One area which is frequently bypassed in race and gender studies is the way discrimination is exercised within groups. Popular culture often portrays the oppression of blacks by whites as a male phenomenon, and even though men are undoubtedly the motors of racism in many, if not most, instances, to think of women as passive bystanders is as mistaken as considering them only capable of emotional facilities.
This taboo was broken by The Help, a novel by Kathryn Stockett (Amy Einhorn 2009) recently released as film under the same title (directed by Tate Taylor). The result is definitely worth reading and seeing.
Jackson Mississippi, which provides the setting for the story, is well-known for its Deep South culture of white honor which made it one of the most reactionary states during the period of the civil rights movement. This is also the time when the events narrated by the book take place.
A young white woman, Skeeter, returns from college and gets a job as a columnist at the local newspaper. Sensitized by the civil rights movement, and missing the maid who raised her, and who has recently been fired by her mother and is now dead, she decides to write a book about black domestic workers. Her publisher, who lives in New York, likes the idea but insists she gets first-hand testimonials from as many as twelve, preferably fourteen, women. Aibileen and Minny are the first to dare talk—many more follow after the arrest of one of them for stealing. As Skeeter, then Aibileen, take down notes and write protocols, we follow the lives of all three: the failed attempts of Skeeter to get herself a husband who fits her mother’s expectations; Minny’s adventures with her employers, among which, Hilly, who only accepts invitations to those households where black maids are not allowed to use the restrooms; and Aibileen’s gradual awakening to self-determination.
At centre stage all along: the bizarreness of bigotry and its comical nonsensical character. The majority of the white women in the book have no problem to have their children raised by black maids, indeed they could not manage otherwise as they are unable to care for them, both materially and emotionally. Yet what they do care about—a lot—is whether or not to allow their maids to use their toilet or eat at the family table.
There are, perhaps, worse racist attitudes—which is also why the book has drawn some criticism as not adequately portraying the extent of discrimination against black domestic workers, which often includes physical and sexual abuse. Yet it is also important not to underestimate the strength of weaker, everyday, forms of bigotry.
The main reason why racism has persisted for so long—and is still with us today—has less to do with its extreme forms. Extremism rather feeds on the slow and low-burning everyday racism made up of weird beliefs and stingy attitudes.
The Help relates that in a funny and endearing manner.