Kathryn Stockett's The Help is about a young author who, as described on the book's cover, want to write a book about "what it's really like to work as a black maid in the white homes of the South."
Prejudice is an overpowering force in the American landscape, especially in the heart of the South—Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. Prejudice not only keeps blacks in the lower rungs of society as dictated by prejudiced whites, but it also controls the interaction blacks have with whites. This is what we see in the character of Skeeter Phelan who has just returned from college. She comes up with the idea to write a book based on the actual stories of black domestics: women who keep house, raise children and disappear into the woodwork of most of the white women they serve who treat "the help" as inferior beings.
When Minnie's mother began to teach her daughter about the proper way to act when working for a white woman, she reminded her child:
Remember one thing: white people are not your friends.
This is a lesson that Minnie has to learn if she wants to survive working for white families. Minnie's problem is that she says what she thinks. It's hard to keep a job for a white woman when you are black and do not demonstrate the obsequious behavior that the woman expects.
Aibileen Clark has raised seventeen white children as a nursemaid and housekeeper. At present she is raising another baby, Mae Mobley who is now two years old. Her mother has no affection for her child and seems resentful that her daughter is so fond of Aibileen. Aibileen learns to love Mae Mobley and is desperate that the child knows she has value. Each day she tells the little one:
You is kind. You is smart. You is important.
Another way prejudice is practiced involves the help using the bathroom in the house where she works. In the novel is a central focal point for prejudicial behavior. At bridge club the issue of Aibileen using the bathroom comes up. Miss Hilly says that not having maid's quarters is dangerous:
Everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do.
Not based on scientific fact, it is yet another illogical rationalization to discriminate against the blacks. It is not simply a concern at bridge club. Robert Brown mistakenly uses a white bathroom and is beaten until he is blind. Mae Mobley is spanked because she uses Aibileen's bathroom.
There is more than just racial prejudice in the story. Celia Foote is white and ostracized by the white women in the community because she married Miss Hilly's former boyfriend and because they consider her socially inferior.
Celia grew up in a very poor area. She feels unworthy of living in a large, expensive house and being married to her husband who is in a higher social class. Celia is unaware of the social customs in Jackson so she is always offending people and dresses inappropriately.
Celia is not prejudiced against blacks, and she does not understand why other whites feel the way they do. She ends up hiring Minnie who grows to be quite fond of Celia. Celia is not sophisticated—the other women consider her "tacky," so the locals snub her. When she volunteers to help with the Junior League Benefit, almost everyone at bridge refuses to consider the offer.
Because Skeeter is white, she is able to walk the line between both worlds. She is not prejudiced or petty. She is educated and not like the other white women her age who are very shallow. She does not act superior to the black women she encounters in the homes she visits, or those with whom she works to write her book. However, she does not completely understand the the plight of a black woman in service for a white family. While Skeeter generally can move about more freely than her black counterparts, even she needs to be careful so her actions do not negatively impact the lives of the black women she has come to admire and care for.
By the story's end, Skeeter has a clearer perception of the divisions that control black women in white households. She notes:
Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought.