The Help: Pondering the intersection of white culture and race relations

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” Martin Luther King, Jr., from Strength to Love.

Today is  Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I am thinking about race, white privilege, and this quote. A lot.

I blame The Help for putting a seed in my mind that I just can’t shake. Perhaps it is because it is everywhere I look these days — winning awards at the Golden Globes and so on. And even though I thought I had said everything on my mind on the issue back in August, I decided that to really shake this thing out I would have to bite the bullet and read the book and watch the movie.

Last night The Help‘s Octavia Spencer won a Golden Globe for her role as Minny. In her acceptance speech she lifted up the dignity of domestic workers saying:

With regard to domestics in this country, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: All labor that uplifts dignity in this country is worthwhile.

Well, speaking as a former maid and nanny, I appreciate that quite a lot. Starting in high school — to help my single mother pay the rent — I cleaned houses all the way through college. And then as I put myself through school, I supplemented my income more by becoming a nanny, working for the State of Oregon’s foster care system taking care of abused children. Then, when I got out of school, I worked as a preschool teacher until I could find a job as a reporter.

So, I know some things about taking care of other people’s homes and other people’s kids. In fact, I know something about taking care of kids who are not the same race as me, too. And I know how complex the relationship between employer/employee can be when you are also the one washing their underwear and teaching their child how to use a toilet (I potty-trained at least five kids before I finished college). I know what it’s like when someone else’s kids call you “Mommy” and when you are the only person in their day who tells them they are special. I know something about being “the help.”

But after reading The Help and watching the movie, I’m still wondering about all those messy claims of racism and white privilege that have been thrown around about both products. After seeing for myself, I have to admit that I can both understand where these criticisms are coming from and at the same time wonder if we’re being a little too hard on a, let’s face it, work of pop fiction. Because frankly, my biggest problem with this book is that it’s a mediocre read-it-on-a-plane kind of a book. It’s not terrible. It’s just not great. And I can’t help wondering if part of the problem with The Help is that author Kathryn Stockett is just a bit of a lazy writer, relying too heavily on stereotypes and tired tropes rather than taking the time to flesh out complex, nuanced, and more authentic characters.

But this is not to say that The Help does not have problems. The critiques of The Help (in either form) seem to boil down to these main points:

  1. A story about black women written by a white woman who has no credibility to be writing about black women’s experiences
  2. That the black women in the book/film are portrayed in stereotypical roles (Ex: the doting “Mamie” figure; the “uppity” strong black woman, etc.)
  3. This story encapsulates the entire black civil rights movement as won because well-intentioned white people intervened — or otherwise rescued — those being oppressed (See: Mississippi Burning, et al)

When it comes to the first critique on the list, I think I’ve already stated my case about such things. But to re-cap from my August post:

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.

Regarding the second point, which is an entirely valid and well-supported point: It’s not ideal that Stockett chose to write about race relations in the fashion she did. But that doesn’t change the fact that what Stockett describes did actually happen to some white people in the South. And some white people (I think particularly of a certain age) may resonate with what is described in the book. It may also make the subject matter a more easy pill to swallow for people who are living with blinders on concerning race. I’m not saying this is the best way or even the most authentic way to discuss or describe the experiences talked about in the book, but it’s not wholly different from what some people may have experienced.

When I was in college I had a professor who said, “Literature always reflects the culture from which it is produced.” I will not defend Stockett’s writing as particularly insightful in terms of race relations and I would even agree that there are many instances in the book that were ill-advised or, at the very least, relied far too heavily on racial stereotypes to get a point across. But what I did take away from it was definitely a white woman from the South’s perspective on having grown up with black domestic workers in her home. And as a white woman who grew up in Wasilla, Alaska, that is an experience I know nothing about — from either side of that coin. After all, just because I’m white doesn’t mean I know how every white person experiences race in our society… any more than one black person can define what it means to be black in America. Now, is understanding only the white side of that coin enough to get a complete look at the incredibly complex and complicated world of the Jim Crow era in the South during the civil rights movement? Not even a little bit.

So are we really expecting one book to give the full scope and nuance from every perspective? And… Is illuminating even one side of that dynamic still helpful in the discussion?

