What if your white voice can(t?) help? (Ruminations on The Help, by Kathryn Stockett)

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, has not escaped controversy of the “can a white person write about black experience” variety.  This “who can write what” question has plagued literary study as well as the popular imagination for a long time. I remember all the talk regarding the white female professor who specialized in African-American literature when I was doing my M.A.

As suggested here, I think it’s absurd to suggest writers can only write about their own experiences or from the point of their own social positioning. However, all this is complicated by the fact that white voices (especially white male voices) have been privileged in literary (and other) worlds. We must be wary that our privileged voices don’t drown out or silence those also trying to speak.

In the case of Stockett’s novel, I found it to be a beautifully written, page-turning narrative that, at its core, intends to break down the privilege/oppression web. Yes, she is a white woman, but does this mean she cannot write fiction aimed at eradicating racism and employ black characters to do so?

She has been criticized for the dialects she uses for some of her black characters. For example, Erin Aubry Kaplan, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?” While the “linguistic quirks” of white characters didn’t play a huge role in the narrative, I felt the novel portrayed a number of “white quirks” that revealed how whiteness is constructed and maintained not only via language, but via dress codes, social activities, schooling, and storytelling.

This last one – storytelling – was one strand of the novel that I fell in love with, and that is particularly pertinent on this three-day  Martin Luther King, Jr weekend.  Aibileen, one of two black female protagonists who voices the narrative (the third narrator is a white female), tells stories to Mae Mobley in hopes she can inoculate this little white girl from growing up racist. As “She just loves hearing about peoples from outer space,” Aibileen tells her about he day “Martian Luther King” came to Earth and even though he “Looked like us, nose, mouth, hair up on his head” people treated him differently “Cause he was green” (296).

This story within a story speaks volumes about the intent at the heart of The Help – yes, it’s by a white woman, but can white women not use their voices to try and dismantle privilege and eradicate racism? As a white woman myself, I understand that how and when to speak/write is a very complicated matter – that just because one CAN speak/write, doesn’t always mean one should – that having a privileged voice can make it hard to quell the impetus to speak in order to make space for Othered voices. (And, as an opinionated POWP, I find it hard to keep my damn mouth shut!)

I hope, just once in awhile, I might say or write something that helps to eradicate injustice – I hope that I might be of help in the way I see Stockett’s novel helping the actively anti-racist cause.

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I enjoyed this book at times too, but overall, I gotta say that I disagree with you on this one.

    As I basically said here, I think this novel is another feel-good, white-guilt redemption fantasy. And I disagree that the differences in narrative voice between the white narrator and the two blacks is insignificant. Both such sorts of people in that time and place would speak at least somewhat differently from today’s standard American English, yet only the black voices are rendered differently. That has all sorts of implications, none of them good, as far as I can tell.

    As I wrote in my review, this book could only be fun and inspiring if I were to shut off my awareness of how it plays on distanced, cozy, white liberal sympathies. It’s a thoroughly white-framed bit of entertainment, designed to appease, rather than challenge, the ultimately conservative racial sentiments of the white American consumers who still buy novels.

    And why wouldn’t it be that? There’s gold in them thar white hills!

    • Macon,
      Just read your review Macon and I really liked it. It has made me re-think certain components of the book. I especially like your points about “the tendency of white consumers to favor racially themed entertainment that makes them feel good about the victims of white supremacy, and about the few good white people who resisted it. Ultimately, such entertainment — from Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawkshank Redemption to Gran Torino and The Blind Side, and many, many more — also makes white audience members feel good about themselves, which they do when they distinguish themselves from the bad, racist white characters, and when they feel good about the connections that they imagine they’re making with the noble, forgiving, goodhearted characters of color.”

      However, I think in a sense you don’t give readers enough credit — I don’t think, for example, ALL white readers enjoy such fiction in order to feel good about themselves or to be spoon-fed comforting narratives about racial harmony.

      While The Help has weaknesses, I still think at its heart it is trying to question racism and to interrogate how we might eradicate it. Yes, some of the narrative strands are implausible, as with Skeeter being anachronistic for her time, but I read this as showing that to be such is a possibility we should embrace. It is hard to live too far outside the norms of one’s time, but fictionally imagining characters who do so gives readers a blueprint, showing it can be done (albeit not without risks).

      So, I am torn, I agree with your critiques but I loved this book — not because it made me feel good (quite to the contrary actually) but because it gave voice to women’s history in relation to racism — a history that is so often voiced by males and about males…

  2. I haven’t read the book. Not sure if I will read it. The way dialect is portrayed sounds offputting.

    But I heard the author interviewed, and she said that many white people came up to her after reading it, saying that she didn’t sufficiently portray the great love that Black people had for White people, that the relationships the “help” have with their “families” is more than just financial.

    She noted that she never heard this complaint from Black people.

    I guess I just added this to indicate that, while the book may be an appeasement, it’s not enough of one for an awful lot of White people.

    • Thanks for your comment. Do you happen to have the link for that interview? How frustrating that it’s taken as not appeasing enough by some white readers. As a WOWP (woman of white privilege) reader, I loved the bits where white people were shown negatively — all too often whiteness is glorified in lit! I felt Skeeter was let off a bit lightly though… Would have liked to see more of her internalized racism and a more complex treatment of how she is profiting from publishing black women’s stories. Having her share the wealth at the end seemed a bit too tidy…

  3. I have to agree with the above blogger Macon D. I think that if you contrast Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Toni Morrison’s Beloved then you’d realize that Mitchell thought she knew what was going on in the head of the Mammy character, but unfortunately she didn’t. I believe that as there are more and more black writers writing about black experiences, I feel it is a case of white writers not having the right of writing these stories simply because they do not own the stories. I have lived amongst white people all of my life but I would not be so presumptuous to think that I know how white people think to the point that I can write a whole book about them.
    Having said all of that, I have to agree, The Help was an intriguing read. I love the no-nonsense attitude of Minny but wonder if a black maid who wasn’t scared to not fear white people was realistic; I like the cool balance of Aibileen and how she acts as a mediator between Skeeter and Minny without forgetting to be conscious of her own survival and then the determination and perseverance of Skeeter. Even though you can’t help but feel at the end of the day, with Skeeter, ambition plays a greater part than her concern about Minny and Aibileen. But I also find it interesting that Stockett had to make Skeeter gawky and awkward in order to ‘place’ her with Minny and Aibileen. It makes you feel that as Skeeter is slightly flawed, it would have been the only way the author could have a rich white female complementing the black female characters. I just get the feeling that the author, for some reason, would not have felt comfortable if Skeeter were a pretty blue eyed blonde?

  4. [...] Ms. blogger Jennifer Williams, looking forward to the film adaptation of The Help, especially as I initially enjoyed the book. However, in hindsight, I realize my initial reaction to the book was naïve (and possibly [...]

  5. [...] Ms. blogger Jennifer Williams, looking forward to the film adaptation of The Help, especially as I initially enjoyed the book. However, in hindsight, I realize my initial reaction to the book was naïve (and possibly [...]

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  7. […] Ms. blogger Jennifer Williams, looking forward to the film adaptation of The Help, especially as I initially enjoyed the book. However, in hindsight, I realize my initial reaction to the book was naïve (and possibly […]


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