As I walked into the movie theater, I thought: I shouldn’t have come without a black friend.
I quickly brushed it off – the gathering happened quickly, the white women with me were good friends. Good people, dedicated to the idea of racial unity. It wasn’t that I intentionally excluded anyone black, I just wasn’t intentional about including anyone black.
I glanced around the room. Groups of white women, groups of black women. Not one group had both.
It was the opening night of The Help.
I settled into my seat, ate some popcorn, checked my twitter feed one last time. I noticed a link posted by Sarah Orsborn which led to a movie review titled: The Help: A feel-good movie for white people.
I clicked the link to save it and read it later.
A couple of hours later, after crying through a good fourth of the movie, I thought: I don’t know what that review is talking about. I sure as heck don’t feel good. On the half-hour drive back from the theater, we talked about various parts of the movie. I was quiet. Sad. Irritated. Angry.
Because while many things are different between my world and the world of The Help, so many things are so very much the same.
The next day, I read the review. I finally got what I had been wanting: an African-American woman’s opinion on The Help.
Back when I read the book, I enjoyed it. The characters seemed rich and warm to me, and I got caught up in their stories and relationships. However, the whole time I read it, there was a small uneasiness, tucked away in that corner of my brain that is easily ignored. Maybe it was because so many people loved it, and told me I had to read it. Or maybe it was because every single one of those people were women, and white.
I couldn’t help but wonder – how does this book feel from a black point of view?
I looked around a little for such a review and didn’t find one. I also didn’t know one African-American who had read the book. So, I let it fade, and didn’t much think of it again until I walked into that theater last week, with my group of white friends.
The next day, I did really enjoy reading Valerie Boyd’s thoughts – seeing the film through her eyes. While I didn’t agree with everything she said, this statement stopped me cold:
Even today, it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for African-Americans to talk honestly with white people about race and racism — because, put simply, most white people can’t handle the truth.
After living my entire life in the South, where race issues are dodged, ignored, justified – it’s a refreshing shock to hear it said that clearly, like a glass of cold water thrown in your face.
I think she’s right.
When I was in Portland earlier this summer I ran into the cleaning crew in the hallway of my hotel. I stood there for a second, my brain trying to make all the connections. Something seemed off.
I realized the people cleaning my room were white.
Several years ago I went to a banquet for a teachers’ group. After sitting my purse under my chair, I went through the buffet line. Returning to my table, I found that a group of black women had settled there. Rather clumsily, I said um, we were sitting there. See, my purse is under that chair. One of the older women in the group said isn’t that always how it is. The white people come along and take whatever they want. They left, angry.
Just this week I listened as a smart, beautiful black woman talked about how she has clearly explained to her children that there are people in the world who will treat them differently, or simply not like them, just because of their skin color. This is a friend of mine – not someone who is trying to spread fear or hatred, but who is trying to help her kids realistically face the world they live in.
I live in that world too, only I’ve never had to have a conversation with my kids like that.
In that world, cleaning people are almost always black or Hispanic. White people still don’t like to talk about race too much. Maybe black people don’t either. We are afraid of people different from us, and we seek friends who look like us and think like us. We like to say we are colorblind, but for the most part, I think we would rather be blind to it all. It seems easier.
In fact, to try and do anything else seems depressingly hard. There are systems in place in our society – in my own life – that keep perpetuating all of this. I have a cleaning lady. She’s Hispanic. I love my cleaning lady; I feel guilty about her cleaning my house. My son plays on a soccer team that’s all white, and so is almost the entire neighborhood league. I love that he plays on a team with some of our good friends; I wonder about what I am teaching him about where to live and what friends to choose. My own brain still betrays me, revealing negativity and ignorance about people who are not white.
If I understand Valerie Boyd correctly, The Help is a feel-good movie for white people because we will find it all too easy to identify with Skeeter, the white heroine, and to distance ourselves from Hilly, the white villain. We could also conclude that in a time and place far removed from our present lives, white people were awful to black people.
That would be a shame.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved The Help. I loved it for the same reasons I enjoyed the book, but maybe even more so for the gift of the amazing performances given by the actresses involved. So many wonderful women on that screen. I hope you go see it.
But I hope as well, that it won’t make you ‘feel good.’ I hope that as you walk around your world, you will see, and that you will want change.