Is “The Help” Racist?

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Along with the typical summer activities, my daughter, Casey, has had her nose in a good book for the last several weeks (just an aside, how great is it to see your kids enjoy reading?).

You’ve doutbless heard about The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s New York Times bestseller that rips the lid off genteel, 1960’s Mississippi society.  I’ll get my hands on it as soon as Casey’s done but in the meantime, I have to make do with periodic reports from her, which have all been in the vein of, “This is SUCH a good book!” So imagine my surprise when I started hearing some people question whether it is inadvertently racist.

At least some of the controversy stems from the fact that a white woman is writing in the voice and vernacular of Southern blacks and whether she could do that authentically. Of particular note is how the black characters routinely drop consonants from the ends of their words while the white characters don’t!

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And now of course there’s a big blockbuster movie in theaters, reigniting the debate. Many have taken issue with the core theme of the movie – a young white girl helping to ‘empower’ black women in the South. And then there’s anger that strong black actresses like Viola Davis are ‘reduced’ to playing maids in 2011.

For me this feels a bit like the big debate a few months back over Tom Sawyer’s classic Huck Finn  and the move to take out the N-word and replace it with “slave”. This may be an unpopular stance but let me stake out my territory right now. Taking a giant sharpie through classic works because they don’t jive with modern day sensibilities is crazy. Rewriting history doesn’t make any sense either. Race is a part of this country; remember that whole melting pot thing? And slavery, though not one of our nation’s more shining moments, also played a role.  But we’ll never move beyond that by sweeping it under the rug. The only real way to deal with an issue like slavery is well, by dealing with it. Getting it out in the open and talking about it is the way, not by hiding our heads in the sand.

That’s my take; I’d love to hear yours. Have you read The Help and if so, what were your impressions?  Did you think it was inadvertently racist? Will you see the movie and will you be comfortable taking your children to it? Let me hear ya!

Rene Syler is a wife, mother, breast cancer advocate and television personality whose burning desire to tell the truth about modern motherhood led her to create GoodEnoughMother.com. When not spending time with her family or burning something for dinner, Rene travels the country as host of Sweet Retreats on The Live Well Network and Exhale on Aspire.

26 Comments

  1. Amy Pitman

    August 10, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Renee, no the book was not racist. I loved the book and the characters. I grew up in the deep south and have deep respect for the maids in the book. Going to see the movie and would love to take anyone to see it. It is history…it happened…be we can learn for it not to happen again. Everyone should be treated equally. It makes you want to give the maids in the movie a great big hug!

  2. PiecesOfEight

    August 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Well, Rene I am white, i dont even tan, I just burn :(

    Anddddddd

    I cannot stand these types of stories!

    I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!

    What happened to the HUXTABLES!

    I am so sick of seeing the token black person in a tv show or movie! So sick of all the GANGSTA and SLAVE roles that they give black people.

    I live in Philly. I was raised seeing positive black families and role models around me.

    Can Hollywood please catch up to us?

    Can we please have a black DALLAS or DYNASTY?

  3. Smarty P. Jones

    August 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I had a half-hour rant on Twitter yesterday about this very thing. My timeline was full of my peers – young, professional black women – who were upset that the book and movie that is so celebrated has the story of domestic black workers – again. That it will be the same story of the white savior.

    I asked how many of them had read the book. None of them had, but insisted they didn’t have to read it to know how the story was going to turn out. So, maybe it’s just me, but I think you would need to read the book and/or see the movie before offering up a critique so you would at least know what the hell you are attempting to discuss.

    These folks claimed they were concerned over the images of black folks on screen to which I launched into a rant about constantly seeing black men in dresses on screen for a laugh and the degradation of ourselves on screen in the form of “hood” movies and music videos.

    All of that was to say that it is both stupid and unfair to hold white authors and filmmakers accountable when we aren’t doing the same for the black authors and filmmakers. It is also to say that it is ignorant as all hell to offer up commentary of a book you’ve not read or a movie you’ve not seen.

    I read the book. It was a damn good story and not what I expected at all. I was in no rush to see the movie because Hollywood has a way of bastardizing a good book to make it appeal to a broader audience.

    I don’t think this book is racist at all. It was written in dialect and yes, even a white woman can write in dialect. The thing that pisses me off is some of my peers can walk around speaking in broken English but get pissed and cannot read it when it’s written.

