Do we need ‘racist’ works like The Help?

The (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) quote goes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And I suppose I do a fair amount of misbehaving here at The Sin City Siren when it comes to prochoice, feminist conversations. So, today I’m going to stretch myself a bit. I doubt very much I will make history for this (or any) post, but maybe it will be just the right amount of misbehaving to start a healthy dialogue on a very important topic: Race.

I rarely write about race. And why is that? Well, it’s one of those impolite conversations, up there with religion and politics. But, I write about politics all the time. And I’ve been known to talk a little about the flying spaghetti monster and its cousins from time to time. Why do I eschew talking about race? Well, in case you don’t know me, or have never seen me before, I am about as pasty white as they come. My ancestry is Polish, German, English, and Irish — or European mutt. (There’s an unverified rumor that I’m also an eighth Cherokee, but that is probably just an urban legend. And probably fodder for a whole different post on race in America.) And somehow, even though most of the other members of my family have enough pigment to tan, that gene completely skipped me. The best I can do is freckle. And, of course, burn redder than a lobster in a pot. Considering I live in the desert, where there’s approximately 350 days of uninterrupted sunshine a year, it’s a bit problematic but nothing that a sun hat and some strong sunscreen can’t get me through.

So, like all good progressive white people, I avoid talking about race because I feel that I am not allowed to talk about race (with the “safe” exception of denouncing it every chance I get). The narrative goes that by being born white, I’m implicit in a system of racism that dates back — probably since the world began. I’m guilty by association of ancestors I don’t even know about. And, of course, the biggest reason most whites don’t talk about race: I don’t want to be called a racist. I don’t want to accidentally say something racist. I don’t want to perpetuate white privilege (which is really a crap situation because while it is totally unfair that I have it, I can’t opt out of it either).

Another reason I avoid talking about race is that I often feel like I can’t speak from a place of credibility, because I’m white. But lately, I’m thinking that is actually a form of racism in and of itself. Treating “white” as a race without credibility in the discussion of racism and race problems, is like saying that white is not a race. And, as any good progressive knows, believing that whites are “neutral” (or even worse) not a race at all, is the backbone of institutionalized racism and white privilege. Indeed, I am a race, just like everyone is. And my race effects how I move through the world. How I see myself. How I’m seen. How I’m treated. All that stuff. I would argue that framing the discussion in a way that makes it impossible for whites to participate is, in fact, a kind of racism.

So, what got me thinking about all this? Well, the movie The Help. Or rather, all the race critiques I’ve seen about the movie The Help. The Ms. blog, Colorlines, and more are going after the movie and hard. Before I say anything else, let me be clear about one point: I have not seen The Help. I have not read The Help. And this is neither a critique nor a defense of either product. I have absolutely NO first-hand knowledge of either. This post is not about The Help. This post is about the conversation.

And I find the conversation to be quite interesting, and telling. For all I know, author Kathryn Stockett is a closet racist. The critiques certainly condemn her for whitewashing history and creating a fictitious world with no authenticity when it comes to the black characters in her book/film. If she is a racist, or her work is, then that is not something I could ever support. And, in fact, I would willingly condemn.

The question in my mind is not so much about Stockett specifically, but in the greater dialogue about what is okay for whites to talk about and create (in fiction). As a writer (and I write a lot more than just blog posts, including creative fiction), I find this part of the conversation the most compelling. In fiction, what is “okay” when it comes to race?

Hell if I know the answer! Let’s try to work it out together.

As far as I can tell from media reports and critiques, the failing of Stockett’s book (and subsequent Hollywood movie) is that she failed to create an authentic world when it came to the fiction of The Help. Let’s just take Hollywood out of the equation from the start. They rarely produce authentic stories…  So, the book was — yet again — a telling of race relations in the mid-century South by a white person from the white person’s perspective and with white people in central roles. (Again, I haven’t read it/seen it, so if I’m wrong about this, let me know. But for conversation’s sake, let’s go with this premise.) And this is not a singular experience in fiction.

