Colorblind Racism in “The Help” Film

Introduction

Colorblind racism is relatively subtle and can be viewed as a modern-day type of racism that becomes especially widespread after its explicit, direct counterpart is eliminated (Thakore, 2014). Due to its subtlety, colorblind racism may be more difficult to pinpoint than the explicit one (McClure, 2015), but some of its primary frames have been found. In particular, they include “abstract liberalism,” “naturalization,” “cultural racism,” and “minimization” (Hughey, Embrick, & Doane, 2015, p. 1350).

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In The Help, a film that is based on a novel of the same name, the society of Mississippi in the 1960s is rightfully described as explicitly racist, which appears to limit the application of the concept of colorblindness to the story. However, an analysis of the film demonstrates that the explicitly racist characters tend to employ some of the frames of colorblind racism to justify their ideas, and the few non-racist characters exhibit colorblindness or other patterns of racism. In other words, The Help can be employed to exemplify multiple patterns, including colorblindness, although not all of them are criticized in the work.

Explicit Racism and the Pretense of Colorblindness

The majority of the characters in the film are explicitly racist. However, they employ some of the colorblind patterns to explain their behavior. For instance, Hilly insists that black people “carry different diseases than we do… I will do whatever it takes to protect our children” (Taylor, 2011). Thus, she suggests that racism can be explained by biological causes. This claim can be viewed as a form of naturalization, which is a type of colorblind racism that interprets racism as a natural occurrence that can be objectively rationalized by reasons other than race (Hughey et al., 2015). In fact, the film appears to suggest that Hilly, along with the majority of black and white characters of the town, normalize racism.

Indeed, Hilly proceeds with naturalization when she suggests that the black people enjoy segregation and supports this view by citing a personal opinion of a politician: “Separate but equal! That’s what Ross Barnett says, and you can’t argue with the governor” (Taylor, 2011).

Apart from demonstrating that racist worldviews are viewed as appropriate for a politician by the society that is described by the film, this phrase contains naturalization and, possibly, cultural racism, which is an attempt to explain racism with the help of cultural phenomena (Hughey et al., 2015). In particular, Hilly states that the existing situation should not be changed because is it socially and culturally appropriate and supported by the authorities.

Moreover, when refusing to lend Yule May money, Hilly states that “God does not give charity to those who are well and able. You need to come up with this money on your own” (Taylor, 2011). In this event, abstract liberalism is exemplified. Abstract liberalism uses some of the concepts of liberalism (for instance, equal opportunity) without taking into account the circumstances that affect different groups. In the film, it is obvious that the discrepancies in the wealth between Hilly and Yule May are explained by racism, but Hilly denies the economic consequences of discrimination, illustrating abstract liberalism.

Finally, Hilly minimizes racism by suggesting that she is not racist: “Believe it or not, there are real racists in this town” (Taylor, 2011). Minimization is another approach to colorblindness that attempts to downplay the cases of racism (Hughey et al., 2015). Racism is visible in Hilly’s behavior and can be exemplified by her previous quotes, which is why it is evident that her statement is an attempt at minimization.

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Some of the other characters also seem to employ some of the colorblindness frames. For example, when discussing the event that resulted in firing Constantine, Charlotte states: “She didn’t give me a choice.” Given the specifics of the event itself (Constantine’s daughter using the front door rather than the back one), it is apparent that Charlotte attempts to downplay racism-related issues (minimization). Moreover, she naturalizes this event by refusing to acknowledge that it is discriminatory. Finally, the situation appears to be framed predominantly by customs and etiquette, which can be viewed as cultural phenomena; therefore, Charlotte’s example illustrates cultural racism as well. Thus, all the frames of colorblindness can be exemplified by the words and actions of the racist characters of the film.

Celia: Colorblindness and Its Attributes

Non-racist characters include Celia and, apparently, her husband. Celia is explicitly colorblind (for example, she refuses to eat separately from Minny), and her husband seems to share her perspective. Their acceptance results in Minny’s continued and stable employment, which helps Minny to leave her abusive husband. In general, the relationships between the three characters seem to be mutually supportive.

However, the colorblindness exhibited by the wealthy white couple has its typical drawbacks. The problem of racism is never explicitly criticized in the household; rather, it is ignored. It can be suggested that some implicit criticism is present in the refusal of the couple to mistreat Minny, but this criticism is limited to interpersonal relationships. The institutional racism or its economic consequences are not discussed. At the same time, the consequences are illustrated by the power dynamics of a wealthy white couple and their poor black servant.

The final scene that features all the three characters intends to demonstrate the colorblindness of the couple by showing that Celia serves Minny food prepared by Celia. However, this event is unlikely to be repeated: the couple states that they want to proceed to employ Minny. Therefore, the action shows support and gratitude, but it is unlikely to change the dynamics between the characters, the reasons of which are related to the color-based discrimination that the couple chooses to ignore by being blind to it.