    Black women working as maids for white families is a part of our history. It always will be no matter how hard we try to will it away. A point I made to a friend earlier today is unless we own the company, we are in a position of servitude. We are employees and we will have to humble ourselves before our employers. During that time frame, the employers happened to be white people.

    Some of my peers kill me majoring in the minor. Cry and river, build a bridge and get over it. Those folks made sacrifices so we wouldn’t have to, so how dare we have this faux rage?

    I didn’t even want to see this movie, but now I feel I have to out of obligation.

  4. PiecesOfEight

    August 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    The thing that burned me up was all the Oscar Buzz for EMMA STONE!!!!!

    What about the others?

    Oh and all the promos its getting on QVC!!!!!!!!

    Ive gotta go meditate or something Im way too angry today

  5. m.e. johnson

    August 10, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Rene and Shorty, you’ve said it well. Oh, and there’s already talk of an Oscar for Viola Davis.

  6. Janet

    August 10, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I agree with Smarty. I was kind of all set to hate the book but I really did enjoy it. In the book, the “white lady savior” idea is addressed. It seemed to be racist only in the sense that it was trying to capture life in a racist time in our history. I’m not sure if the movie will do as good of a job conveying what the various characters think and feal or the fear and passion they all have in sharing the stories.

  7. kt moxie

    August 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Ok. I also read the book (my book club friends raved about it, and said it was a MUST). I have a few thoughts…

    On dialect … a white author is allowed write in dialect. It’s fine. It’s not racist. ’nuff said there.

    On the story… I was honestly underwhelmed. It was good, but not great. I kept waiting for something really “big” to happen, but it’s really just a bunch of southern ladies gabbing and gossiping for an entire book. And it ends without really letting you know what will happen to a few key characters (i.e. — the maids!)

    On the author… after I finished the book, my husband asked me what I thought. I said I thought the author had a black maid who raised her (turns out I was right). And she felt really bad about the way her family treated the maid. And she loved that maid like her own mother. And she hoped the maid loved her back, but she never really knew what her maid thought or felt about her. So, she wrote a book! All just speculation, but what do you think? A little psychoanalysis of the author?

    In the end, I doubt that the black characters are very accurate portayals, but I think the author did the best she could. She can only write from the experience and perspective she has.

    Should Hollywood have made this movie? Well, we are all talking about it, so there’s your answer. But I doubt I need to see it.

  8. JillieBFree

    August 10, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    I am white. I am Black. I am Hispanic. I hate labels. That being said, there are parts of history that have affected segments of our humanity over the other. To take a sharpie and try to cross out or sugar coat parts of our history doesn’t mean that crazy didn’t exist.

    I agree with Smarty. The Help was a damn good book. I never thought about the color of the author. I thought about the authenticity of the book. I didn’t think about whether these women had a white “savior” – but that they had someone – ANYone to encourage them out the box world was keeping them in. And it spoke to me not just of black domestics, but anyone under oppression – The FDLS women who desparately need a voice. Victims of war, poverty, violence who don’t have a voice. Until these groups are given a voice – until the ugliness is seen and dealt with – they will be victims forever. With a voice they become courageous survivors.

    Questions as to whether “this” or “that” is racist makes me sad. I would so like to believe that we’ve risen above – that we’ve come around the bend . I long for a time when we will not see each other as an ethnic group, but by personage. that we will not be chucked in with the rest of our “nationality” but seen as the individual people we are.
    Is that impossible?

    As for the movie – I don’t want to see it either.

  9. Cee

    August 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Rene, I highly recommend the audio book. The actors (especially Octavia Spencer) make the story come alive. I’ve seen the movie (it’s good) and Viola Davis is worthy of all the accolades she will be receiving. This movie could not have been done justice with people who did not respect and understand Mississippi culture.

    As for the content of the movie–I don’t care what kind of movie it is, if there’s no story or well- developed characters in it, I’m not wasting my money to see it. If the writing moves beyond the stereotype and doesn’t insult me, I will go see it with an open mind.

  10. Chantelle {fat mum slim}

    August 10, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I watched this film on Saturday whilst visiting the US from Australia. Having known a little about the history of slaves in America, but being in Australia and not knowing lots of details about it, I was really uncomfortable and saddened by the stories.