Look, this is pop fiction. This is in the same league as Eat, Pray, Love (in my opinion), and that book had about as much to do with the experience of the average white woman in America as The Help probably does for many black women. Taking a year off to fly all over the world and do whatever I want without any worry about money or responsibility? If that’s what being white is, I have misplaced my membership card. But there are a lot of people who really love Eat, Pray, Love (I admit, I liked it). But in all honesty, EPL was derivative and only insightful if you hadn’t already considered those concepts (and there were some race critiques of EPL, too). I think it’s the same with The Help. I’m not saying that pop literature should get a free pass to be racist, or even to be complete crap, but why is it so hard to believe that people can have transcendent or meaningful experiences with pop fiction? So there are people leaving the theater in tears after watching The Help. Why is that a bad thing if it means that someone has finally understood a little more about racism in America? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison blows my mind. But every time I lend out my copy of Song of Solomon it gets returned to me half-read. Great literature is not accessible to everyone. I don’t think The Help is racist. I think it’s lowest-common-denominator.

As for the myth of the white hero: This is a ridiculous and offensive story-telling device. But it was not my take-away from The Help at all. I did not see the Skeeter character (aka the white girl) as a hero. She was not a villain, in the sense that the other white women were, clearly. But Skeeter was absolutely an archetypical character of the naive white person in a racist world. She was, to use Dr. King’s words, sincerely ignorant… to a fault. To me she was just as much of a stereotype as the black characters. The way I read the story, Skeeter stole Aibeleen’s son’s idea for a book. But she was also just a conduit for them to tell their stories. Skeeter didn’t offer any insight to the black characters and, in fact, sometimes I wondered if she even learned anything from some of the stories she heard. She didn’t even have the sense to see how much danger she was in and how much danger she was putting others in! And she didn’t do anything heroic in the sense that she never put herself on the line to ensure equality or justice for any of the black characters. Even in her own home regarding the Constantine character, she really only had a childish argument with her mom about the situation. She never turned that into something that made a real change in their domestic life or even in the town of Jackson (with the exception of taking the heat for writing the book). She didn’t even put her name on the book! Frankly, I thought the Skeeter character was completely annoying and cloying.

Of course, what’s offensive about the white hero narrative is how it reduces the efforts of hundreds of blacks who worked and fought — and in some cases gave their lives — for equality and civil rights by only telling stories with a perspective about the helpful white person who made it all possible. That’s total bullshit. With that in mind, however, let’s not discount the few brave white people who did work to help that fight. And I don’t say this just as a white person who wants to only think about the good white people and not the racist ones. Even here in Las Vegas, we have the few whites who helped the Westside Mothers shut down The Strip to fight for welfare rights. Did the white women swoop in and save the day? Absolutely not! But were they part of the fight, part of the work, and helpful in dismantling the barriers of white privilege in those situations? Without question.

It always takes a handful of people from the privileged class to tip the balance for civil rights and equality. This was true of the women’s suffrage movement — in which women were beaten, imprisoned and even died for the cause. It still took some men passing a law to make it finally happen. And this is true of the current LGBT rights movement. While we do have some LGBT legislators, the majority are still heterosexual. And it takes the votes and actions of the heterosexual community, as the privileged class, to help make things right. I do not relish this fact. I do not like that oppressed people cannot always do it alone. It is a much more valiant and interesting story when oppressed people liberate themselves for themselves — without the master’s tools.

I do not claim to understand what it is like to be a person of color in America. And the dynamics surrounding being in the privileged class compared to that of the oppressed class are a lot different. By its very nature, that system is predicated on the oppressed class having to understand the rules of their station as well as that of the privileged group. And conversely, part of privilege is never having to ask what it’s like from another perspective. But I keep wondering about today, about now. If we are all truly serious about furthering the discussion about race, indeed, about oppression in all forms (the second-class status of women to men, the heteronormativity of our society, the struggles of people living outside the gender lines…) then one of the things we have to get serious about is actually listening to each other.

So there’s another mediocre book that doesn’t do much to further the conversation. So there’s another cookie-cutter Hollywood movie. So what?

The better question is: Are we letting out sincere ignorance of each other get in the way of real dialogue and real change?

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2 thoughts on “The Help: Pondering the intersection of white culture and race relations

  1. Pingback: Relativity: Once upon a nanny « THE TIRED FEMINIST

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