But it makes me wonder: When is it okay for white people to write about race? Which fictitious worlds are okay?

Of course, there are obvious works that are right out. Fiction that out-right poses a racist view of the world — for instance, openly suggesting that black people are inferior to white people — is obviously wrong. But what I’m talking about are works of fiction that make Best Of literature lists and are even considered classics. (And I am not suggesting being a “classic” exempts it from criticisms of race, sexism or anything else.) What about works we can almost all agree are good? Is To Kill A Mockingbird racist because it is told from the perspective a white girl, rather than the black man on trial (and written by a white woman)? Or, let’s think about the converse: Is Alice Walker racist because she writes about white people in her books? Is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart a more authentic creation of fiction set in Africa than The Poisonwood  Bible by Barbara Kingsolver?

The bigger question raised for me, during all this discussion about The Help, is: When is it okay for a person to write about experiences outside their own lived experience. When is it okay for a man to write from the woman’s perspective (which I will argue can and has been done very well)? When is it okay for me, a white woman, to write black characters or Hispanic characters or lesbian characters or HIV-positive characters, into my work? If we want writers to present worlds that are more integrated and have more diversity in race, gender, sexuality and all the cornucopia of the world — then how do we liberate them to do that?

I don’t know exactly what the answer to all that is. But one thing I would posit is that in order to get the so-called “good” fiction we crave — that challenges us, moves the flag forward, and represents positive change — we may have to suffer through a few “well-intentioned” but, um, less-than-perfect fictional pieces, like The Help. What is that old phrase? You have to break a few eggs to make a cake? So, maybe for every A Raisin in the Sun, we have to deal with a The Help. Is this ideal? No. Is this life? Yes.

And let me also offer this humble opinion before I let go of this post: Sometimes you have to meet people where they are.

Yes, it would be ideal if we could have discussions about race on the fictional level of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Winter in the Blood, and The Joy Luck Club. It would be great if the fictional worlds that writers created showed the ideal circumstances and that when racism cropped up, it was to illustrate how it is wrong and how we should move forward from it. That would be an awesome literary and pop cultural world. Or would it? We don’t just live in a diverse country in terms of race. We live in a diverse country in terms of education level. And even in terms of what constitutes entertainment. Some people can happily get lost in a museum, while others would rather saw their leg off to escape. We need the low-brow, less-than-perfect examples, too. I can’t stand George Lopez’s comedy (apparently, I’m not the only one) but I can’t deny that his late-night talk show was ground-breaking in terms of showing a Latino in that venue. Star Trek offered the first televised kiss between people of different races. Sometimes it’s precisely because something is the lowest-common-denominator that it breaks the ground. And let’s face it, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. “White privilege” and “institutionalized racism” are big concepts. You can’t just start there. You have to work up to it. Is that fair? No. Is it frustrating. Yes. But it is part of the journey.

What do you think? Did you read or see The Help (or any other book or movie that is relevant to the discussion)? Do you think it’s racist? Not racist? Let me know!

7 thoughts on “Do we need ‘racist’ works like The Help?

  1. I believe The Help is kind of racist, why, because as someone who is interested in creative writing, I’ve been told several times that on no account that when I create black character must they have issues with the white characters. In other words, a black character must not be angry or aggressive with a white character.

    Just a side issue to further illustrate my point, Yvvette Edwards, nominated Booker prize for her novel A cupboard full of coats, was asked by her publisher why weren’t there any white characters in her novel. I don’t believe too many white authors are asked why are there no black characters in the work. But you have a white author who has created ‘Minny’ who has an attitude. So ‘racism’ fits the crime perfectly!

  2. I found this essay when googling for more information about The Help, because I came across mention of the movie being racist and wanted more information.

    Disclaimer: I am white, and I haven’t seen the movie or read the book. But I have a few thoughts on things you have mentioned here.

    First, the concept that the controversy over TH is essentially saying that white people can’t write books about black people. That’s a strawman argument, really. Nobody is saying that. Literally, no one is going to stop you from writing and publishing work even if it’s racist. But you are going to have to deal with criticism, no matter how well you write it. There is ALWAYS going to be someone that doesn’t like your book.

