When White People Become ‘The Help’ (Starr King, #BlackLivesMatter, and “Selma”

In the Arts & Leisure section of yesterday’s NYTimes, Manohla Dargio wrote something that is probably going to get passed over by many, if not most:

What is the more important political issue raised, for instance, by a movie like “Selma”? That this historically informed fiction takes liberties with its representation of Lyndon B. Johnson or that it’s one of those rare American studio releases in which black characters are the agents of their own destinies? The shock of “Selma,” as the critic Wesley Morris recognized in his review, is that this is a movie in which “Johnson’s not only the president of the United States here. He’s also the help.” It’s hard not to think that at least some of the attacks on this movie stem from the fact that it’s a black female filmmaker who turned that white president into the help.

This post is about flipping the script. But in order to do that, we must confront some thing that America doesn’t really want to recognize.

For most of American history, black women have been forced to play the role of Mammie to white people’s Miss Scarlett. Black women are supposed to take care of white people; as for years we cooked food, cleaned houses, and wet-nursed children. Black women are supposed to patch up white people’s emotional boo-boos (“You’s special. You’s loved.” Isn’t that the line from ‘The Help’?).

Yet what is going on in the situations of Starr King, #BlackLivesMatter, and “Selma”, is that black women aren’t doing that. And in all three cases none of the black women involved are apologizing for that fact.

There seems to be a lot of white anxiety when they are not the focus/main driver of the story. In other words, white people don’t like being “the help.”

So here’s the question…..what will make white people less anxious about their condition?


3 thoughts on “When White People Become ‘The Help’ (Starr King, #BlackLivesMatter, and “Selma”

  1. What I saw in the Starr King report didn’t seem to me to depend on race or gender in particular, but challenge to authority in general. And, you know, what will make white people do whatever is just as useful a question as what will make black people do something.

    • I think it’s an excellent question. Of course you can’t answer it entirely literally, because white people aren’t all alike. But it’s good to flip the script and talk about what white people need to do instead of what black people need to do. For example, the white man in the White House had to get real and sign some bills that were going to piss off a few million other white people, or else he was going to be part of the problem.

      I’m afraid the answer that comes to mind is agonizingly slow, when it’s been so long coming already, but speaking only for myself: I let go of the privileges of whiteness to the extent that I hear (read, watch, etc.) the stories of other people. Hollywood’s way behind publishers in that regard; people of color have been putting their stories into marvelous prose for many generations, so there’s no excuse not to read them and absorb a reality in which people like me aren’t the center of the story and may, at best, be the help.

  2. Pingback: Turning toward spring, nostalgia for inequality, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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