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Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Help - Conflict for an Ally


I've just seen the movie, The Help. I felt compelled to comment on it and raise some issues that are difficult for me to grasp in complete clarity.

If you have not seen the movie but plan to, don't read any further because I will be revealing plot points.

I am conflicted after watching the movie. It pulls at my white heartstrings and makes me feel sorry for the black maids who get trampled upon by the evil white women of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. It makes me cheer when the most evil of the white women gets her comeuppance.

But it also tried to make me feel that the Cicely Tyson character died of a broken heart because she had been brutishly thrown out of the white home in which she lived for 30 years. That was the “tell” in the movie for me that it was over-reaching. The movie kept sliding after that, trying to get me to see the whole struggle as a black-white, zero-sum game. Down with the evil white women, up with the courageous black maids. While those emotions ring true, it left no room for the more subtle points.

Cicely Tyson's character is thrown out because her daughter acted uppity in front of the DCR ladies, otherwise known as the upper class KKK. When our white protagonist, the ever-ernest Skeeter, discovers this and that the maid has since died, weeping can be heard in the theater. I don't know if they were white or black tears, but the tears are because we are buying into the fact that the maid died of a broken heart after being fired – forever separated from the white children she lovingly raised and the household she served. I did not weep. In fact, it made me mad. The maid had been kicked in the teeth after years of loyal service, in a job that was one of the few available to her and she bore that burden. She probably did come to love the children and had loyal, familiar feelings for the family. But let's not lose sight of how that came to be and what it represents. I felt like the movie went for the easy stuff and neglected the more difficult points.

The character, Abiline, is the only character that speaks truth to power at the very end of the movie. She realizes that now that she too has been dismissed by her white employer, she is in fact free to become what she wants to become.

Our protagonist, Skeeter the white writer, leaves Jackson for NYC to pursue her own career based on the success of her book of stories as told by black maids. As the credits rolled, I thought what would have happened if she had instead moved across the tracks and lived on the other side of town? Instead, she used the book as her stepping stone out of Mississippi and on to better things. In fact, the two main black maid characters implore her to do just that, even though Skeeter wants to stay behind to protect them. But we can watch her fly with a clear conscience because the black women have set her free. None of this sits well with me and I am conflicted greatly when putting this all into today's situations.

Through this movie I am questioning what makes an ally valuable. Was Skeeter an ally because she provided a vehicle to tell the maids' stories – yes. Because in Mississippi 1964, there was no other vehicle. What about today? I think what the conflict is showing me is that I cannot be presumptive and be supportive at the same time. I cannot castigate other white people in the name of black people and be authentic. I cannot assume that I have a complete, close, or authentic understanding of what it is to be other than white in our country, regardless of where I live or the experiences I have had. I know more and have a better understanding than most white people. I give myself that. But living here, experiencing what I experience, and empathizing as I do does not mean that I can speak on behalf of, in lieu of, or as a proxy for anyone but a white person, which is what I am. But as an ally, I have an obligation to speak from my authentic self and speak to other white persons about what we are doing, what harm we are causing, and what changes we must make in ourselves.

I don't need to be the great white translator for whites who won't ever listen to blacks, under any circumstance. And I feel like that is what I have been trying to do. Those intransigent white people won't listen to me either, but the other white allies or want-to-be allies can cheer me on. Just as the audience cheered on Skeeter today. Without Skeeter, this story never gets told. Without Skeeter, nothing changes. Without Skeeter, the black maids will never do more than have to hold their tongues and take the crap their white employer gives them. But that was Mississippi 1960s. What about today?

My fear is that there are very ernest young white people who will see this film and want to be a modern day Skeeter – championing the cause, opening a door, giving voice to the voiceless! Huzzah! And it just doesn't ring true. It's taking a short cut in this day and age. I see it in the young families that move to the East Side to “lead the way with love in their hearts.” They are missionaries who come with new ideas, technology, and a can-do spirit to help uplift the downtrodden by their example. They will build community where they see none and then invite the community to join them. I fear at times I am one of them. And I suddenly feel completely fraudulent. This may be my geographic community, but it is not my community of people. No matter how much affinity I have, I cannot speak from a point of view of actually being someone other than a white woman, because I am not. But I can speak from a point of view of humanity – that is something we all share.

