Why You Didn’t Like ‘The Help’ As Much As You Think You Did.

Posted: August 17, 2011 in advocacy, authentically black, books, change, church, history, justice, race relations, reconciliation, Twitter

I’m in the process of redesigning this blog and working more intentionally on branding, so I haven’t been posting. But I couldn’t let this moment past. You can see the post below as a kind of follow-up to a brief post I did several years ago.

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Rochelle and I saw ‘The Help’ this weekend with another couple from church. They are wonderful people and gave me the book last year. Since the wife of the other couple, like me, is from the south, she thought I would resonate with the book, and in many ways I did.

 I was born in Jackson, MS, as were my parents and grandparents. Both of my grandmothers were maids in Jackson, working for multiple white families. ‘The Help’ nails the look of Jackson and its cultural and racial ethos  – both in the 60’s and today. From my read – visiting hundreds of times over my lifetime – Jackson remains two cities; one white, one black. Speak with contemporary Jacksonians, white and black, and you’ll get a completely different picture of the city, just like you do in ‘The Help’. The whites in the movie don’t see a racial problem in Jackson while it’s painfully obvious to blacks.

It’s been interesting to see the response of my white friends to ‘The Help’ (and I have tons of them and I love all of you). What has startled me is the amazement by which they look at the racial division in the 60’s. The white characters in ‘The Help’ are largely unlikeable. They want separate bathrooms, believe in separate stations in life, and mindlessly go along with the status quo; a status quo which occupies a social position of separate and unequal and the theological position that God did not create all people in his own image. When we see it in Mississippi in the 60’s we look back and marvel with confused awe and disgust. Some of us even think, “How could people be that way?” But many of us don’t think that most Sunday mornings when we sit in our segregated churches.

Our senses get offended when someone like Hilly Holbrook speaks of segregated bathrooms because “niggers carry different diseases than us”. But that’s hardly a concern at most congregations I know. There’s no fear of black butts on white toilets because there are no black butts in the building. If you don’t believe me, what’s the racial make-up of your congregation. I bet most of them are OVERWHELMINGLY homogeneous. As a matter of fact, that’s how the church-growth experts tell us is the best way to grow a church.

Once, in college, I sat in a ministry class and listened to a young white woman explain that segregated churches are better because different ethnicities like different worship styles.

Seriously?

It would seem that the apostle Paul didn’t consider the powerful importance of “worship styles” when he said that Jesus Himself was our peace and had destroyed the the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility between us (Eph. 2:14). Apparently, even the church is  inventing mythical reasons to keep the races separate. Shockingly, this is antithetical to the message of the New Testament, wherein one of the central questions is bringing Jews and Gentiles together as one under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Just this last week on Twitter, someone referenced seeing ‘The Help’ and asked, “I wonder what our kids will look back at and be embarassed?” I submit, it will be the same thing…at least if they’re better Christians than we are. Jesus Himself prays that all his disciples be one (John 17), and Paul works for it throughout his entire ministry, yet it is the least talked about issue in the church. We get all in a bunch about things we can’t do anything about; real important things like millennial debates, and hardly lift a finger to do what was critical to Jesus and Paul, bringing people from different backgrounds together to become one.

The difficult and deadly work of ending Jim Crow and segregation in the south was undertaken by courageous men and women, who under the banner of Christ, sought to end a wicked, demeaning system of life. Yet it was the white churches in the South who were last to the party. In fact, they openly defended the status quo, rebuked Martin Luther King, Jr., and called to uphold segregation and second-class citizenship. These churches and their leaders saw nothing wrong with segregation, with white, blacks, Latinos and anybody else all worshipping separately, though supposedly to the same God.

Some churches still do this.

Some churches maintain racists systems in the David Duke kinda way. But the majority maintain it by not caring at all, not working to end it, not standing up for others and by  sitting on their hands…in the theatre.

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Comments
  1. J. Smith says:

    I haven’t seen the movie…might / might not…don’t know yet.

    Having been raised in the “big city” (Dallas) and having been raised with a gaggle of friends and relationships revolving around hispanic, asian, black and white individuals, I thought that my move to Mississippi (1 hour north of Jackson) would be eye-opening. I knew the overall stereotype was that racism was still hot and heavy in Mississippi…I was a little bit nervous about the kind of discussions that I would likely have (coming from a fairly mixed bag of wonderfully beautiful friends in Texas).

