It’s late October and Aibileen finds the bathroom in the carport a cold and isolating place. After witnessing Miss Leefolt berate her daughter for not eating in her high chair, Aibileen decides that she will tell Mae Mobley “something good” about herself everyday. Mae Mobley is old enough to begin toilet training but she’s having trouble learning because Miss Leefolt won’t demonstrate for her how it’s done. Knowing she’ll only learn if she sees someone do it first, Aibileen takes Mae Mobley to the outdoor bathroom and shows her what to do. Mae Mobley hops on the toilet with glee and learns quickly.
Aibileen’s feelings about the bathroom enforce its symbolism. Bathrooms are already private spaces, but segregation makes them more “isolating” than “private” because they become symbols of the treatment of black people as second-class citizens. This scene also shows Aibileen unconsciously teaching Mae Mobley more than just toilet training – she teaches her that it’s okay to “cross the color line” by using the separate bathroom.
When Miss Leefolt comes home, Mae Mobley runs to Aibileen’s bathroom to show her mother her new skill. Horrified, Leefolt slaps Mae Mobley on the leg and tells her she’ll catch diseases if she uses the “colored bathroom.” On the way home, Aibileen feels the bitter seed growing inside her when she thinks about how Miss Leefolt is teaching her daughter to see black people as less than white people. Aibileen hopes she has more time before Mae Mobley learns that lesson.
As Aibileen recognizes, children are not inherently racist. Up to a certain point, white children are “colorblind”: they do not form racial prejudices about the black maids who raise them. The home, however, becomes the site of racist education. Aibileen worries that since Mae Mobley grows up in a racist home, she will soon internalize and perpetuate her parents’ racist beliefs.
While shopping at the white supermarket with Mae Mobley, Aibileen runs into another maid and friend who tells her that two white men beat Robert Brown, Treelore’s best friend, for accidently using the whites only bathroom at a store. Aibileen thinks that the boy’s grandmother, Louvenia Brown, is the “purest, kindest person they is.”
Segregated bathrooms may seems like a small issue in the grand scheme of civil rights, but the violent beating of Robert Brown reminds us of the real, horrific consequences of segregation in all its forms. This violence adds weight and significance to the symbol of the bathroom for segregation.
Returning home from work, Aibileen sees Miss Skeeter waiting for her on her porch. Tired and distraught from the day’s news, Aibileen is annoyed that Skeeter didn’t call before showing up, a courtesy she knows Skeeter would have paid to a white woman. Skeeter asks to interview Aibileen for a book she wants to write about the lives of black maids in Jackson.
Here we see the bitter seed shaping Aibileen’s view of white people. Aibileen immediately assumes that Skeeter hasn’t treated her with the same respect she would a white woman—and she’s probably right, no matter how good Skeeter’s intentions are.
Aibileen tells Skeeter it’s too dangerous – black people in Jackson get killed for just going down to the voting booth. If she were to write this book, it would be as if she was burning her own house down. Skeeter asks her to consider it and Aibileen sighs and gives her a gentle “No Ma’am.” The neighborhood boys playing ball in the street stand silently as they watch Skeeter’s car drive away as if it were a hearse.
Skeeter’s ignorance about the risks involved in speaking out shows her lack of knowledge about what it means to be black in Jackson. This ignorance prevents Skeeter from reaching a cross-racial understanding with Aibileen. Skeeter’s request terrifies Aibileen so much that Aibileen describes Skeeter’s car as if it were a funeral car, a foreboding sign that shows that she thinks Skeeter is only going to bring trouble and suffering.