My daughter’s charmed life and her contact with the service industry
As a White, upper middle class woman, my contact with the service industry provides a constant reminder that the legacy of slavery is inextricably connected to our present-day reality.
I live near a block that houses a supermarket, a nail salon, a hair salon, a laundromat, a dry cleaner, and a deli. I live in a building with a large maintenance staff. Almost all of the employees in the service industries that serve me daily are immigrants and/or people of color.
My daughter is an unknowing participant in this system, an observer of an economy that dictates who has access to which types of jobs. She has become a witness to what I often think of as two parallel worlds.
I had been muddling through the parallel worlds of the service industry and my daughter’s charmed life, knowing that I wanted to make all of this explicit for my race conscious child at some point. But the economics of the workforce felt like a complicated subject for a child’s symphony of “why?”
Then, one day, my then two-year-old daughter and I were walking to the supermarket. She was on my shoulders, and as we walked, we talked about who she would see at the supermarket.
“Would Ezequiel be there? What about Ceclia?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I replied. “I wonder if they are working today.” Out of the blue, and not expecting much of a response, I asked, “Have you ever noticed that all of the people who work in the supermarket speak Spanish, like you?”
Without skipping a beat, my daughter asked, “Why do they all speak Spanish?”
Why? I thought to myself, a little caught off guard. OK, I can answer that.
“Well,” I said, “a lot of people who work in our supermarket are immigrants. That means that they were born in another country and moved here, like Papi. And a lot of times, when immigrants come to a new country and don’t speak English, working in a supermarket is a good opportunity to have a job and make money so they can pay for things like food and an apartment where they can live.” (Of course, what I didn’t touch on is that the jobs available to an immigrant are not always paid well or fairly.)
My daughter, still on my shoulders, listened to this brief explanation until we reached the door of the supermarket. Then, she practically jumped down from my shoulders into a cart. The conversation, for the moment, had ended.
A few weeks later, summer arrived and my daughter became obsessed with water balloons. And I became obsessed with throwing away the popped balloons before filling up another one. At first, my daughter accepted this rule without question and would diligently pick up the broken pieces of latex and run them over to the garbage. As the summer went on, she wised up, noticing that not every child followed the same protocol.
“You have to put the pieces in the garbage before we fill up another one,” I would tell her.
“But they don’t,” she responded, gesturing toward some other children in the playground.
“They have a different rule than we do. Our rule is that we pick up our garbage.”
“Why?” she asked in toddlerese.
“Well,” I explained. “First of all, a bird could try to eat the balloon and it could hurt the bird. And, second, if we don’t pick up our garbage, the people who work in the playground will have to pick it up for us. It is their job to keep the playground clean so children can play here safely, but it isn’t their job to pick up our garbage.”
Following this episode, I would point out the Parks Department employees when I saw them in the playground, almost all of whom are people of color. “We should thank them for keeping the playground clean so children can play in it.” My daughter would obligingly run up to the park employees and call out, “Thank you!”
For now, I want my daughter to value all types of work—as well as the people who do the work. I want her to know the people who “serve” her by name and I want her to respect them.
As she gets older, I want her to understand her role in these parallel (and intersecting) worlds. I want her to be able to acknowledge her privilege as a White Latina as well as her class privilege and to understand that not everyone started from the same point with the same opportunities.
If you happen to employ a nanny or babysitter to care for your children, click here for a related resource: Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, an organization that supports employers to improve their employment practices, and to collaborate with workers to change cultural norms and public policies that bring dignity and respect to domestic workers. In addition to on-line resources and workshops across New York City and the Bay Area, CA, Hand in Hand has partnered with Care.com and the National Domestic Workers Alliance to promote the Fair Care Pledge which outlines three quick ways that you can become a fair employer today.
Also, click here for some tips re: holiday tipping for the janitors, babysitters, and others in your life.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.