    I DID see racism in Mississippi. I saw it in a white grandmother who didn’t want to walk down the aisle arm-in-arm with my black friend “Roger” or my hispanic friend “Andy”. It was one of those older generation excuses that I heard and it really ticked me off. Wonderfully enough, the love of a black care-taker changed this white grandmother’s views on race and she died last year with a better understanding and a changed heart.

    I almost feel as though “society” will as for my apology following this next paragraph…but I suppose I won’t offer one.

    You see, that racist white grandmother was one of few white people who still held to that old racist view (and even though I didn’t grow up in Mississippi…I lived there from 1994-2008…from Bogue Chitto to Southaven…north to south). The race issue I ran across most often came from the African-American race. I was involved with 3 churches in particular (mostly white) who worked extremely hard to build relationships with the black churches and sought some form of combined worship…the thought behind the reconciliation was that we were all ONE IN CHRIST. It was not the so-called “white church” that tried to keep races separate. For some reason, in each instance, the excuse came from the black congregation. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying that one side is doing it all correctly and can’t be at fault and the other is all wrong…but I am saying that this issue isn’t as one sided as you make it seem.

    My point? I just wanted to being some equity to the discussion. It just seemed a bit one-sided. Thanks for allowing me to express my opinion.

  2. john dobbs says:

    Sean, my thoughts have been stirred by your excellent post. I want to say more than I can in a comment, so I am posting a response on my blog. I invite your response / interaction. You have my respect and I want to hear what you say.

  3. […] Before reading this post, would you please read Sean Palmer’s incredible blog post HERE. […]

  4. Matt Elliott says:

    Great perspective as usual, Sean. I read the book sometime last year, and while everyone around me was going on about it — and it IS an engaging story, of course — I couldn’t put my figure on what bothered me about it. It just felt a little paternalistic to me, I think. Does that make any sense or resonate with you at all?

  5. I grew up a preacher’s kid in Vicksburg, MS–and this church worked hard at building bridges and by the time i graduated HS, it was almost evenly split between black and white. Today, at age 49, I preach myself in Mississippi and the church here is a mix of white and black with some Asian and Hispanic thrown in. A military community we are–and in the military there is no tolerance for the racial divide. So you see that kind of harmony played out in our overall community. Certainly there are some pockets of segregation–and from my experience those pockets–both white and black are more about being poor. I am thankful that what you describe is not as much a reality for our kids as it was in the past. May God help us all to tear down walls and build bridges of reconciliation everywhere they are needed. Great article–thankful that my friend John Dobbs turned me on to your blog!

  6. d.j. iverson says:

    I think you bring up some great points here. 50 years from now we’re going to have do a lot of apologizing, and I think racial harmony is definitely going to be near the top of the list.

    I think the struggle for me is how do we put the principles in our heart into action. As a ‘typical white-guy’, what can I do to help our church be more diverse? Obviously, we aren’t pro segregation, but what are some practical steps we can take to be more inviting to a diverse crowd, w/o profiling, or targeting people out because of their race?

    your brother in Christ.

  7. David says:

    Hey Sean,

    Great thoughts. I posted some of my own over on John’s blog, but I wanted to leave a few here as well. I think we are still not far enough removed from the segregation age that it doesn’t, on some level, affect our thoughts. Heck, I was born in 1976, but I spent a lot of time during the summers with my grandfather, a Church of Christ elder. He was incredibly racist. But even as a kid, I knew that the things coming from his mouth were garbage.

    I have always been in white churches. Its where I grew up, its what I know, its what I am accustomed to. I can see how the same can be true for those who grew up in a black congregation. What I think is wrong is avoiding initiating contact or inviting someone of another race to visit your church just because you think they wouldn’t like your “worship style”. That’s wrong, and probably for many is unconscious racism. I have worked hard in the last several years to see ALL people the same and it has really opened my eyes to some things.

    None of us are that much different from each other. Different traditions, different circumstances, different backgrounds, But when it comes down to it we all suffer tragedy, we all feel helpless from time-to-time, we all have insecurities, doubts, fears, tribulations, anger issues and the list goes on and on. We have SO much more in common than we have differences, but we tend to only see that which is outwardly visible. Overcoming that will do amazing things for us as a species and for us as a Church.