So what am I to do with all my great ideas and interests to build opportunities in this community? Do I give up being right about what I know and what I believe I can do? If I know that lighting a match to gasoline will cause an explosion, I have an obligation to say that is so, in order to prevent someone from getting killed. But if I have a strategy that I think will work, do I have any real sense that is true, if my perspective is not authentic? No, I don't. I can offer it up as an option, but I cannot promote it on behalf of people who are not me, and I am not them. This is what it means to work in community.

Am I unnecessarily walking on egg-shells? Can we get beyond race-based strategies and leadership? If the city is broken, then we need the best solutions to fix it, regardless of who brings it forward. But how do I know it is the “best” if my judgment is affected by my own privilege? I cannot erase my privilege. I can recognize it, I can refuse it, and I can raise awareness of it in hopes of dampening its presence, reducing its power, and eliminating its position. But I alone cannot erase it – it's there.

I recognized very early in my career that it doesn't matter how much empathy, affinity, or love I carry with me – that because of the color of my skin I could be a victim, a privileged person, or absent from the issue. A bullet does not know my politics. A privilege does not get erased because of my politics. And my absence from the entire conflict is something only I as a white person can choose. I recognized that the only way I could make any personal progress on these fronts was to be in intentional community. It is the only way I could observe, learn, and participate first-hand in the world of social injustice and racism. It is the only way I can make a difference based on MY race. That is the subtlety that the movie misses completely.

It is authentic for me because I listen, learn, observe, and adjust my own attitudes – not just speak for the non-white people in my community. And I must be hyper-vigilant of what adjustments my attitude needs. I cannot be Skeeter, the great white hope. I cannot be the Doctor with all the answers. I cannot be the defiant white woman who pioneers a place in the urban core.

I have to be the privileged person whose attitude is always kept in check by the authenticity of my neighbors. It is my responsibility to recognize that. 

2 comments:

Sandie said...

You know, Skeeter finding out what her mom did to her nanny did not affect me that much. And it was fitting that Skeeter would think that the poor lady died of a broken heart - of COURSE she would feel that way, because Constantine (I think that was her name. . . ) was such a big part of her life - she raised her, she protected her from her parents, she fed her and bathed her and kissed her booboo's goodbye. She was an incredibly huge part of her life. For Constantine, I'm sure she loved Skeeter and her brother - she was a good woman who treated them kindly and helped to raise an independent, conscience girl - but it was her job. So, Skeeter learns that her mom did a despicable thing to someone that she really loved - and then she found out that she was dead, and she would never be able to fix it or to hug her or to apologize, or to even say goodbye. Skeeter's heart was broken, and she was young and naive, and still trying to figure out for herself where she fit in the whole equation. And she was angry and didn't want her mom to feel like she had gotten away with doing such a terrible thing.

As far as Skeeter goes, the character was not painted as much a hero in my eyes - but more as a bystander watching what was happening, not liking it, and wanting to do what she could to help. She was the strong, different one in her white, bourgeois crowd, she saw a wrong and thought she could right it - at least right it enough. She wasn't going to risk her safety, risk her future, or risk other people as well - but she did enough to help. What good would have come of her moving across the tracks? What change would have been made - other than making this story a much more violent one, and much shorter, and not very fun for a nervous movie goer to watch.

I cried a few times in this movie. Frustration fueled a lot of it - you want to stand up and yell at these women, you want to punch some people in the face, you want to steal these kids away from their moms. I think it made me feel authentic, human emotion - not just brought on by privilege or guilt, even though its true what you say - I can't know my feelings from any other perspective but a white woman's.

The evil, white women in this tale were as concocted and stereotypical as the strong, black help. But, these stories that came from these women - happened. And watching what's-her-face eat a pie full of poop made me smile as much as I did as I watched Voldemort flake away into dust. It was a movie - made from a book - that was written to be a story. Fantastical stories based in loose fact, that remind us that the problems we face today are rooted in problems of the past aren't bad just because they're not significant enough. Just as the things we do to try and make things better in our life and our world are not insignificant because they don't seem like enough, or sometimes we question our own motives or privilege.

