundamentally altered. This is, of course, to be hoped for.
In the end, Oberholtzer decided not to shoot herself but to take mercury bichloride in order to save her mother “from disgrace.” She purchased the poison when she told Stephenson’s chauffeur that she needed to go the drugstore and get rouge. (Mercury bichloride was sold as a treatment for syphilis at the time.) If Madge hadn’t chosen poison – if she’d died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while in Stephenson’s clutches – she would not have been carried, a few days later, back to her parents’ house, to die on her bed surrounded by family and doctors. There may never have been a public trial, in which Stephenson was found guilty of second-degree murder, and the white Hoosiers who were both exactly the kind of good Americans who have earned Indiana its TV-friendly reputation and who simultaneously constituted the country’s largest branch of the KKK may never have been forced to look at themselves, and at the sinister, murderous thing they had rallied behind. They may never have seen it for what it was.
After serving eighteen years of his sentence and being paroled, D.C. Stephenson disappeared until he was found in Minneapolis in 1950 – the city where I now live. Who knows why he came here, but he found safe harbor with the very Minnesotans who insist that Minnesota is part of “the North,” and not the Midwest, who are always telling me Indiana is in the South. I explain Indiana was above the Mason-Dixon line; they tell me I have a southern drawl. I assuredly do not – I just don’t pronounce bag with a long a, or say “you betcha.” (Kashana Cauley, in an essay for Catapult, explained just how racist linguists have found that accent is.) It’s not that Minnesotans are wrong to call Indiana “the South” – it’s certainly south of them, and it’s certainly haunted by exactly the ghastly, undying, nightmarish racism that people think about when they think about the South – but the insistence on that distinction lets us overlook the truth of this country’s racist past, which is that it’s also our present. In July, after a police officer named Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile, Minnesota was forced to admit the truth: things are bad up here, too. And that’s true everywhere, anywhere there’s a white person who didn’t know, or refused to admit, that they’ve been living in this kind of nightmare, that it’s been living in them. Whatever Indiana means for America, America already means for itself. There is no such thing as north or south: only the upside and the down.