    The thing is, if you’re a white person writing about POC, you have to have some awareness of racial issues. From what I’ve read, the issue people are taking is that this book/movie falls into the category of yet another movie about a white person being the hero for POC. And while it may not be as overtly racist as white people are taught to think of racism, it still comes from racist views, same as how the plethora of stories where women have to be rescued by a man come from sexism.

    The problem is not that we have to suffer through “less-than-perfect” stories in order to get to the good stuff, as you put it. The problem is that these stories are the overwhelming norm. The problem is that so few step outside of it. I was just watching a video linked elsewhere from African filmmaker Haile Gerima who stated that in film and fiction, there needs to be a white character to sanction POC and legitimatize them. And I thought about it, and it’s very true. How many movies have you seen where there are no white characters whatsoever as part of the main cast? I can’t think of any, and even one or two would not make a difference here, because they’d still be the exception.

    Honestly, stories like TH would be less of an issue if they were not so pervasive, if it was not so rare to find something that didn’t fall into this category. But they are, and until they AREN’T the norm, they’re going to come under heavy criticism, deservedly so. You could argue that it’s not fair that any single work is going to get the backlash of being one of a million stories like it, but life isn’t fair, and frankly, these are issues that need to be talked about until something DOES change. Sticking our heads in the sand will not change anything, and these individual stories are still representative of the overarching problem.

    Arguing that people are trying to keep privileged people from writing about underprivileged groups is missing the point. Nobody is trying to do that. People are trying to say, check your privilege, and be aware of what you’re writing. And frankly, I don’t think any harm can come of that.

  3. Haven’t read the book or watched the movie…but Salon had an interesting article on this. It was more from the perspective that white people in these novels are always the plucky heroes who are saving black people, overcoming on their behalf. Which is really the opposite in most cases of the Jim Crow south. Black people fought and fought hard for their rights. There were white people who fought along with them. But to constantly cast them as the saviors is, if not racist, certainly revisionist.

  4. I read the book AND watched the movie AND grew up in the South AND rode a bus upon which I was one of 3 white kids (because of where I lived) and was delivered to my 45/55 (w/POC) high school in rural NC. I’m not saying racial issues don’t still exist. Heck, I’m not even saying that things get better. In the afterword to her book, Stockett writes that the story came out of her own mixed emotions around being raised by a black maid and the complex dynamics of that relationship. To say that it wasn’t complex on many levels is to deny many people’s lived experience. Is this a poor quality work that’s furthering the conversation? No. I think the book is a good work of which people are missing the great conversational potential. How can we achieve racial equality? What does that mean? How can we speak truthfully about the realities of segregation, the Civil Rights movement, ERA and where we have fallen short on seeing the dream, through? In our book clubs and movie groups, do we look around and see diversity or homogeny? Why is that? I think the questions about the opportunities for WOC actresses are totally fair. I also think it’s worth wondering why this movie had 9 producers of one kind or another and only one was a woman. After she was listed, there wasn’t another female name until costumer designer. Really?

    To say that POC can’t write about whites and vice versa implies that there are no cross cultural relationships in our own lives. If there aren’t, why not? If there are, is there really NEVER tension? Are there never misunderstandings?

    If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, the white woman could seem somewhat deus ex machina, but it’s not that simple. Kind of like race relations. And, true story, it took many, many black Americans to stand up against the institutionalized injustices of this country. But they weren’t alone. And there WAS division among black Americans, just as there was among whites.

    To say that until we get everything worked out, everyone should hold their own is essentially to say that the theme for books and movies needs to be “segregation now”. I think the message of the civil rights era tells us that “segregation now” easily becomes (in people’s minds) “segregation forever”, until somebody stands up (or sits down, as the case may be).

  5. The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.

    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.

    That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.

    Its been done … nothing new here. A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on …

    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:

    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

  6. Pingback: The Help: Pondering the intersection of white culture and race relations « The Sin City Siren

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