I have a deep-seated resentment of white parents who specifically hire black immigrant women or people of color as nannies. Whenever I go to the park or take a stroll through New York City on any day of the work week and see large groups of black or minority women pushing strollers with little blonde or brown-haired children in the seats, I cringe. As the holidays approach, the sight becomes even more troublesome for me. This isn’t because there is something inherently wrong with people of different races being caretakers for White children, but because I know far too well the intricacies of that dynamic, namely the many sacrifices these women of color often make to secure and keep such work, and the unfair and demeaning conditions sometimes imposed on them by their white employers. See, I was the child of an immigrant, Afro-Caribbean live-in childcare worker. And I know what she faced.
My mother left Trinidad and Tobago back in the 1990s for personal reasons, none of which were economic. She was and is an incredibly intelligent woman who attended one of the most prestigious schools back in her home country and had access to employment. She was not a woman of fantastic means, but she was a hard worker and an achiever. Beyond that, she had one basic right that was stripped from her upon entry to the lowest rungs of the working class in the United States of America: The right to human dignity.
Live-in nanny work paid fairly decently, especially compared to the other work available for newcomers to America, and sometimes even included room and board. For women like my mother, who loved children and really needed the money, nannying seemed like the best option for starting her new life in the U.S., and maybe even allow her to send money or other goodies “home.” Except the reality of the work was far more antagonistic.
On my mother’s first day working in the home of a well-to-do white family with three children, she was instructed to vacuum the stairs of their two-story mansion literally as she walked through the door, before she even had a chance to take off her coat or put down her bag.
“Then you can take out the trash and meet the children,” the blonde head of the household instructed with a smile.
As my mother vacuumed, the woman stood nearby and observed, staring at her watch as each moment passed. Not used to such treatment, my mother dropped the vacuum, walked out of the home and never returned. She had not realized that the title “nanny” actually meant cook, maid, hairstylist, therapist, cook, and everything in between, all roles many nannies are expected to occupy. And up until that point, she actually still expected some degree of respect.
If you have ever seen the documentary Queen of Versailles, then you’re familiar with the manner in which many live-in nannies are treated by their employers. A well-to-do family hires an immigrant woman to care for the children, usually at the expense of her very own existence and even her children’s. She is expected to be always available, and even holidays and weekends off are no guarantee. Her life and her children are of little importance. The Philippina nanny in that documentary cared for the children of that household for 20-plus years while her own child grew into a man without her back in the Philippines. She lived in a “toy house” originally intended to be used for play by the children. The woman also dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to entertain guests at her employer’s holiday parties.
Similar expectations were required of my mother. One family insisted on her presence for a family holiday ski trip for the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s. Another would give her weekends off, but only allow her to leave early on Saturday mornings, not Friday nights. She was spoken down to. Yelled at. Interrupted. Castigated. Sometimes she had to fight to get paid after a long week’s worth of work.
Then there was always the racial component. Apart from the obvious, blatant racial insensitivity and cruelty, there were the more subtle messages. Racism need not be explicitly stated when it is clearly visible. When one enters a racially segregated world, where “the help” is black or brown and those who can afford the help are white, it takes a great toll on your psyche. My mother, who once thought she could be anything she wanted, began to question her intelligence, her capabilities, and the worth her blackness. Forced by necessity to give up the right to raise her own children, while caring for the children of another woman who stood idly near, she questioned the value of her own motherhood.
It is in such situations that you realize the value of your humanity is indeed “lesser than.” That your dignity is not guaranteed merely because you are of “the human race.” It is the social structures and hierarchies created by many members of “the human race” that has created such a predicament. It is many members of “the human race” who believe you are good enough to care for their children, but not worthy of the freedom to love and be present for your own.
That is why during the holiday season I am especially aware of these hardworking women of color who push carriages and hold little white hands. Each time such a woman passes by, I think of my mother and wonder how many of these women just want to be home with their own kids. I think of the indecencies they must face. I wonder if they have managed to maintain or sustain their own perception of their self worth? If they have internalized the expectations of others who devalue their existence? I am overwhelmed by these thoughts.
So often, I just prefer to avoid them.
Nevertheless, a part of me still embraces the sight. It serves as a constant reminder of the struggles women of color face and overcome to provide for their families and loved ones. It forces me to appreciate and love my mother even more for all that she has done for my siblings and I. And it inspires me to find the courage to continue to demand better — true equality– for people of color in the United States of America.
Reprinted with permission from The Frisky. Want more?