Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Help

Last week I saw The Help. Before the movie even started I noticed something – the audience in the full theater was almost exclusively white, a total reversal of my experience last year when I saw For Colored Girls at a theater a few miles away.  That time I was the only white person there. So I wondered, what is it about this movie that draws white people, but not African Americans?  Was it the different location, or is there some other reason that The Help caters to white audiences?

Maybe you’re aware that the blogosphere has been in analysis-overdrive about this topic. One of the problems folks have with the novel/movie is that, like so many other stories that explore racial relations, The Help puts a white person in the role of savior, and depicts African Americans as unable to help themselves. I get that. It was all over The Blind Side, a movie in which almost every African American character was a criminal, and which downplayed the self-serving motivations of the Christian school that offered Michael Oher a chance. (Sure, he couldn’t read, but he could play football! What about the kids who can’t do either? Where are the white saviors then?)

Anyway, even though the movie version of The Help failed to deeply explore how African American resistance (and not white altruism) resulted in the great gains of the Civil Rights Movement, one might argue that the African American maids in The Help did have a voice and used it at great risk to themselves and their families, and that white allies, though not central in the struggle for racial equality, have always been important. My concern about The Help isn’t about the movie itself. The Help depicts racism during a particular time and place, and apart from a few frustratingly one-dimensional characters, depicts it fairly well. My problem is that it lets us white people off the hook in a few different ways. First, class is an issue. How many of us grew up with maids of any color?  Likely not many. Second, there’s geography. If you’re from the North (like I am), it’s easy to blame the South for our country’s racist past. But I think most problematic is that whites watching a movie like The Help can easily think, wow, that’s awful!  Things were terrible back then. I’m so glad it’s not like that any more! And the very same people who are appalled at the racism of the past might not be equally appalled at how racism manifests itself in the present. If fact, they might deny that racism still exists. It’s easy to sit in a comfy movie theater and pass judgment on those malicious racists of the past. It’s easy to feel compassion for the African Americans who suffered in this blatantly racist society. We might even shed a tear. It’s much harder to recognize how our own present day white privilege, whether we know it or not, works in our favor to perpetuate systems that keep racial inequity alive and well.

Don’t get me wrong. Books and movies like The Help, as depictions of American history, serve an important purpose, but only if we realize that, as Carter Godwin Woodson said back in 1933, “the conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past.”* The racial segregation and oppression that we see in The Help was not a purely southern phenomenon, and did not disappear with the Civil Rights Movement. The racist policies of the past are directly related to the present, and the legacy of racism continues in our country in a myriad of ways. Our educational system is one of them. Go see The Help. It’s a good movie. Get angry. Cry if you want to (I did). But don’t for a minute think it lets us off the hook.

P.SHere's a statement from The Association of Black Women Historians regarding The Help.  They point out the way that the story reinforces stereotypes and distorts both the history of the time and the experience of the African American domestic workers it tries to depict. Perhaps this helps explain why it's the white audiences that are flocking to the theater.

*The Mis-Education of the Negro, p. 13.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Oprah, Foucault, and Coincidences

A long time ago I used to watch Oprah almost every day. I know, people make fun of the show’s combination of household tips and celebrity interviews interspersed with stories of horrific tragedy and the giving away of cars, and all held together by Oprah’s special brand of pop-psychology.  But once in a while I heard something on that show that stuck with me, and here’s one of those things. According to Oprah, there are no coincidences when it comes to human behavior. We behave in a certain way because we get something out of that behavior. So the woman who bemoans, “just my luck, I fell in love with a creep who stole all my money and had an affair with my Aunt Gertrude” chose that rotten boyfriend for a reason, because it met some unexamined need in her. It wasn’t a coincidence. 

