Jean Barker

A can of worms

2011-09-16 07:47

Jean Barker

The buzz around The Help is not only huge because black American actors get to play actual characters as opposed to “Lone Black Guy at Bar in Background” - providing the first exciting opportunity for the Academy to (phew!) nominate a person of colour for an Oscar of some sort since Precious (2009).

The Help is also important because this liberal story set in Mississippi in the 60s is one that's very rarely told anywhere, but especially in the USA.

American culture is white-dominated - white is considered "the norm" even when the majority of people who live in the USA are not white. And here you can't be "half" white. Half white is black, no matter who raises you or how white and mainstream their culture may be. That's why I haven't even attempted to explain the complexities of the South African "coloured" (as in mixed race) identity...it's like the quantum physics of pop-sociology here, where the concept of having 11 official languages makes most people clutch their heads to prevent them exploding.

Some of the buzz about The Help is understandably negative. The film particularly has been accused of being another sentimental "white person saves black person" story. It's been cast as another self-serving liberal fantasy re-imagining of Mississippi's past, in which white people pat themselves on the back for rising above racism. But valid though the criticisms are, it's just one story, not everybody's. It's also a brave story because it opens a can of worms that's been sitting in the USA's cupboard for a few decades now.

A segregated world

The reality is that any black person over the age of 40 grew up in a very segregated world, and economic and social segregation is still present in America today.

Of course, a lot of important and real change has taken place. No black person I've met in the USA has ever called me Madam, or Ma'am because I'm white. In ANC-run South Africa, by contrast, it is not unusual for black strangers who don't even work for me to do so, especially in small towns. Millions are still growing up knowing that their only option for survival is probably to be a servant - most likely competing for the chance to work for a dwindling population of white people.

Yep, the same can of worms that's sitting in the USA's cupboard is the same can of worms that's openly rotting in the side door of South Africa's fridges.

Possibly the most important issue dealt with by The Help is what it's like to live in a state of fear – fear that expressing an opinion or demanding basic human rights will lead to further oppression, or even a violent death at the hands of a lynch mob. Reading the novel, I more than once found myself squirming at my own memories.

Inescapable reality

Here's one: I once got into a political discussion with a boyfriend's mother. Too much wine... I never learn. Anyway, it was the late 2000s and she thought things were “better for everyone” under apartheid. I said they were worse for everyone. She countered with: “Well maybe you should ask them. Cause I asked Essie* and she said that things were better before the ANC.”

Yes, I have heard this conversation. Here's how it goes. Kitchen scene. Radio news plays a story about government corruption – one that would never have been aired during apartheid because actual journalism was illegal then. “Essie, don't you think things were better before this ANC government?” “Yes, Madam.” “Essie, will you clean the toilet? And don't move the spray onto the basin. You hear me?” “Yes, Madam.”

What's Essie* going to say? The measly wage you pay her is all she has, and she doesn't respect or trust you enough to think you deserve the truth. The refusal to answer honestly in this situation is a form of passive aggression sometimes, a necessity in order to survive at others.

Then there's that inexplicable tone of voice. You know what I mean, right? That tone of voice you hear, when you just instantly know without looking that a white person is talking to a black person. I heard a white guy doing it at OR Tambo airport - standing over a crew of three black labourers - as I checked in for my flight back to California in July. I wondered how I would explain this to my American friends. I realised I simply couldn't. I was filled with shame, overcome with an urge to run away and never, ever go home.

And for many South Africans, this is a reality that can't be escaped. In truth, white South Africans still enjoy most of the benefits of apartheid, just without the same level of guilt. Actually, it's not just white South Africans anymore. Now black South Africans (the black middle class is bigger, not proportionate to population, but bigger than the white one) can also exploit those for whom poverty is a birthright (ideally someone of a slightly different classification to themselves, cause it makes it less awkward.) And with socialism so unfashionable these days, it's getting harder - perhaps impossible - to have a meaningful discussion about inequality in the workplace.

Blaming "the maid"

But some of the issues that The Help raises simply can't be swept under the carpet. How can someone who is good enough to clean your house, or work in your garden for years, or wash your dishes and possibly raise your kids be considered not clean enough to share your toilet? Why is “the maid” always accused to stealing stuff, or putting it in some weird place? And why, when something gets broken, is that cause for anger? Why is the maid “always breaking stuff”? Well, I break stuff all the time. I think it's because I clean my own house.

So yes, I grew up white, South African, within the apartheid system. Have I ever had servants? Well, yes and no. Not in my early childhood. My mother employed someone to clean once a week when both she and my father worked full time. But she didn't wait on me. One or two boyfriends kind of “came with” their cleaner – something for which I was frequently grateful, because boys are messy. And as South Africans know, employing someone to clean is almost considered a duty. It “provides employment”.

It's a duty in which I've failed. I'm uncomfortable with being a “Madam”. Having worked as a cleaner for six months in London, where by the way they don't let the immigrants they illegally employ so much as make a cup of tea for themselves in their kitchen, I know way too much about how it feels to clean someone's toilet to ever want to hire someone to do it for me. If I am going to pay someone to do any of my dirty work, it'll be to do my taxes, since I was raised to be bad with money, but good at washing my own underpants.

I don't mean to negatively stereotype or judge those who do employ cleaners. Someone has to, and I know some fairly good employers, who provide health benefits, pay good wages and even buy houses for their domestic workers. Many domestic workers bring their kids to work with them, which means they're not forced to raise their employers' kids instead of their own. And employing someone allows many middle-class women the freedom to have kids and a career.

Out in the open

So it's not all bad. I just find our inability to discuss the issue in a public forum a little weird, and I'm glad to see it out in the open. I remember a friend telling me a hilarious story about her housekeeper, and her housekeeper's mother and her. “That would make an amazing column!” I enthused.

The friend, who knows what she's doing, shook her head, and fully cognisant of the irony, explained the politics of white women's magazines to me: "We don't write about the maid".

But I think it's something we need to look at from time to time, because it's not invisible.

* Madam probably can't pronounce Essie's real name.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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