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.