Patricia A. Turner: Dangerous White Stereotypes






Patricia A. Turner is a professor of African American studies and the vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis. Her most recent book is “Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters.”

ONE of the most noteworthy movies of the summer is “The Help.” Set in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, it focuses on the relationships between white upper-middle-class women and the black domestics who took care of them and their children....

This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists.

There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.

Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals....



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