A criticism of The Help is that it served mainly as a vehicle for a white woman's development as a writer, who also exposed racist acts. The one who gets to take the most action is the white woman. The focus is on Skeeter as the benevolent protagonist who helps tell the black housekeepers' stories. The domestic workers end up as props for the white character's coming-of-age story. (This film is also used, along with The Blind Side, as an example of the white-person-as-savior trope).
I recently saw a preview for The Rum Diaries, which again featured white characters with people of color (Puerto Ricans) as the backdrop. It's completely acceptable to write a novel or script about a character who grows as a person, but do any people of color get to star in these roles?
We see this in more than just the Bildungsroman genre. Aydrea Walden, at the excellent blog Sociological Images, viewed several movie trailers to compare white and non-white roles. Simply viewing a snapshot of a film shows that white characters get to do a range of things, like "be sweet, be naive, be oddly cool, progressive parents, live in a small town, live in a big city, parody Almost Famous, be hot, be regular looking," or "[e]xperience an existential crisis, wrestle, host and attend pool parties, have an iPad, discover their past, illegally adopt children." You know, all kinds of normal or crazy behavior that a variety of films would exhibit.
However, people of color have very few options. Walden observed that non-whites in the trailers participated in minor and passive roles, like "be threatening, drive a car." "Play craps, provide and clarify exposition." "Believe a stranger." Or negative things, like being a felon, or as plot-movers, like setting up jokes for the main white characters.
Of course, skeptics can think of films with nuanced characters of color, but the number of films with multi-dimensional, active stars of color (not just sidekicks to attractive white protagonists!) is disproportionate to the number of films as a whole. The same goes for TV shows. Consigning people of color to minor or negative roles is damaging. This phenomenon also happens with women, of all colors. Women are often portrayed as passive, naive, unintelligent, and one-dimensional characters who are only physically beautiful. Walden remarks:
Whew! I was worried that I was going to see examples of myself in various and interesting situations. But luckily, I’ve been reminded that being of color is just not that interesting. Why else would of color folks be kept out of the canon of one of the most powerful industries going?
I’d say this was no big deal and that I and others might accept my blackness anyway. But the repetition of images (or the omission of images) is pretty much what the entire advertising industry is based on. So I guess a message is definitely getting across.
Unfortunately, the white North American church is not immune from this type of behavior, either intentionally or unintentionally. Jamie Wright, who blogs at The Very Worst Missionary, recently explained how people living in poverty outside the U.S. (who also happen to be people of color...) end up as backdrops for the personal development of white Christians when said white Christians go on short-term missions trips.
In response to criticism of short-term missions, many well-meaning North Americans are quick to point out that missions trips helped them realize they should be thankful for what they have, or that it was a watershed moment in their spiritual development. Having gone on countless short-term missions trips as a teenager, I count myself as a changed brat person partly due to these experiences. In the same way that telling a story to bring racism to light is a noble venture, I do not see missions trips as a necessarily bad thing. But, as Wright so deftly points out:
As we send throngs of suburban teenagers on short-term missions every year to “learn a lesson”, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves; What are the poor kids learning from all of this?
We're teaching impoverished kids an important lesson, as well, when we wave our arm at a slum and say to our suburban brats, “Don't you see how blessed you are that you don't live here?!”
Poor people aren't stupid people. Poor people aren't less perceptive. Poor people aren't always pleased to be living what we deem “simple lives”. And don't you dare fool yourself into believing that poor people aren't making the exact same lifestyle comparisons you are.
When we descend upon the impoverished to improve our family's perspective, we may as well be saying to the mothers of these children, “Pardon me, I'm just gonna use your poor kid to teach my rich kid a lesson for a minute. I'll be out of the way in no time – Oh, and I'll leave you some shoes.... and a toothbrush.”
Walden and Wright's incisive, appropriately-sarcastic critiques should make us all think twice about images we see in advertising, Hollywood movies, and yes, even in church settings. People who also happen to be low-income, or women, or of color, are people, not just backdrops to the development of the main, white character. As a white woman, I've unwittingly engaged in this behavior, and have also taken the brunt of it.
Many white North American Christians enjoy railing against Hollywood for its liberal, sex-crazed, violent films, but wouldn't it be refreshing if the white Church took notice of another problem in the film industry and in life in general - relegating people of color to the margins? I'm thrilled that Wright has been brave enough to speak out about this, so it's great to see some in the white Church take measures to stop such a damaging practice. People of color are not merely props. We all know this at some level - so how do our actions line up?