Due to their colorblindness, the couple’s behavior can serve as an example of abstract economic liberalism with elements of normalization and, possibly, cultural racism. In particular, Celia and her husband ignore the causes of the economic inequality exemplified by the dynamics between them and Minny, normalizing these issues as culturally and socially appropriate. In other words, the couple’s colorblindness has the typical drawbacks of the phenomenon (Hughey et al., 2015). However, the film does not explore this problem, focusing on the less subtle forms of racism.

Eugenia: Key Issues

Eugenia is another non-racist character. She is opposed to the racism of her peers and provides black women with an opportunity to voice their discontent. Eugenia is hardly colorblind because the environment does not provide her with a chance to disregard racism. She also does not criticize colorblindness because she is focused on explicit racism and, possibly, does not face colorblindness during the events of the movie. The only types of colorblindness that she encounters are the colorblind-like excuses provided by explicitly racist characters, which makes them easy to criticize. However, there are racism-related issues that are connected to Eugenia.

First, Eugenia is attracted to the “mammy” archetype. Initially, “mammy” may appear as a positive characteristic: a “mammy” is described as a motherly figure that is loyal, loving, cheerful, and religious. Naturally, like any stereotype, “mammy” is harmful because of its overgeneralization, which depersonalizes the women described by this word, affects judgments and behaviors directed at them, and upholds discriminatory practices and patterns (Rosenthal & Lobel, 2016). However, the primary issue of the archetype is the fact that the motherly love and loyalty of “mammies” is supposed to be directed towards white people and their children (Thompson, 2014). In other words, “mammy” is the direct outcome of inequality and discrimination.

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In fact, Eugenia highlights the issues experienced by “mammies” during the first moments of the film, asking “What does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child’s at home being looked after by somebody else?” (Taylor, 2011).

This question and Aibileen’s answer imply that Eugenia realizes the issues that are related to the “mammy” role, but she romanticizes it instead of criticizing it along with the racism patterns that result in it. Thompson (2014) demonstrates that such attitudes are likely to perpetuate the stereotype, which is why Eugenia’s romantic understanding of the “mammy” archetype can be viewed as racial stereotyping (McClure, 2015). Thus, the non-racist protagonist of the movie has adopted at least one racist pattern.

Another problem in Eugenia’s actions is the way she treats Aibileen when recruiting her. In the film, Eugenia is tasked with writing a newspaper column devoted to housework, and she asks Aibileen to provide consultations. However, to do so, she inquires Aibileen’s employer (Elizabeth) if Aibileen can spare the time to help. In the film, Eugenia does not ask Aibileen or provide her with any compensation for this work (she only sends Aibileen a reward for her contribution to the book).

Therefore, she uses Aibileen’s resources (time and effort) without permission or compensation, which could be interpreted as a form of normalization or cultural racism. Apparently, such attitudes towards the resources of black women are viewed as socially and culturally acceptable, and they benefit Eugenia, which is why she acts accordingly. Thus, even the supposedly non-racist characters of the movie exhibit racist behaviors.

Conclusion

In summary, the film includes multiple mimics of all the four frames of colorblindness presented by racist characters in an attempt to justify their worldview as well as actual colorblindness exhibited by the characters who neglect institutional racism. Moreover, the film includes racial stereotyping along with the appropriation of a black woman’s resources performed by the white protagonist. The above-presented analysis framed these patterns of racism, demonstrating the possible use of colorblindness and some other terms.

It can be concluded that the film incorporates a variety of racism patterns, some of which are explicit and become criticized while others might be unintentional and go unexamined. This feature seems to mirror the reality of racism, which is similarly complex. Moreover, the analysis reveals the use of colorblind patterns by explicitly racist characters. Since colorblindness is typically described as a subtle form of racism, the examples demonstrate that the differences between it and explicit racism may be not very extensive.

The film predominantly focuses on the direct forms of racism and shows their detrimental nature. However, the application of colorblind frames and other terminology indicates that less explicit and more subtle patterns also contribute to the perpetuation of racism and hinder its analysis or criticism by disregarding it. The fact that subtle racist patterns go unexamined by the film mimics their neglect in the real world, and the analysis demonstrates the significance of paying attention to them in order to progress towards inclusive multiracial democracy.

References

Hughey, M., Embrick, D., & Doane, A. (2015). Paving the way for future race research. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(11), 1347-1357. Web.

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McClure, S. M. (2015). Getting real about race: Hoodies, mascots, model minorities, and other conversations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rosenthal, L., & Lobel, M. (2016). Stereotypes of black American women related to sexuality and motherhood. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 40(3), 414-427. Web.

Taylor, T. (Director). (2011). The help. Web.

Thakore, B. (2014). Maintaining the mechanisms of colorblind racism in the twenty-first century. Humanity & Society, 38(1), 3-6. Web.

Thompson, K. D. (2014). Taking care a white babies, that’s what i do. In C.O. Garcia, V.A. Young, & C. Pimentel (Eds.), From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help (pp. 57-72). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan US.

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