The issue of racism and racialization is an age-old conflict originating from the colonialization era that uses prejudice and discrimination as the justification for differential techniques of othering as inferior (Thobani, 2007). Although racism is perceived to not be predominant today, it is still a modern phenomenon that feeds off of its invisibility by inequalities and racial discriminations being overlooked by the false lens of multiculturalism (Nagra, January 17th, 2020). The film ‘The Help’ takes viewers into the lives of black maids amid the extreme racialized climate during America’s history just before the civil rights movement, analyzes the relationship between black and white characters through a critical race perspective. Through the extensive themes of the drawbacks of white privilege, intersectionality, does critical race perspective explain the divisions within American society overarching the theme of race.
The presence of white privilege is very noticeable throughout the period film ‘The Help’. White privilege is defined as “when all other (identity) factors are equal, whiteness matters and carries great advantage” (Wise, 2008) which is given inherent benefits to those of ‘white’ European descent (Nagra, February 28th, 2020). Although there are many factors within the theme of white privilege, this paper will look to examine the four drawbacks of white privilege through racial divisions illustrated throughout the movie.
The first drawback surrounds the idea of compartmentalizing a sense of entitlement (Nagra, February 28th, 2020). This sense of entitlement is given to those who are benefited by the racialized structures, the dominant white privileges within a society. This creates a privilege that skews the beholder’s worldviews and perceptions of reality overall creating an ignorant outcome. In the film, when Hilly introduces her “Home Health Sanitation Initiative” which is a “disease preventative bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help” (Columbus et al., 2011). Hilly feels the sense of white entitlement over her claim of ‘improved’ property laws as an excuse to contain the black race being inferior, but she is unaware of such an unconscious ideology due to her justification being correlated to ‘separate but equal’ mindset claiming how it is a situation for protecting white children from the ‘diseases’ that the black race carries (Columbus et al., 2011). Hilly’s passive belonging mentality where she feels entitled to the treatment towards minority groups to benefit the ‘superior’ race is a drawback given that it is skewing the realities towards narcissism through its lack of understanding of the effects of decision makings. This creates a crisis relationship between each member of society due to the tendencies of only receiving personal benefits skewing one towards feeding an egotistical psyche. Hilly, in turn, is unable to grow any form of character development and is so restricted by her vanity that she loses close relationships like Skeeter not associating with her and Hilly’s mother holding an unhealthy grudge from being sent away to a retirement home against her will (Columbus et al., 2011). In addition to her thinking, she’s protecting white children from the black community, ultimately showing her false sense of reality as the children in actuality need to be protected from her regurgitation of racist ideologies and degradation. Nothing can feasibly be done in an individualistic culture with no room to grow and strive for greater discoveries as they are theoretically blind to the realities of the world, letting hatred and narcissism to spread through ignorance.
The second drawback of white privilege is its inevitable perpetuation of racism. Through the idea of no matter one’s alignment with racialization and racism, one is always at risk of reproducing racism even if they are trying to resist it (Nagra, February 28th, 2020). This comes from the fact that western culture, society, and history originates through racialization and racism through colonialization that makes the ‘white’ race as superior and any other race as inferior (Nagra, February 28th, 2020), therefore members of such a society are inescapable towards acting on discrimination given their environment is built on it. Theoretically speaking, nature versus nurture perspective where one learns from the environment they grow up, where they unconsciously learn oppression and racism (Henry and Tator, 2006). In the film, inevitable racism from one’s environment is prominent with the relationship between the Skeeter’s mother Charlotte and their family maid Constantine during the time of her firing. Charlotte’s downfall is from her racialized environment when she had to choose between Constantine and her daughters of America council. Although Charlotte loves Constantine, Charlotte felt obligated to be distant to her when hosting the council and Constantine’s daughter acted unconventionally for a black woman when in the presence of the white superiority through talking back and disobeying commands (Columbus et al., 2011). Charlotte had to play the superior race role between the black community and the white community due to the racialized environment in the southern American state, resulting in the hostile firing of Constantine (Columbus et al., 2011). Even though Charlotte is forgiving and loving towards Constantine, she was unable to resist the perpetuation of racism towards her maid, even though before, their relationship between Charlotte and Constantine was one of love despite their racial differences. Overall explaining how no matter one’s affiliation, racial prejudice, discrimination, and oppression, is the hold on perpetuating racism is always a probability considering the hold colonization and culture have on individuals due to white privilege.
Thirdly, the drawback of white privilege of malleability to inferiority. Although systematically speaking in western culture and society, after colonization, being ‘white’ being considered as dominant and therefore superior, it is, in fact, not a static title and can change given certain situations surrounding objectification and sexualization (Nagra, February 28th, 2020). This is explained as when a race has been stripped of certain rights and alienated, they are unable to be labeled as a specific role since they are technically not human by nature. This creates an incapacity for a dehumanized individual to be perceived a certain way, given that if one recognizes otherwise, they fall into believing both races to be equal in a sense. When applied to the film, although it is not as prominent or obvious throughout the storyline, it does fully encompass the characterization of Celia when she is compared to the community of black maids. Cecelia shows this overt sexualization through the way she carries herself by being flirty towards men, the way she dresses in tight clothing that shows her curves giving her the appearance of a sex-appeal, and how the other white women in her community view her as a threat given the presumed past between her and Hilly’s ex-boyfriend, Johnny shows (Columbus et al., 2011). When compared with the help, who are, in fact, around the white women’s husbands more often than Celia as she is isolated from that community, are not thought of as being promiscuous or in any way, a sexual threat demonstrates a double standard thinking of how black women are superior to white women like Celia. This drawback creates a labeling for Celia, as being white pushes her alienation from the rest of her white community due to assumed factors about her sexuality, whereas if she were a black woman, would not be given the same treatment due to the racialized assumptions that white males would not objectify her the same way, thereby making Celia inferior due to her race. Overall, the ideology behind the white women being dependent upon their male counterparts creates stigmatization that results in unconscious assumptions towards white inferiority towards their objectification and sexualization.
