The Other Columbus: 'The Help' can't help you

Scott Woods
Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help"

As the world protested under the banner of Black Lives Matter over the last 10 days, the 2011 movie “The Help” became the most viewed film on Netflix.

And this, dear reader, is why we can’t have nice things like progress and change.

Most black people don’t like to get into conversations with white people about racism for several reasons. The first reason is because it’s exhausting. This makes sense when you consider that black people frequently end up in these conversations as a means to survive a situation or moment, but also as a general defense mechanism against pervasive racism. And an unbidden conversation on race in the wild, like on your job or from a customer you are trying to give service to? That’s a sleeping pill the size of a brick.

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The second reason is also what makes the conversations exhausting: Black people know everything there is to know about whiteness, while white people don't know or refuse to accept almost anything said about it. 

The conversations rarely end up going anywhere for lots of reasons, but one of the largest ones is because white people process discussions about racism emotionally. Shock, defensiveness, willful ignorance and deflection are all pieces in an emotive horn of plenty socialized to protect the feelings of white people. Black people process racism pragmatically because if we don’t, we die. The gulf between these two tacks is, on most days, insurmountable.

All of this makes even the basic stuff extremely taxing to engage. Just to pick a stick off the pile as an example: I prefer to call racism “white supremacy.” Racism works just fine, but too many people who have done too little reading like to generalize its ramifications, so in the moments when I decide it best not to use philosophical shorthand, I go straight to the heart of the matter and say “white supremacy.” It works everywhere that “racism” does with only half the mental calories. If you want to stop having your systemic racism debates turned into whack-a-mole games about colorblind exceptionalism, calling it white supremacy is the way to go. It puts the problem where it belongs as a value, history, lens and agenda.

The problem is that white people freeze up when you say white supremacy. The perception of a white supremacist remains a torch-bearing bigot in a white sheet, and who wants to be that guy? Some white people may (FINALLY) be willing to concede that they have certain privileges afforded them by historical leverage, but they balk at any characterization that suggests they might be an aide-de-camp to David Duke.

So what did millions of white people do last week? They watched “The Help” like it was new. They watched “The Help” like black people hadn’t already told them it was trash. They watched “The Help” even though Viola Davis – who was nominated for an Oscar for her participation in the film – has stated regret at having been involved. They watched “The Help” because it made them feel good while the world around them was telling them that they were late to the party, that they were not listening, that they were not, despite their good intentions, allies.

I don’t know what’s more terrifying: that white people watched it because it was a balm, or because they wanted to learn more about navigating racism. Either way, you should know that whatever drove white people to watch it is why the conversations never go the way they want. It’s hard to unpack the ways in which you may have oppressed people when your real goal is absolution.