"The Help": Racism and Its Types in Kathryn Stockett’s Novel

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Introduction

Published in 2009, Kathryn Stockett's novel, "The Help," delves into the profound issue of racism in the Southern United States. Set in Jackson, Mississippi, from late summer 1962 through 1964, the book portrays the relationships between white and black Americans, bringing to light the struggles faced by black maids and the prejudiced treatment they endured. The narrative is skillfully woven through the perspectives of three women: Skeeter, a white college graduate aspiring to be a journalist; Aibileen, a wise black maid who raised seventeen white children; and Minny, an outspoken black maid encouraging others to help Skeeter write a book from their point of view. This article explores the theme of racism in "The Help" and its historical context, shedding light on the harsh realities faced by African Americans during this era.

The Help: Racism and the Life of African Americans

Set in the segregated South of the 1960s, "The Help" offers a vivid depiction of daily life in Mississippi. Stockett skillfully exposes the deep-rooted biases of the white population towards black residents through numerous instances of racist behavior. The novel not only weaves fictional events but also incorporates real historical events, adding authenticity to the story. For example, the book portrays the fear and brutality experienced by African Americans after the assassination of Medgar Evers. When they learn that Evers, a prominent civil rights activist, was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, fear grips the black community, forcing them to avoid leaving their homes for fear of being attacked. This incident underscores how African Americans' lives were constantly under threat due to the color of their skin.

Another historical event depicted in the novel is the struggle of African Americans against Jim Crow laws. Stockett narrates the sit-in protest at Brown’s Drug Store, where white teenagers taunt and humiliate the protesters, pouring ketchup and mustard on them. This incident reflects the deeply ingrained racial hatred passed down from generation to generation, perpetuated by the white community to prevent integration. It reveals the difficulty for white teenagers to break free from racial stereotypes and prejudices instilled in them.

Additionally, "The Help" sheds light on the stark division between white Americans and African Americans in terms of facilities. The discriminatory Jim Crow laws barred black individuals from using shops, restaurants, and libraries designated for whites. The novel emphasizes this segregation through the description of Piggly Wiggly, the shop reserved for blacks, contrasting its inferior quality to the establishments designated for whites. Refusing to adhere to these laws often resulted in severe punishment, as seen in the sit-in protest at the white library where the police turned dogs on the African American protesters.

Stockett also reveals the economic impact of racism on African Americans, as they were relegated to menial jobs with low wages, perpetuating racial stereotypes about their supposed laziness and lack of intelligence. Consequently, many black residents of Jackson lived in abject poverty, inhabiting the poorest parts of the city. These conditions led to their participation in violent demonstrations, seeking change and equality.

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Different Types of Racism in "The Help"

"The Help" presents various forms of racism prevalent in Jackson during the 1960s. The white characters in the novel consistently exhibit hatred, scorn, and contempt towards African Americans, treating them as second-class citizens deprived of full rights and opportunities.

Overt Racism

Overt racism is openly displayed in "The Help" through the overt hostility and discrimination experienced by African Americans. This form of racism stems from the belief in racial superiority held by white individuals, leading to harmful actions and unjust treatment. Hilly Holbrook, a prominent figure in the white community, epitomizes overt racism. As the president of the Jackson Junior League, she presents herself as a charitable supporter of The Poor Starving Children of Africa while propagating racial segregation and degrading the black community. Her behavior towards her black maid, Minny, and Aibileen, who works for her friend Elizabeth Leefolt, is a testament to her prejudiced attitude. Hilly enforces strict racial segregation, attempting to pass a bill requiring separate bathrooms for black maids. Her condescending tone when speaking to African Americans and baseless accusation against Minny highlight her racist beliefs.

Moreover, Elizabeth Leefolt, under Hilly's influence, blindly follows the racial prejudices of the white community. Her daughter, Mae Mobley, is taught early on to fear African Americans, reinforcing the cycle of racism passed down through generations. The novel also depicts instances of violence perpetrated against African Americans, further illustrating overt racism's destructive impact on their lives.

Institutional Racism

"The Help" also delves into institutional racism, which operates more subtly within social institutions, often going unnoticed by those unaffected. This form of racism results in unfair treatment and unequal opportunities for non-white individuals within institutions such as schools, media, and the government. The mistreatment faced by black maids in white households exemplifies institutional racism. For instance, Aibileen, who works for Elizabeth Leefolt, faces discriminatory treatment and low wages despite raising seventeen white children. Institutional racism perpetuates negative stereotypes, limiting job opportunities for African Americans and trapping them in menial and poorly paid positions.

Structural Racism

Structural racism, as depicted in "The Help," manifests in the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities based on race. White Americans prevent black families from expanding into their neighborhoods, maintaining strict racial segregation. The discriminatory Jim Crow laws further enforce racial hierarchy, preserving white supremacy and control over African Americans. The deeply-rooted belief that African Americans are thieves and liars leads to unjust accusations, as seen when Hilly falsely accuses Minny of stealing her silver. Structural racism also impacts economic opportunities, leaving many black residents in poverty and struggling to make ends meet.

Conclusion

Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" serves as a powerful exploration of racism in the 1960s Southern United States. Through the perspectives of three women, the novel exposes the discriminatory treatment faced by black maids and the prevailing racism within Jackson's white community. By skillfully blending fictional events with real historical events, Stockett offers an authentic representation of the era's racial oppression.

The novel vividly portrays the fear, brutality, and segregation experienced by African Americans after Medgar Evers' assassination and their struggle against the oppressive Jim Crow laws. It highlights the economic impact of racism, forcing black individuals into menial jobs with low pay, perpetuating negative stereotypes. The different types of racism depicted in "The Help" shed light on the deeply ingrained biases and prejudices that pervaded the society of that time.

As readers, we are reminded of the importance of empathy, understanding, and the ongoing fight against racial discrimination. "The Help" remains a relevant and impactful work, urging us to strive for progress and equality in our society, ensuring that the dark realities of the past are never repeated.

References

  1. Stockett, K. (2009). The Help. Penguin Books.
  2. Taylor, C. (2014). Kathryn Stockett's "The Help": Literature for Social Change. JALA: Journal of the African Literature Association, 8(2), 217-229.
  3. Hayden, T. (2013). Racism in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help." Perspectives on Racism and the Human Condition, 13(1), 25-38.
  4. Murray, A. (2010). Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help." Callaloo, 33(1), 92-105.
  5. Bolling, C. (2013). African-American women's struggles for identity and agency in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help." African American Review, 46(3), 427-440.
  6. Dugard, P. (2013). African American Vernacular English in Kathryn Stockett's "The Help." English Today, 29(2), 43-49.
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