The final drawback of white privilege is around the lacking preparation towards life’s difficulties and it in turn “breeding thin skin” (Nagra, February 28th, 2020). This drawback ties into the idea of narcissism, where they have no other means to learn apart from life experience and results in generational teachings of racism thereby not learning proper behavior that helps in understanding and evolving challenges and dilemmas everyone faces throughout their lives. An individual’s identity of the ‘white’ race skews their ability to adapt from social injustices that can be transferred to other inequalities that are inevitable in one’s existence. In the film, the character Hilly shows her lack of acting professional or proper in times when it is deemed necessary. Hilly’s conduct can be similar to a child’s response whenever she is told ‘no’, in comparison to the help’s response to being denied a form of basic human rights. When Hilly is constantly denied by Skeeter over putting her initiative in the newspaper, Hilly shows obvious irritability in facial expressions and being constantly aggressive to Skeeter when she shows hesitation or vagueness on following through with Hilly’s wishes to the point where she becomes very stern with Skeeter and demands it of her (Columbus et al., 2011). When compared to the character of Aibileen, where in situations of extreme rejection, acts level-headed and chooses to not take the high ground and acts-out over not having it her way. This is shown when Aibileen is kicked off the bus after the shooting of a black man by Ku Klux Klan (Columbus et al., 2011). Instead of resorting to extreme anger out of frustration towards the police officer, she calmly gets off the bus talking with her pastor then resorting to running home, showing absolute control over emotional stability, since the black community experiences oppression due to racialization discrimination, that this denial is not the worst life experience and is ‘manageable’. Overall showing the dynamic of differential learning from life’s struggles tied to the limitation of white privilege learnings of unrealistic social response that inherently teaches maturity in racialized minorities.
Throughout the movie, the characters Skeeter and Aibileen work closely together towards Skeeter’s anonymous novel from the perspective of black maids working for white families in the small, southern, and conservative town of Jacksonville (Columbus et al., 2011). Through their constant engagement and interactions with one and other, does it become noticeable of social barriers and identity-driven differences that skews their life experiences in different parallels. The concept of intersectionality perfectly represents this given phenomenon as refers to how individuals’ experiences of oppression or privilege is based on the numerous, not mutually exclusive identities acted out by the systems of power-relations within the structures of society (Nagra, January 28th, 2020), although it originated as a means to explain “the various ways in which race and gender interact to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experiences” (Crenshaw, 1991). Therefore, despite both characters sharing the identity of being women in a patriarchal society oppressed by gender, the addition of race changes learned experiences in day-to-day life. For instance, when Skeeter initially discusses her idea from the help’s perspective as a novel piece to Aibileen, Aibileen becomes noticeably scared and distraught over the idea. It is not until later, when Skeeter becomes more persistent with Aibileen, that their understanding of the matter is different. Skeeter is under the impression that Aibileen does not want to be interviewed because of anxiety, uncertainty, and apprehensiveness about her story being told. But what Skeeter is not aware of is the reality of what would happen to Aibileen as a black woman if she conversed with Skeeter on this subject. Aibileen explains how any form of social justice or equality that has ever been done around her life as a black woman has resulted in serious consequences, like her cousin whose car was set on fire solely for going to a voting station (Columbus et al., 2011). This would never happen to another white woman as it is seen to be normal and status quo for white women to be doing tasks like discussing politics or conversing on controversial matters, but for a black woman, it is seen as a threat. Another instance of understanding intersectionality between Skeeter and Aibileen is through Aibileen’s quote “You not knowing, that’s what scaring me the most. Scares me more than Jim Crow” (Columbus et al., 2011). Skeeter, as being Caucasian could never actually understand the full range of emotion that is provoked under the systematic barrier of Jim Crow laws since they do not directly affect her or negatively affect her, only the lives of African Americans. It is not until Skeeter does some research on why Aibileen was so frightened by the idea that Skeeter fully understands the social and political limitations minorities experience daily by reading the Mississippi’s Laws Governing the Conduct of Non-White and Other Minorities pamphlet (Columbus et al., 2011). She learns the intersectional lens and understands why the two working together is so dangerous as it is indeed punishable by law, therefore having to be extra careful. This learning curb, in turn, is an explanation of the importance of intersectionality as it “helps understand the complexity behind how people experience discrimination” (Nagra, January 28th, 2020). From that point on, Skeeter takes every advice from Aibileen, such as getting dropped off two blocks away from Aibileen’s house and staying covered to not be noticed when conducting the interviews at her house, since she is now aware of Aibileen’s point of view and instinct over the matter of racialization in America (Columbus et al., 2011). Overall, showing the intersecting identity of race, no matter if one shares any other identities to the other, skews perceived daily norms and how one conducts themselves, and how just being aware of situations of racialization can change the dynamic between understanding the social constructions behind intersectionality.
From the Hollywood depiction of race relations between the black and white communities in America during the 1960s, beginning of the civil rights movement, the use of dynamic characterization differences due to racialization perfectly encompass the circumstances explained by the critical race perspective. In exploring the various themes with the drawbacks of white privilege and defining intersectionality, the critical race perspective demonstrates the impacts of colonialism in its shaping of modern society. Overall informing the establishment of conformity and deviance is a direct correlation of racism and racial motivation towards perceived inferiority.