A quick note before we start. I write this from a position of relative privilege. I am a white, straight, cis-gendered, female, from a middle-class background. With this in mind I do not presume to think I understand what it is like to live as a person of BAME background. I do however know that as well as issues with policing and crime people of BAME backgrounds face inequalities in health, education, employment, housing, and poverty, and this is not even addressing more overtly racist experiences. I’m going to leave a link at the bottom of this post to a website which lists lots of ways that you can help with inequalities and the issues facing those from BAME backgrounds.
In my previous post I noted that ‘The Help’ is currently one of amazon’s kindle deals, but that it’s problematic to read as a way to better understand black experiences. I wanted to expand on it a bit here.
First off ‘The Help’ is written by a white women, who herself had a black maid growing up. Whilst she does write from the perspective of a white woman (a journalist writing about black women) it does seem that there is a suggestion of real understanding, an understanding which nobody could fully get without the experiences surrounding it. There is also the way the white woman is contrasted with the overtly racist white women in the community. This has the effect of pointing fingers at them as the ‘bad’ people.
So is that wrong? It still points at the experiences of black maids, even if it is through someone else’s voice. Well, maybe. At the time the book is set it would have been much easier for a white journalist to publish than for a black journalist, so in that sense the story works.
The thing is though Kathryn Stockett is writing more recently. Having black voices speaking for themselves is more common, but through giving her white protagonist a role as ‘saviour’ she also gives that role to herself. The story now doesn’t have to be told like this, except as a way for a white person to explain why they are telling it, when a black author could do just as good (or probably even a better) job whilst being more authentic.
There are other issues too. Kathryn Stockett was sued with claims that she had stolen the story of a maid who had worked for her family. Whilst the claim was ultimately dismissed it was because it the statute of limitation, which means it could still be true. If indeed it is this maid’s story surely it is hers to tell?
When it comes to the film Viola Davis (who paid Aibileen) has said that she regrets doing the role because she didn’t feel it really showed the black voices. Whilst this doesn’t directly speak of the book, it could reflect a problem with the book too.
Then there’s that Stockett is making money from an issue which isn’t hers. Is it really right for her to make money from this? Or is it exploitative?
I’m not going to say don’t read the book. I won’t even say for sure that it has no value, because I am not in the position where I feel I know if it does have any truth for black maids, but part of the problem is that, is Stockett able to know how much, if any, of her writing reflects reality.
I’m also not going to recommend alternative books, because again I don’t have the experiences to know if they are actually helpful. Although I would say that books by BAME authors are more likely to have an authentic voice.
You can also donate through watching youtube! Lots of pages have set up videos where they are donating ad revenues to various BAME charities and causes. You can leave them just running in the background, just make sure you don’t skip the ads! Here are just a few