Disclaimer: Any statement in quotes was taken from confidential conversations, comments, Facebook posts, etc.
The Help’s movie release last week launched hundreds of reviews and thousands of opinions: some in favor of the movie and many more completely disgusted by it. Those who have simply interpreted the movie and the book as solid pieces of entertainment, err on the side of Kathryn Stockett’s defense that she was only looking to tell a good story, not raise a debate on racial politics and history. There are a few things happening that make this narrative outside The Help almost as problematic as the movie (and book) itself.
People have a right to be upset, disappointed, angry, hurt, annoyed, and anything else their mind, body, and soul allows them to feel regarding The Help. Simply because something gets labeled as entertainment or done in the spirit devoid of ill intent does not mean everyone has to accept it as such. If there’s one lesson we all should know, talking about any kind of interracial relationship or interaction, especially under tense circumstances brought on by 1962 (or 2011) Jackson, Mississippi, will cause people to do a double take and push pause.
Naturally, criticism is rooted in opinion, based on one’s own experiences and perceptions, therefore “right” or “wrong” are irrelevant. A person’s experience, which then fuels their opinion, cannot be dismissed as or admonished for fallacy or an overreaction. We owe that person their right to tell their story in the same way Stockett has been allowed to give hers. To tell, or even suggest that, a person, especially someone representative of a larger group that has consistently been ridiculed to silence or thrown into isolating niche markets when they have attempted to tell their story, that they should not be offended by The Help or any other movie that falls into a similar category, is negligent in a movement towards experiential validation, which allows for conversations about race to happen. To see Stockett as inherently innocent and right, and thus has the right to appropriate other people’s experiences and capitalize off them, without any recourse or accountability is a function of an inherently white supremacist ideology (something that we all fall victim to, not just white folks) and capitalism. Simply because someone can write a book about a particular subject does not mean that person is excused from others feeling negatively about their actions, especially when the person in question developed a narrative that is rooted in her greater hierarchal position than the maid who made her feel “pretty” as a girl.
As optimists (and the delusional) attempt to push us further into post-racialism America, further supported by the presidency of Barack Obama and Eminem being crowned the “King of Hip Hop,” there has been a growing shift to congratulate and admire white people who simply recognize that racial prejudices exist. I’m not speaking of the people who are deeply invested in anti-racist work or consciously engaged in an anti-racist, decolonized thought process, but the white folks who just know bad things happen sometimes to Black and brown people, and perhaps it made them uncomfortable when their white counterparts said something racist that one time. People cannot simply say the word “Black” and get hailed as progressive, courageous, or worthy of admiration. That does nothing for raising the collective American consciousness on race, racism, and racialized people’s experiences. It’s like taking a Little League team who lost the game to Dairy Queen so everyone feels like a winner. To reward people under the false sense of their own importance doesn’t do anyone any good, especially the people who have to live in a racialized body everyday of their lives and face larger society’s racial prejudices, both the real and the perceived.
For all of the people who’ve come out to speak of their own intimate, personal relationships to The Help to be faced with responses like “it was her first book […] the reactions here seem fairly harsh for the woman’s first shot at a novel;” or “I still don’t get why people not only do not like but are downright insulted by The Help” leads me to believe that larger, more mainstream audiences, across the race spectrum, are more comfortable digesting the supposed narratives of Black (brown, yellow, red) folks if the storyteller comes in a Kathryn Stockett package-white and wealthy. In a bittersweet sort of way, Kathryn Stockett’s success and fame has sparked a much-needed dialogue about the true historical nature of relationships between Black and white southern women. Not to take away from Stockett’s experiences and her history, credence really should be given to the men and women who experienced that violent, oppressive underbelly of Black domestic work in the South (and elsewhere).
So much can be learned from simply listening; NPR has made a business out of it and iTunes has thousands of podcasts based on that very simple principle. We should be able to listen to Black women talk about their mothers working as maids and what The Help means or doesn’t mean to them and not mistake that for “this is why we can’t talk about race!” There are tons of Black and brown people who have removed themselves and their experiences from the “race issue.” I don’t know how they’ve done it, but congratulations to them. For many other Black folks, however, the race issue is not simply an issue; it’s our everyday lives and existence. If white liberals and progressives, or any other person, are truly looking to support racial equality and build racial awareness and solidarity, they have to let people be pissed off by a “book club of the month” approach to dissecting racial prejudice and discrimination. It’s not enough for the cause to simply feel good that you could in 2008.