At its core, The Help is an exploration of the ways in which racism pervaded every aspect of social life in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi – from Jim Crow laws that sanctioned discrimination and segregation as official policy to casual conversations between middle-class white women. In particular, the novel focuses on how white housewives justified the exploitation and emotional abuse of their black maids by convincing themselves that black people are fundamentally different from – and inferior to – white people. Miss Hilly openly expresses the belief that African-Americans are figuratively and literally “unclean,” prone to moral depravity and infectious diseases not carried by whites. On a larger scale, almost every white woman in the novel performs the social practices that reinforce the institutional separation of whites and blacks under Jim Crow-era law. The white women don’t let their maids touch them, sit at their table, or share their food. These everyday practices dehumanize the maids and make it easier for the housewives to exploit their maids’ labor.
The novel investigates and portrays how racism is not inherent to human nature, but is instead passed down generation to generation by way of education. Up to a certain point, white children in the novel are “colorblind”: they do not form any racial prejudices about the black maids who raise them. But, as Aibileen has learned from her experience raising seventeen white children, the kids start to see racial differences when their parents and teachers enforce prevailing racist attitudes. When Mae Mobley draws a picture of herself with a black crayon, her teacher scolds her, saying that black people are “dirty” and she should draw herself as white unless she wants people to think she’s “dirty” too. To maintain the racial hierarchy in the South that allows whites tremendous amounts of political and economic power over African-Americans, adult members of society give their children a disturbing inheritance: the belief that they are inherently superior to blacks.
However, the novel also provides a framework for how individuals can fight racism, or at least refuse to participate in its perpetuation, by establishing channels of honest and empathetic communication across color lines. After witnessing the disrespect with which her white friends treat their maids, Miss Skeeter risks spurring the violent anger of her community by helping the maids publish their stories about working for white families. Skeeter tries to see the world through the eyes of the maids, and makes the rather obvious realization that they too are valuable humans with the same capacity for emotion and intelligence as her white peers. By recognizing the essential humanity of these women, Skeeter comes to realize that the institutional laws and social practices that separate people based on race are unethical and founded on a social framework of lies and exploitation. As a result, she ultimately leaves her friends and family in the South rather than continue living in such a blindly racist community. This ability to simply leave, however, is a privilege Skeeter retains as a wealthy white woman, while the maids at the heart of the story don’t have such an opportunity.
Racism Quotes in The Help
Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
Got to be the worst place in the world, inside a oven. You in here, you either cleaning or you getting cooked. Tonight I just know I’m on have that dream I’m stuck inside and the gas gets turned on. But I keep my head in that awful place cause I’d rather be anywhere sides answering Miss Leefolt’s questions about what Miss Skeeter was trying to say to me. Asking do I want to change things.
I put the iron down real slow, feel that bitter seed grow in my chest, the one planted after Treelore died. My face goes hot, my tongue twitchy. I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain’t saying it. And I know she ain’t saying what she want a say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.
She’s got so many azalea bushes, her yard’s going to look like Gone With the Wind come spring. I don’t like azaleas and I sure didn’t like that movie, the way they made slavery look like a big happy tea party. If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.
“Now you look a here, Eugenia”—because Constantine was the only one who’d occasionally follow Mama’s rule. “Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person.”
I wonder if I’ll ever write anything worth anything at all. I turn when I hear Pascagoula’s knock on my door. That’s when the idea comes to me.
No. I couldn’t. That would be... crossing the line.
But the idea won’t go away.
I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain't a color, disease ain't the negro side of town. I want to stop that moment from coming – and it come in every white child's life – when they start to think that colored folks are not as good as whites.
Aibileen just stood there and I wished I wasn’t in the room. Please, I thought, please don’t say thank you.
“Yes ma’am.” Aibileen opened a drawer and reached inside, but Hilly kept looking at her. It was so obvious what she wanted.
Another second passed with no one moving. Hilly cleared her throat and finally Aibileen lowered her head. “Thank you, ma’am,” she whispered. She walked back into the kitchen. It’s no wonder she doesn’t want to talk to me.
It’s something about that word truth. I’ve been trying to tell white women the truth about working for them since I was fourteen years old…Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life.
Truth, I say inside my head again, just for that feeling.
