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Commentary: 'The Help' can make things worse

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2011 - "The Help" enjoyed a successful second-place showing at the box office this weekend. A-list actors appear in the movie. There is a villain to dislike and a young courageous woman who defied law and common customs of the time. "The Help," however, is not a portrayal or a movement for racial equity or humanity.

The movie, based on Kathryn Stockett's novel, reveals sexist and racialized themes that bear critical analysis. More important, a potential racialized harm may come simply by reading the book or watching the movie. A platform this innocuous and far-reaching alarms me.

Skeeter's Hair - Liberation and Resistance.

Note the visual message that is created around Skeeter, the main character and seemingly the hero. Not only is her hair a different color, it is also curly, not straight like the other women. This signifies the "otherness" some whites may feel when advocating for people of color. It may also signify her liberal spirit and resistance to institutionalized sexism and racism. Or it may signify the distancing or alienation that other whites may fear if they do advocate for people of color.

She is educated and unmarried. This metaphorically highlights present day fears some teenagers and women have of being too smart and not pretty enough, thus reducing their chances for marriage or a stable relationship. There is a makeover in the movie that transforms her image for her to "get a man." He, of course, cannot stay with her because she is too liberal and head strong.

Interest Convergence

Although intended to be the hero, Skeeter's character depicts an iconic (or near perfect) personification of Derrick Bell's "interest convergence" theory: White people will advocate or support the movement around racial justice only if there is a benefit to them, the WIFM (What's In It for Me) syndrome. If there is no benefit to the majority or the white person, then there is no longer an interest. (Source: Brophy 2008).

Let's be clear: Skeeter uses these black maids and endangers their lives to obtain a big job in New York, a job that, without these women's stories, may never be hers. This follows the white privilege shown when she landed her first job, which she is clearly not qualified for but gets anyway. She then uses the maids to answer the home cleaning questions she is being paid to write about for the local newspaper.

The Silent Racist

Often there is a character that is portrayed as racist or bad white person. In this case, the character is Hilly. She normalizes the institutionalized racist attitudes of everyone else, including Skeeter and her family. In the South and in the Midwest, it is common then and now to refer to people who work in your home as "yours." As if now these people of color "belong" to you and your family. Hilly isn't the only villain in the movie; all the white women who are silent about the racialized harm being inflicted upon these women of color are also racist.

From the 1620s to the 1860s, African slaves were forced to work in the homes of white owners. When slavery was abolished, domestic work largely became "black women's work" until waves of female immigrants flooded into the United States looking for employment. According to a 2006 survey by Domestic Workers United, 95 percent of domestic workers in New York state are people of color, 93 percent are women and 99 percent are foreign-born. However, 77 percent of their employers are white (Source: Domestic Workers Demand Fair Labor Laws, Lee, 4/25/08)

Racism Then and Now

Domestic workers are still fighting for equal pay, benefits and treatment. "The Help" isn't a cute movie about the past. Racism is alive and well in the United States, and domestic workers or "the help" still feel the impact of systemic exclusion from fair labor laws and equity.

The movie begins and ends with a black maid telling a white child in Ebonics that she "is smart, is kind and is important." It is wonderful how black people have been so loving to white children and families despite unfair treatment. However, at what point do we as a community of black and white people say no more? No more movies or images portraying whites as good and the saviors or voices of blacks. If there hadn't been the Jim Crow laws that in many ways still exist, black women could have inherited their own land, written their own stories, supported their sons and daughter in other professions outside of domestic labor and been hired by the big and important New York book editor.

Whites and blacks alike should see the deeper implications in "The Help." What the movie didn't adequately portray is that black people didn't have a choice but to do domestic work. They and their families were invisible human beings and were helped only when it helped the white person who ultimately benefitted more. "The Help" is a great opportunity for greater racial dialogue.

Amy Hunter is director of Racial Justice for YWCA Metro St. Louis, which is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. For more information, visit www.ywcastlouis.org 

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