    Through the movie I did think it would have been nice to have been narrated by one of the ‘slaves’ because it’s their story.

  11. Joy Haddocks James

    August 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I did check the book out at local public library about 2 weeks ago. But after reading the inside jacket I got on the computer to find out who author was. After finding out author was A caucasion and based on topic I returned book to library without even reading a page. Why? I personally felt that if this writer wanted to write a book about her personal life experience as a young woman growing up in Mississippi in the 60’s she should have told the story from her own personal perspective. To try and tell story from her maids perspective, I felt would be superficial.
    I also decided not to see the movie. Let Black people (domestics, etc) tell their own stories. By the way Black domestics ran the gamut from (educated and refine to uneducated).
    Also Black people love to criticize Whites for making programs about Black life. Get out there and make your own movies/programs such as “Having our Say the Delaney Sisters” and STOP using excuses that you don’t have the resources.

    Ms Joy H James

  12. DawnKA

    August 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I haven’t read the book but I can’t wait to see the movie. It looks like a really fun movie. In fact, I have heard movie critics and some talk show hosts give rave reviews with Oscar buzz for several of the cast members. What’s the fuss all about? Were there not maids in that time and era who worked for white people? Why fuss about the dialect or that it was written by a white woman? Is she not allowed to interpret the observations of her world? In fact, there are still maids/nannies/ au pairs today from all races with all kinds of dialects who happen to work for white people. Thank goodness we can also see that today there are people of all races in a wide variety of professions – dialects and all. It’s a movie and I can’t wait to see it :-)

  13. Lynda V

    August 10, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    I read it and loved it and when it ended, felt sad that I was going to miss my friends and not know what happens to them next. If you read the author’s comments at the end, she raises these very questions – can she speak authentically (I think the white man who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha can speak to that), who is she to empower them, etc. But the context is key: the context IS that of the disempowered black community of the South. The book DOES make references to empowerment from within the black community itself, and gives plenty of well deserved credit there. But this one avenue, publishing, wasn’t open to those leaders. In fact, at the end of the book, the empowerment goes in the other direction – from the black maids to the purportedly privileged white woman. The very difficulties that are expressed here mirror the author’s own thoughts about the complexity between “the Help” and the women they work for. That’s why it can’t be fit into any category.

  14. Lynda V

    August 10, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    That said, yes, JaJa Binx was absolutely racist.

  15. BalancingJane

    August 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    My concern isn’t over the author’s ethos to write this book. Authors constantly try to view things from alternate perspectives in their work, and I feel doing so (and reading them do it) has the potential to enrich the conversations we have about tough issues–like race and racism.

    My concern is over the specific types of stories about race that get such critical, mainstream acclaim. Stories like Precious, the Blind Side, etc. suggest that there is a very specific set of requirements for a movie dealing with race, and anything outside of that mold isn’t going to get that level of attention.

    I think Smarty hit the nail on the head when she said “I was in no rush to see the movie because Hollywood has a way of bastardizing a good book to make it appeal to a broader audience.”

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I do worry (and have seen support for this worry in the reviews I’ve read) that this script was chosen for its ability to be boiled down into the preferred narrative about race, one that too often simplifies a complex issue and leaves white people feeling all warm and fuzzy about their enlightened perspective.

  16. kbrosenberg

    August 10, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Wonderful book, wonderfully written. I find your comparison to the editing of Huck Finn totally irrelevant. Love, the hope for tolerance and development of the Civil Rights movement are running themes throughout the story. Being a racist novel never entered our minds – because the story reflects historical relationships between blacks and whites? Absolutely not. Not for kids, but teens and adults could learn a lot by seeing it.

  17. SoCalGal

    August 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Some of these same people who are decrying the portrayal by black actresses as maids in this movie howl with laughter at the shit Tyler Perry puts out all too often. When his movies come out, the battle cry is, “Hey, at least he’s putting black folk to work!” Last time I checked, Viola Davis is a black actress and she is working in this movie.

    Additionally, why does this movie have to be considered racist because it’s showing black women as maids in the 60s, you know, when many black women in the South were maids? As for black people telling their own stories, who’s saying they can’t do that?