  8. Tanya Brice says:

    Sean, thank you so much for this blog post. This is a very difficult subject that requires grace, mercy, forgiveness, and lots of love to conquer. I have noticed that some of the responses to your post are veiled attempts to justify the unspoken racist ideology manifested within our faith tradition. This ideology is evident in the composition of our congregations. We are often content when we have one or two “other” families within our fellowship. We think that relieves us of our responsibilities towards being one in Christ. Sociologists have found that having only 20% of an “other” group as part of any congregation, changes the congregation towards true racial/ethnic harmony.

    More important than the racial composition of a congregation is the ministry of members of a congregation. Racism is rampant in this country. It doesn’t matter if we are in a large, metropolitan city, or in a small rural town. It is rampant. There are daily examples, some of which make it to the mainstream media, but most that don’t. What stance do we take as Christians against these atrocities? What stance do we take against the growing health disparities, income disparities, academic achievement disparities? Is it even spoken about? Do we view these issues from a worldly perspective, or do we consult the holy scriptures for guidance?

    I highly recommend that folks study the connection between racist ideology and Christian Evangelicalism. It is sad, and disheartening. I would recommend that folks start with the following article:

    Ehrenhaus, P. and Owen, S.A. (2004). Race Lynching and Christian Evangelicalism: Performances of Faith. Text and Performances Quarterly, Vol. 24(3/4). pp. 276-301.

    Thank you so much for raising this issue!! Blessings on you!!

  9. Becky B Scott says:

    Love this post Sean….love it.

  10. Katie Condra says:

    Thanks for posting, Sean. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have read the book, and I found it frustrating because so many of the racist characters were depicted in such a flat, “good or bad,” “black or white” kind of way that we, the reader, can easily villianize them, set them away from ourselves, and never find ourselves in them. We think, “Oh, look how terrrible THEY are,” instead of seeing how we are like them. I wish a more significant effort had been made to make the racist characters fuller, more realistic, and easier to identify with, and yet still find their behavior deplorable.

  11. Matt Elliott says:

    What Katie said. Seriously. I think that was my problem with the book and I just couldn’t quite verbalize it.

  12. Matt Elliott says:

    Hey — just saw this, Sean. Wasn’t prepared for “The Help” reference! 🙂

  13. Tulsaoilman says:

    I grew up in the country in Eastern Oklahoma. I and one other were the only white kids in school till I went to the 9th grade. We heard of this “race” issue but we just didn’t live in it so we didn’t understand it. When I got in High school I witnessed it from both sides; The blacks didn’t like me because I was white and the whites didn’t like me cause of my black friends. So I learned it by living it.

    Now that I am grown I still see it. And I still see it from both sides. I see blacks who hate whites and whites who hate blacks. But I believe this is not really about race. It’s about sin and selfishness. There will always be “race” issues because Satan is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

    Fight racism all you want but you will never get rid of it because of sin. The only answer is to “Love one another”. And that should be easy cause of the love God shows to us. Love covers a mulitude of sins.

    “God don’t see no color”.

    We are all one race: The Human Race!

  14. […] to the previous blogpost. That post was, in itself, a response to Sean Palmer’s great post HERE. (Be sure to read the comments there as well). There were some great expressions in the comments […]

  15. Adam Gonnerman says:

    You should pay a visit to my church. No segregation there. Seriously. http://www.cjcoc.org We’re crazy diverse.

  16. Jenny says:

    I saw the movie, and laughed and cried with all of the white middle-aged women in the theater. Like J. Smith, I’ve seen refusal to assimilate just as strong from blacks. (Really, many of my Northern black relatives are more uncomfortable around me than my Southern white ones.) But what I wanted to comment on was the discussion about segregated churches. Maybe a year ago, an Indianan friend of mine criticized a convention that was for black homeschoolers. He argued that there shouldn’t be racially-segregated anything. Then he went on and on about how blacks shouldn’t have separate churches and should attend the same ones whites do. So, I challenged him: If you want to end segregation, leave your all-white church and go attend an all-black church. Needless to say, he’s never visited one and probably never will.