Once I started grad school there was no more time for Oprah. Sometimes it felt as if my head would explode with all the new ideas I was required to read and understand (or at least make believe I understood, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t fool anyone). I noticed that certain names kept popping up in my course readings, names of people I’d never heard of in all my years of watching Oprah (nor in all my years of undergraduate and graduate education, but that’s another story and it sort of proves the point that I hope I’ll make in a minute). Anyway, one of these people is a French guy named Foucault. Now, Foucault said a lot of pretty heavy stuff, and I wouldn’t presume to do justice to his ideas in this little blog. But he wrote a lot about power and about the relationship between power and knowledge. He questioned the things that people, especially people in certain fields of study, believe to be true, or accept as “scientific” – that’s what he meant by knowledge. Foucault said that power and knowledge (that stuff that everybody assumes is true about a given subject) are related. They need each other to survive. They feed each other, in a way. So, power is achieved and maintained by people’s believing some things, and not other things, to be true or scientific. Then that knowledge, those things that people generally accept to be true, grows into whole areas of study, whole industries that keep the original people who promoted them in power. Seems a little confusing, I know. But I think that, in a way, Foucault, like Oprah, is saying there are no coincidences.

Take ability tracking in schools, for example. You know, that’s where they separate kids according to ability level, in order to teach them more effectively. This is done between schools (smart kids go to a specialized high school, and everybody else goes to the neighborhood or the vocational school), and even more often within schools (smart kids take certain classes, and everyone else takes the other, easier classes). The commonly accepted knowledge about tracking is that it makes sense; it’s a smooth and efficient way to educate kids. This way the teachers can focus on the specific needs of each group, and everybody’s happy. The only problem is that there’s a ton of research out there that says it doesn’t work, at least not for the lower-tracked group.  The higher-tracked kids, however, do great, but that’s just a coincidence, right?  Well, let’s apply Foucault’s theory. First of all, power has been exercised. The people in charge of the school districts (did I mention that they’re mostly white?) decided a long time ago that tracking was the way to go. They created this knowledge, this discourse, about how to best educate kids. The knowledge (because it has all this power behind it) takes on a life of its own and becomes widely accepted as scientific fact.  But, in reality, the kids in the lower-academic schools or tracks (did I mention that in integrated school districts they’re mostly students of color?) receive a substandard education, and are more likely to drop out and wind up unemployed or involved in the criminal justice system. Ah, but that’s not all. The exercising of power in the decision to divide up our kids into smart and not-so-smart groups creates a problem – it seems some kids are being “left behind.” (Sorry I’m oversimplifying here.  I’m aware that tracking is not the only system that creates educational disparities, but it is one of them). Now we need another body of knowledge regarding what to do about this problem.  How do we educate these low-tracked kids?  Commissions are formed. Acts of Congress are passed. Standardized tests are created and administered. Special education teachers are trained and hired to write IEP’s. Teacher educators are hired to train the special education teachers. Books and articles are written, making money for publishers and providing jobs for academics. Etc., etc., etc. Not to mention that the mostly white middle and upper class kids who are receiving the better education will graduate, go on to college, and replace their parents in positions of power, where they will maintain the knowledge about ability tracking that got them the better education. Hence, the groups in power stay in power because the knowledge they create serves to keep them in power. It’s not a coincidence.

The whole idea of coincidences becomes its own sort of discourse, too – a widely believed truth that serves to maintain the present power structure. For instance, recently I was involved in a conversation that went something like this (paraphrased):

Person A: A new study says that white men with criminal records are more likely to be called back on job interviews that black men without criminal records.
Person B:  Why do you make everything about race?
Person A: Well, while the whole middle class has suffered in the recession, the African American middle class has been hit especially hard, being the first to be laid off when budget cuts require downsizing.
[In fact, the wealth gap between African Americans and whites has more than quadrupled in the past few decades.]  
Person B: That’s just a coincidence.  It’s not anyone’s fault, and it’s certainly not related to color. It’s simply about seniority. African Americans in professional positions get laid off first because they happened to be hired last.

Hmm.  It’s a coincidence that African Americans were hired in professional positions later than whites? Certainly nothing to do with discrimination in hiring there. And I guess it was a coincidence that for decades our government stopped African Americans from purchasing homes in middle class communities, which stopped them from acquiring wealth.  It’s a coincidence that the only housing available to them was in the urban areas, where their children received the substandard education that I talked about earlier. Gosh, it’s amazing how one group of people can suffer from so much bad luck!

All right, maybe I’m getting a little off-track.  Let me just end this by saying that I have to agree with Oprah and Foucault (but maybe not in that order). There are no coincidences.