On my drive home, I want to kick myself. For thinking I could just waltz in and demand answers. For thinking she’d stop feeling like the maid just because we were at her house, because she wasn’t wearing a uniform.
I realize, like a shell cracking open in my head, there’s no difference between these government laws and Hilly building Aibileen a bathroom in the garage, except ten minutes’ worth of signatures in the state capital.
I feel my lip curling. A course we different! Everbody know colored people and white people ain’t the same. But we still just people! Shoot, I even been hearing Jesus had colored skin living out there in the desert. I press my lips together.
But this bag is different. Even what would fit me in that paper sack, I can’t wear. Can’t give to my friends either. Ever piece in that bag—the culotte pants, the shirt with the Peter Pan collar, the pink jacket with the gravy stain on it, even the socks—they all got the letters H.W.H. sewn in. Red thread, pretty little cursive letters. I reckon Yule May had to sew them letters. Wearing those, I’d feel like I’s personal-owned property a Hilly W. Holbrook.
After while, my mind done drifted to where I wish it wouldn’t. I reckon I know pretty well what would happen if the white ladies found out we was writing about them, telling the truth a what they really like. Womens, they ain’t like men. A woman ain’t gone beat you with a stick. Miss Hilly wouldn’t pull no pistol on me. Miss Leefolt wouldn’t come burn my house down.
No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches’ fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em.
See, I think if God had intended for white people and colored people to be this close together for so much of the day, he would’ve made us color-blind. And while Miss Celia’s grinning and “good morning” and “glad to see”-ing me, I’m wondering, how did she get this far in life without knowing where the lines are drawn? I mean, a floozy calling the society ladies is bad enough. But she has sat down and eaten lunch with me every single day since I started working here. I don’t mean in the same room, I mean at the same table. That little one up under the window. Every white woman I’ve ever worked for ate in the dining room as far away from the colored help as they could. And that was fine with me…There are so many things Miss Celia is just plain ignorant about.
Here’s the thing: I like telling my stories. It feels like I’m doing something about it. When I leave, the concrete in my chest has loosened, melted down so I can breathe for a few days. And I know there are plenty of other “colored” things I could do besides telling my stories or going to....the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate. But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting. I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people. What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.
“It is my job, Skeeter! You know well as I do, people won’t buy so much as a slice of pound cake from an organization that harbors racial integrationists!”
“Hilly.” I just need to hear her say it. “Just who is all that pound cake money being raised for, anyway?”
She rolls her eyes. “The Poor Starving Children of Africa?”
I wait for her to catch the irony of this, that she’ll send money to colored people overseas, but not across town.
“She needs to learn that she can’t carry on this way. I mean, around us it’s one thing, but around some other people, she’s going to get in big trouble.”
“It’s true. There are some racists in this town,” Miss Leefolt say. Miss Hilly nod her head, “Oh, they’re out there.”
“Why would you want to go stirring up trouble?”
I can tell, in his voice, he sincerely wants an answer from me. But how to explain it? He is a good man, Stuart. As much as I know that what I’ve done is right, I can still understand his confusion and doubt.
“I’m not making trouble, Stuart. The trouble is already here.”
So I lean my hand on the sideboard because the baby’s getting heavy on me. And I wonder how it is that I have so much when she doesn’t have any. He’s crying. She’s crying. We are three fools in the dining room crying.
I walk out the back door, to the terrible sound a Mae Mobley crying again. I start down the driveway, crying too, knowing how much I’m on miss Mae Mobley, praying her mama can show her more love. But at the same time feeling, in a way, that I’m free…Freer than Miss Leefolt, who so locked up in her own head she don’t even recognize herself when she read it. And freer than Miss Hilly. That woman gone spend the rest a her life trying to convince people she didn’t eat that pie. I think about Yule May setting in jail. Cause Miss Hilly, she in her own jail, but with a lifelong term.
The sun is bright but my eyes is wide open. I stand at the bus stop like I been doing for forty-odd years. In thirty minutes, my whole life’s . . . done. Maybe I ought to keep writing, not just for the paper, but something else, about all the people I know and the things I seen and done. Maybe I ain’t too old to start over, I think and I laugh and cry at the same time at this. Cause just last night I thought I was finished with everthing new.