Sometimes, all we can do is move to an unfamiliar community, or write a simple book. It might not make us a hero - but it means we're doing something.

Anonymous said...

Do you see me:

"But how do I know it is the “best” if my judgment is affected by my own privilege? I cannot erase my privilege. I can recognize it, I can refuse it, and I can raise awareness of it in hopes of dampening its presence, reducing its power, and eliminating its position."

THE JEWS HAVE TAUGHT YOU WELL. I THINK YOU HIT EVERY CLICHE THAT YOUR PUBLIC EDUCATION INDOCTRINATORS FORCED DOWN YOUR THROAT. WHITE PRIVILEGE...HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHAHA.

"I know more and have a better understanding than most white people"

NO, YOU DON'T, YOU ARE A WALKING CLICHE. YOU NEED TO STOP WATCHING RACHEL MADDOW. YOU ARE A SILLY LIBERAL FOOL.

And now for my favorite:
"But as an ally, I have an obligation to speak from my authentic self and speak to other white persons about what we are doing, what harm we are causing, and what changes we must make in ourselves."

IF YOU COULD PUT DOWN THAT CUP OF STARBUCKS FOR A MOMENT, COULD YOU TELL US EXACTLY WHAT "HARM" "WE" ARE CAUSING AND WHAT "CHANGES" WE MUST "MAKE IN OURSELVES." DO YOU MEAN YOU SHOULD BE MORE ACCEPTING OF THE FACT THAT YOUR DAUGHTER IS HAVING A TRAIN RUN ON HER BY A GANG OF 80 I.Q. GANG MEMBERS BECAUSE THE MTV JEWS TOLD HER THAT IT IS COOL? (Blacks carry more than 70% of all STDs in America and a white girl increases her chances of femicide by 1400% by dating a black man compared to her own race. Diversity is our strength.)

DO YOU MEAN MORE ACCEPTING OF THE FACT THAT OUR COUNTRY IS INTENTIONALLY BEING TURNED INTO A THIRD WORLD COUNTRY BY THE VERY SAME JEWS WHO ARE TELLING US HOW RACIST WE ARE EVERY DAY IN MOVIES LIKE "THE HELP."

SHOULD WE BE MORE ACCEPTING OF THE FACT THAT 12% OF THE POPULATION COMMITS MORE THAN 75% OF ALL VIOLENT CRIME, INCLUDING ROUGHLY 2/3 OF ALL MURDERS IN THE U.S. ACCORDING TO FBI STATS WHICH COUNT HISPANICS AS CAUCASIANS IN ORDER TO HELP SOFTEN THE REALITY OF BLACK CRIME.

SHOULD WE BE MORE ACCEPTING OF THE FACT THAT MOST BLACK CRIME IS INTERRACIAL CRIME DIRECTED AT WHITES AND IT IS MOTIVATED BY INTENSE RACIAL HATRED, NATURAL AGRESSIVENESS AND LOWER IQ? NO HATE CRIME CHARGES. EVER.

BLACK WHITE DIVISIONS AND THE "WHITE PRIVILEGE" YOU HAVE BEEN CONDITIONED TO BELIEVE IN ARE DISTRACTIONS. A MORE IMPORTANT, MORE RELEVANT DISCUSSION MAY BE HOW THE POOR, PERSECUTED CHOSEN ONES WHO PUT ALL THIS PC CRAP IN YOUR HEAD ARE NOT ONLY CREATING THE RACIAL DIVISIONS IN THIS COUNTRY BUT HOW THEY ARE ALSO ENGAGING IN ETHNIC CLEANSING IN THE MIDDLE EAST ON THE STRENGTH OF BASELESS CLAIMS ABOUT "ANOTHER" FUTURE "HOLOCAUST." PERHAPS YOU MIGHT DISCUSS HOW THE JEWS HAVE DESTROYED THE AMERICAN ECONOMY AND ARE STARTING WWIII RIGHT BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES; THAT WOULD BE A MORE EFFICIENT USE OF THAT BIG BRAIN OF YOURS.

SPARE me the reply, I'll make it for you: I am a racist, sexist, homophobic... yada yada yada bop diddelee boo fukk shitt pisss poo.

Gotta go, where is that damn white hood of mine..............