Over the weekend, I finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which last I checked was on the bestseller list for most of a year. I enjoyed it a great deal, dispelling many of my preconceptions about bestsellers.

I mentioned this to a girlfriend of mine on Friday afternoon, as I know she is not only literarily inclined but also hails from the South, as her charming touch of an accent can attest. As I suspected, she had not only read it but led a book group in discussing it, and had plenty of things to say on the subject.

Her main response seemed not to be to the book, but rather to other peoples’ reactions to it. Specifically, Californians’ reactions. She said she had had to defend her home territory vehemently, as everyone’s immediate response was, “Wow, the South was so racist!” And what, we’ve never had racism here in California?

As Californians, or rather as denizens of the Bay Area, I think we tend to have a slightly holier than thou attitude to the rest of the country. No matter where you live, it’s easy to judge the South for their racist attitudes, especially when fictionalized. But that lets the rest of us get off the hook a little too easily. Just because we didn’t grow up with Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms does not mean we’re somehow immune to racism.

I for one grew up in a largely Hispanic area, and had bilingual Spanish/English schooling until fifth grade. After that, I went to schools progressively further north of where I started, ending up at my university up at the very top of the county. There I had a total of one black friend, who liked to joke that he and the dark, dark African guy at our college were their token effort at “diversity.” Now, even though I live not thirty miles from where I grew up answering to the name “Soe” because I knew so many Spanish speakers, I am shocked to see such a large Hispanic population when I go back to that same town.

Yeah, real progressive.

Even so, I never realized how racist I am until we moved to Portugal. There, the population is overwhelmingly African or Brazilian, with people of all colors on every city block and square. It took me a while to identify why I got nervous when walking by myself in certain areas. At first I assumed it to be a part of my general discomfort with living in another country, but after some time, I realized that it was because I’m just not used to being around people with dark skin.

Until Lisbon, I had never lived anywhere other than white or Hispanic areas. I had never confronted the fact that the difference in skin colors made me uncomfortable, simply because it was just that: different. Given that I went to two of the more progressive, even radical universities in the world, I was ashamed to find this latent racism lurking in my liberally-educated Californian heart.

So you see, it’s all too easy to cast the first stone, especially in hindsight. It’s too easy to condemn the South for their racist ways, for their inhumanity, their degradation and ignorance. But who among us has not been racist at some point or another? It’s a fundamental human impulse to be uncomfortable with that which is Other, different, not like us. True, some of us can recognize and resist this impulse, while others throughout history have institutionalized it in order to oppress other human beings who are, in reality, just like us.

But to my mind, ignoring that response, damning it in others while pretending it’s not there in ourselves, is very much not a part of the solution. By elevating ourselves above those who we perceive as racist, we are perpetuating the very same problem.

From my reading, that was one of the points Stockett was trying to get across in her book. She is not trying to show us how terrible these people are, but rather the opposite. As despicable as some of the characters may seem, they are all just people, living in a society that prescribes them certain roles to fill, as women, as whites, as servants, as husbands, as children.

When it comes down to it, aren’t we all?

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