Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t super early in the morning and, up until then, I had been having a perfectly uneventful, blissful few hours since the time I’d woken up. The weather was beautiful, all my favorite songs were being shuffled into my mp3 player and my outfit was extra cute (barring what the ruthless D.C. humidity had done to my doobie wrap). All snuggled up in my cloud of Thursday morning happiness, I wasn’t prepared to board the elevator and become somebody’s house Negro.
But I did. Soon as a tall, lanky white man in an ill-fitting suit sauntered in just ahead of the closing doors. He pivoted to the front, reared his nose in the air and motioned at the floor buttons with his eyes. “Four please,” he snooted.
At first, I was frolicking through La-La Land, as I often do. I’m an only child, I’m a creative type and I’m more than a little flighty, so I spend my fair share of time with my daydreams. But that command hovered in the air and drop-kicked me back into the present.
“Excuse me?” I asked. By now, any normal person would’ve reached over and pressed the number their doggone self instead of waiting for this goofy girl to get herself together to press it for them. Not this mystery Mr. Carrington. No sir. He repeated himself, eyes forward, chin set, fully expecting my compliance and service. Needless to say, that elevator became an express and it darn sure didn’t pause at the fourth floor on the way up to my stop on the seventh. It was ladies first. Even Black ones.
I don’t mind doing that sort of thing for them—so long as they don’t act like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, like it’s my job or responsibility. But he was giving me the straight Butterfly McQueen treatment. That happens sometimes.
I haven’t seen The Help. And I don’t have any plans to. I feel like I’ve watched it already, just with a different cast, a different plot and a different setting. The story of a benevolent white protagonist who somehow saves some marginalized, helpless Black person has been smacked up, flipped and rubbed down a thousand times in Hollywood. It seems like just a few weeks ago I was waging a personal protest against The Blind Side and heckling my way through The Secret Life of Bees. Now here we are again, this time talking about the liberation of domestic servants by a whippersnapper white journalist.
Is there a movie in the works that portrays Black folks organizing and saving themselves? Maybe an indy flick or a straight-to-DVD joint. That plot apparently doesn’t hold weight against the feel-good, warm and fuzzy messaging audiences get from interracial stories that give them hope that we’ll all throw down our bitterness and hang-ups and hold hands like Skeeter and Abilene. And that’s all they need to think they know me and my experience. I can see some white lady now, giving me that tight-lipped, puppy dog look of empathy and saying, “It’s OK. I understand. I saw The Help,” and maybe patting me on my hand.
I have all the respect for my foremothers and fathers who had to wade through the humiliations of servitude in order to provide for their families. I would never take that away from them. I just don’t want to see it played out on the big screen because honestly, there are so many other scenarios and situations we could focus on. Racism doesn’t burn like a big, bright fire anymore. Instead, it seethes like a backdraft hidden by doors and walls until some unwitting person walks straight on into it and inadvertently gets burned.
The downside to these kinds of movies is the focus is always more on drumming up some pity and empathy for the aggrieved Black victim than it is on exposing and pointing out the pathology of white privilege—the kind that that lets Elevator Guy think I’m supposed to hop to it whenever he mumbles his floor-stop orders. Most of them don’t even recognize their own racist tendencies.
In their minds, a racist is bold, in-your-face tacky, slurs spilling out the corners of their mouths, brandishing Klan paraphernalia, sporting a pair of neo-Nazi boots or loudly spewing inappropriate comments like the stereotypical redneck. But I have news for some white folks, bless their hearts: sometimes your racism is showing and you don’t even realize it. Like the hem of a slip dangling from underneath a dress that needs to make it to the seamstress post haste.
A few months ago, I was in Target. I’m always in Target. Maybe that’s why the lady mistook me for a team member. “Excuse me?” she smiled, holding up a flimsy-looking wicker basket. “Do you have any more of these?”
I cocked my head to the side ready to say really?!, but my home training caught up with my quickfire smart mouth. Thank God my mama raised me to have respect for my elders, even white ones. She was certainly old enough to be my grandmother—back in her day, all Black folks really were the help—so I gave her a polite albeit fake-as-heck grin and explained briefly that I didn’t work there. I would think that was obvious since Target employees wear red shirts and khaki bottoms and I had on a forest green Bob Marley T-shirt and jeans. Nonetheless, she scurried away, just as oblivious to the possibility that she could’ve offended me, and went on about her basket hunting.
Unaffected. That’s what she was and that pretty much sums up the total of their experiences with race. And it’ll keep on being like that. Movies like this will come and go and make them feel good about themselves one way or another, either because a hero that looks like them helped bridge the racial gap by adopting a Black child or coming to the rescue of a group of down-and-out inner-city kids or because the characters in the movie are so in-your-face with their racism that white folks won’t be able to identify with them. It doesn’t challenge them to pick up on the possibility that their own everyday subtleties might be offensive and condescending. And so I’ll press on, racking up a boatload of incidents that were whispered, not screamed, but still every bit as insulting as flat out calling me The Help.