  18. Aliasnic

    August 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Read it, saw the movie, loved it. As a History teacher, I see it as a part of the American story being spotlighted to the world. I suggest that everyone should either read the book or see the movie for themselves before formulating an opinion. Also, if interested, please check out my my review of the movie at http://nicsjustsayin.blogspot.com/.

  19. Siditty

    August 15, 2011 at 8:58 am

    I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t plan to, not because it’s racist, but because this whole scenario of Mississippi is racist and white women can bond with their black domestic servants thing has been done before. I hate the argument that because SOME black people watch BET or watch Tyler Perry movies (I do not), it’s ok for white people to continue to produce this kind of crap to appeal to white people and that black people have the options to tell their own stories. The fact of the matter is, black people do tell their own stories, but unless those stories are about living in the hood or as a maid in the 1960s, it won’t appeal to whites or to most of mainstream America, and it gets the attention of very few people, usually people who have to seek out these stories, because most people don’t care about these stories.

  20. karen young

    August 20, 2011 at 5:48 am

    I read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly.
    I am black and saw the movie with a white female friend. I enjoyed the movie and I would take my children to see it.

  21. T

    August 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    you’re pathetic. get the hell over it. it’s an amazing story and YOU are the one who is racist.

  22. Rene Syler

    August 22, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    @T: Um, you are proving the EXACT point I was making, which is this doesn’t go away by NOT talking about it. But listen, thank you for your insightful commentary.

  23. Justice Fergie

    August 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Agree. My review here: http://mamalaw.com/2009/11/help/

  24. msdormel

    August 23, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Um… I wanted to see it at first. But then I remembered my own recent experiences. I was a nanny for several years – ’90’s to early ’00. Not much has changed in some households even now. I won’t see the movie or read the book because no one could ever tell my story or one like it.
    To me, the thought of such is offensive. She should have told her story. Oh- and the media attention.. like one of the news mags did a special on it… getting back in touch with “the maid” who raised you… WHAT!!?? So, you mean to tell me… it was the MOVIE that inspired you to suddenly search for the woman you SAY you loved to tears…? With internet and people finders and public phone books and such…? You had to write a letter to a television station, HOPE you get picked, buy clothes cause you know you finna be on TV…. just to say you been waiting 20+ years to say I love you? WHAT THE HECK EVER!!!!
    And I agree with what Balancing Jane said about Hollywood. Cause in the end, the white girl wins on the backs of black people.
    She could have told a white girl story. (yes, I was being sarcastic..) I guess “T” is gonna call me racist too!

  25. Tim

    August 25, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Only in an America this messed up would anyone possibly think this movie is racist against BLACKS.

    While attending this movie I noticed that the audience was an equal mixture of whites and blacks, and both groups howled with equal delight as the white characters in the film were ritually humiliated and degraded. I wondered to myself what the response would have been if a white character had made feces pie and served it to an unwitting, credulous black character? Somehow, I think the audience response would have been different.

    White Americans have now incorporated self-hatred, induced by the entertainment industry to such an extent that they can be predictably relied upon to cheer at depictions of their own downfall and degradation.

  26. John

    October 30, 2011 at 7:23 am

    The reactions to this film have been as predictable as day following night. Broadly speaking white people like it (Oh its the best movie, and funny, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and black people curse under their breath “not another DAMN mammy film again”.

    Lets be clear, simply liking a film does not make you a racist. BUT, fawning over it and saying its the best movie you have seen, funny, witty etc and FAILING to notice the repetition of the same old tired stereotypes and themes DOES suggest that you are perhaps too “comfortable” (and thus not challenging enough) of those images and the status quo.

    That unfortunately DOES make you complicit in maintaining the veneer of living in a “post racial” world despite the glaring inequalities (if you care to look) that still exist.

    Its been done … nothing new here. A movie purportedly about racism afflicting an oppressed community, but actually about the experience of the affluent white person defending that community. “To Kill a Mocking bird”, “Cry Freedom.” “Mississippi Burning.”, “The blind Side” the list goes on …

    To see why white people tend to like these films see these links:

    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/warmly-embrace-racist-novel-to-kill.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/07/force-non-white-students-to-read-great.html
    http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/2010/05/rewrite-us-history-so-that-white-people.html

    You will find a few eye openers there that may help take off the blinkers most of us have on, when we choose to fail to see what is happening around us.

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