  17. my friend leigh shared a link to your post and i’m SO glad i came here today.

    because i loved the movie. and the book. and i loved the movie when i saw it again after i read the book.

    but i loved it because it made me uncomfortable.

    i loved it because it ended honestly, even if not fairly.

    i also loved it because the relationship between skeeter and the maids, and between celia foote and minnie, was so precious and honest and they didn’t know what it would look like to trust each other, but they did it and did it messily and beautifully. hell, celia foote just didn’t see the lines at all, which i of course loved.

    i especially love in the back of ms. stockett’s book, she quotes howell raines:

    ‘there is no trickier subject for a writer from the south than that of affection between a black person and a white on in the unequal world of segregation. for the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.’

    my cousin tim, an african-american history professor at duke & unc, wrote a book called ‘blood done sign my name’ about a racial murder in north carolina in the town where his father, my great-uncle, was a pastor who made a move to band together with black churches. the white father and his two sons who killed the black man in plain view were acquitted and are still alive and living in this small-town.

    i have another great-uncle/pastor who was run out-of-state for sitting on the black side of a courtroom many years ago.

    i get uncomfortable because i am proud to come from this stock of believers who saw -and fought against- the racial divide, but am i so proud that i actually overcompensate. like, ‘look at me! i love black people!’

    i grew up in chapel hill, nc, where we weren’t raised to hate what was different. it is such a melting pot of a town that people of all race, creed, culture, color and religion are not only accepted but welcome.

    i went potluck & had a black roommate my freshman year in college whom i loved and lived with one of my best friends, also black, the year after i graduated. one of my favorite persons in the world is still the housekeeping manager at what is no longer my family’s ministry.

    i am helping to care for a 90-year old friend, along with 2 other women, one of whom is black. she and i were talking yesterday about how we’ll miss each other when that times come (coming soon) and she whispered in my ear that she’s never met such a nice white person (as me). and i wanted to cry – obviously for her because, REALLY? really. in all her years of serving white women, i am the nicest white woman you’ve met…and we just started working together this summer?

    REALLY.

    it makes me sick. physically sick.

    but it also makes me cry for me because the fear, the question, that came up in me is, ‘am i being authentic?’ and i think that i am. but then i get in my own way, wondering if my love for this woman is genuine or because i’m trying to make up for every other white woman who mistreated her.

    and then i get into asking myself if i feel proud that i love black people.

    and i don’t want to feel ‘proud’ of that. i really don’t want to notice it at all.

    which is, i think, what raines’ quote describes.

    is this all coming together in some sense?

    my cousin, the one i just mentioned, says to me, ‘lean into it.’ as in, lean into those things that make us uncomfortable. open the dialogue. talk about it. we fear the thing we hate (or hate the thing we fear?), but in dissolving those lines, fear & hate both dissolve.

    sometimes i lean so hard in an effort to move past differences of all kinds that loving people makes me cry. (in all the right ways.)

    i don’t tell you any of this with any amount of pride or humility or to receive raspberries or rocks. i tell you as my confession. that i don’t have any answers. at all. and i guess, if i am the ‘nicest white woman’ someone has met, then there are worse things to have to get over personally. but corporately? but i don’t want to be the exception. why is there even any rule?

    i’ve strayed from your point. when i go, i go to a very homogenous church. and i don’t love that. at all. my sister is a spanish teacher and i teach esl. sometimes we go to a spanish church. and i’ve never loved god more than when i am in his presence with folks who don’t look like me.

    i want to lean so hard into this thing, no matter the cost. (which is what? freedom? i’ll take it.) this is my commitment.

    anyway, sean. this is my first time here at your blog but it definitely won’t be my last. sorry to monopolize so much of your comment space. (but not really.)

    xo

  18. Wayne Park says:

    “Once, in college, I sat in a ministry class and listened to a young white woman explain that segregated churches are better because different ethnicities like different worship styles.”

    Did u overturn tables?! I would’ve. I’ve heard similar comments in other seminaries, mine included: “you people always sit amongst yourselves in the cafeteria; why don’t you people come over to our table for once?” “They (immigrants) just want to do their own thing”

    I’ll be the first to concede I haven’t seen the Help – but I’ve heard criticisms that it is another movie to assuage “white guilt” – so as a means to atone for the past we make movies, if that somehow makes sense.

    Great blog btw – from a fellow Southerner

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