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surprise: internalized racism still alive and well

December 27, 2006

Yesterday an interesting story in the NYTimes revealed some of the problems faced by middle-class black families in hiring nannies to care for their children. In my work with JFREJ, we talk at length about the intricacies of the power dynamic between Jewish employers and their employees, most often women of color. The story that the Times tells is one of fraught internalized racism, usually involving some combination of stereotypes, fear, and perhaps self-hatred:

…interviews with dozens of nannies and agencies that employ them in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Houston turned up many nannies — often of African-American or Caribbean descent themselves — who avoid working for families of those backgrounds. Their reasons included accusations of low pay and extra work, fears that employers would look down at them, and suspicion that any neighborhood inhabited by blacks had to be unsafe.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that much, considering how much internalized racism/ classism/ homophobia/ anti-semitism/ etc. is such a huge part of how all those ‘isms’ function. The truth is that the stereotype of employers of nannies, at least in New York City, is white and middle- and upper-class folks. It would follow that nannies and potential nannies would hold that stereotype as well.

Because of the nature of domestic work and the means through which most nannies find their jobs (only a small percentage find their jobs through agencies) and also because many domestic workers are undocumented*, statistics on the racial and class makeup of employers of domestic workers are hard to come by. (some statistics on domestic workers, by the way, are available in a study that came out last year, published by Domestic Workers United [DWU].)

The one thing that the article doesn’t stress quite enough is how unofficial the nature of the industry is, how despite the large numbers, most nannies find their jobs through their own informal networks. This is an environment in which rumors and stereotypes thrive. This angle might have set the context a bit better.

The interesting parts of the article are, of course, the most extreme stories of discrimination and stereotyping. A family living in Clinton Hill described their painful search for a nanny:

One sitter, a Caribbean woman living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, asked about the “colored” people in the Boones’ neighborhood, Clinton Hill. A Russian sitter said enthusiastically that although she had never cared for a black child, she could in this case, because little Emerie Boone, now 7 months old, was light-skinned. All sitters expressed surprise that a black couple could afford a four-story brownstone.

A Harvard sociologist analyzed the complex power dynamics resulting from a black nanny working for a black employer:

The problem may be as much about class as race…for nannies, working for an employer of the same background or skin color “highlights their lower economic status,” she said, but “the fact that their employers are black just makes that more intense.”

Here it is. If a woman of color who lives in Queens works for a white family on the upper east side, the differences are about so much more than class. Differentials of race, religion, culture, even location, can add to the equation of power, when the basic inequality is that of class. And that differential is even more pronounced when race can’t serve as a marked difference (the most obviously visible) between an employer and employee.

As a JFREJ member, my initial reaction is that this is an indication of a larger problem with the domestic work industry, which is the lack of standards and legal protection. Neither domestic workers nor their employers are protected by any kind of legislative standards. The other problem, which is certainly related, is that because domestic work takes place in an intimate space and between one or two employers and one employee, combating stereotypes and assumptions is an even more daunting task than it might be in another industry.

*or “illegal,” according to the NYTimes. I hate that it’s still acceptable in mainstream newspapers to call human beings illegal.

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