I have participated in numerous discussions about the themes presented in The Help since reading the book in 2009 and seeing the movie two weeks ago. All of the discussions have been engaging. Over lunch, I have discussed with co-workers, the pain experienced by black women raising white children during the day and struggling to raise their own children at night. I've listened to commentaries on NPR about how Hollywood sanitized the fear experienced by blacks during that period of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. I have added my comments to Facebook discussions about the value of "one more story where white people come in and save black people." Clearly, the themes of the book are controversial and it is doing what a good book does -- sparks conversation. An even better book sparks conversation that leads to insights and new ways of knowing. I believe The Help could be in the "better book" category if women across racial lines choose to have meaningful conversations about how the themes of The Help are still present today.
Not surprisingly (at least to me), I have heard white women state that they did not realize it was that bad for black maids during that time. I have listened to some of my white women friends discuss the book and the movie as "a good story," absent the emotional intensity I experience when my black women friends discuss "the story." Recently, when a white woman talked about how much she loved the movie and how hard it was during those times for blacks, I remarked that I was interested in discussing the ways in which the residuals of the "white woman employer/black maid relationship" live on today between black and white women. I must admit that she fell silent and looked at me as if I ate babies for breakfast. I tested the same comment out on a black woman and she went ballistic for about 20 minutes discussing a negative experience that had just happened with a white woman co-worker that day.
One of the responses to an NPR commentary stated that those who criticized the themes of the book failed to understand the deep bond that exists among women in the story and in real life. I guessed, with a high probability of certainty, that the respondent had to be white. There may be a deep bond among women, but it is sadly, deeply divided along racial lines.
The Help provides an opportunity to have meaningful conversations, across racial lines, about why the civil rights movement benefited white women more than any other group. It is an opportunity to discuss the concept of unconscious bias that white women so readily recognize and identify when it is exhibited by men, but fail to recognize when they exhibit the same behaviors toward black women. It is an opportunity to gain insights about why, when the experiences of women are referenced in the media, they are generally speaking about white women rendering black women experiences invisible. It is an opportunity to talk about how white women benefit professionally in male-dominated work environments and on leadership teams because white men are more comfortable with white women than black women, because white men have more experiences with white women as their mothers, wives, and daughters. As a result, white men can experience white women as individuals rather than as a group identity as they experience black women, all too often.
These are prickly topics that require the collective wisdom of white and black women, in conversation, to elevate understanding to another level beyond sharing stories to genuine bonding among black and white women. The Help offers us the chance to do that.
Follow Deborah Plummer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/diversitypro