“The Help,” this week’s non-action movie release, tells the story of black household workers in the South in the early 1960s—domestic helpers who take great risks by sharing stories about what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. Their tales not only reveal the great sense of empowerment that comes from sharing and having your voice heard but also remind us of the greatness of the real women who do this work today under sometimes terrible conditions. The release of the movie offers a moment to draw the connections between those household workers five decades ago and current immigrant domestic workers, many of whom are of Latino, African, and Caribbean descent.
The author of the novel on which the movie is based, Kathryn Stockett, a white upper-class Southerner, undertook the extraordinarily difficult task of writing from a perspective that is not her own. This means the narrative is definitely not all that it could be. Readers and moviegoers will wonder whether she paid enough attention to stories of actual women who did this household work during the pre-Civil Rights era, some of whom I know were in my family and just about every black family.
Similarly, maybe American audiences should question whether we too often ignore the stories of the women who do this work today, in this era before, one hopes, comprehensive immigration reform. What are we missing if we don’t pay enough attention to our history of connections to one another, to the stories of women who work hard to care for their families, sometimes acting as super nurturers by caring for two sets of children—some at work and their own at home?
“The Help” needs to be matched up with research that presents actual stories to reflect the low pay and minimal respect society offered to black domestic help in our country over the past five decades. In addition, research needs to include details about the debilitating costs of being locked out of the government safety net created under the New Deal, which granted a lot of discretion to states that were then free to discriminate against African Americans. Kenneth Neubeck and Noel Cazenave’s Welfare Racism would be a good place to start.
Further solidifying these women’s position at the bottom of the ladder was an absence of necessary civil rights legal reforms and a Jim Crow culture of fear and intimidation that often kept them from challenging the status quo. For today’s immigrant household workers, it seems to be the same story but a different day, with all the pieces being in place to exploit their labor.
Once again, low wages, minimal respect, and being locked out of much of the social safety net due to legislative provisions that are often exclusionary even for those who are documented and who recently became citizens are all commonplace. This is why there is a need for federal immigration reform and workplace reform today just as there was a need for federal civil rights legislation back in the 1960s.
Second-class status is just as intolerable today as it was then. So, too, is fear and intimidation. Today that comes in the form of actual abuse to the potential of deportation, preventing workers from more aggressively challenging the status quo.
But just stating these obvious similarities doesn’t seem to be enough. As with the fictional household workers in “The Help,” true human connections to the experiences of others won’t occur unless we hear one another’s voices and share our stories. The value of this is evident in the ongoing movement to provide platforms for those who often go unheard. Examples include the Half in Ten campaign’s Road to Shared Prosperity project and the My Life is True project.
Another storytelling project is the National Council of La Raza’s “We Needed The Work: Latino Worker Voices in the New Economy.” It offers the directly relevant story of Victoria, a household worker who was asked to work 24 hours a day, cheated out of earned pay, and laid off at a moment’s notice without the opportunity to collect her personal belongings. Learning of Victoria’s story likely creates some sense of connection for:
- African Americans who may be reminded of women in their families who were or are household workers
- Low-wage women of all colors who have been mistreated in the workplace
- Women like Kathryn Stockett, a white woman of privilege who was so shaped by the woman who worked for her family as a child that she decided to write “The Help”
It is only through this joint sense of connection that we can build an America that supports the well-being of everyone within our borders. But even more importantly, the sharing of stories empowers the tellers and validates their contributions to our society. This is important for everyone but especially for those groups who have in some way been locked out of full participation in all the opportunities that America has to offer.
Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.