In honor of May Day: Challenging conversations about domestic work
When my son was younger, talking about race felt simple. I’d read “Whose Knees Are These,” with my one-year-old and then coo, afterwards, about how beautiful his brown skin is; his brown knees, toes, chin, and nose. How I loved them so and could eat them up. Or, when my son was two, we had this conversation together:
B, eating breakfast, says out of nowhere it seems: “You’re Black.”
“Yes…” I said
B: And Sam’s Black. (B’s new baby brother)
Me: Yes, he is.
B: And I’m Black.
Me: Yes. And what about Daddy?
Me: He’s White.
Me: So, that makes you Mixed. Black and White, or what I’d say is Black and Mixed.
M: You and Sam are Mixed. And, you know what else?
M: You’re BEAUTIFUL.
That seemed to be enough for him.
I had questions, of course: Why did he use the term Black, when I had previously called us brown? Why did he not seem to know that his father was White? Was it already invisible? Was the default standard to him? Why, on that morning, was he asking or observing this?
But simple and direct—or less, rather than more—was an easy rule of thumb at that age that seemed effective for responding to his requests for information about any topic, including race and color.
But now, my son is almost four, and I am having more trouble. He is older, very observant, and I am eager to provide a buffer between him and the negative racial imagery and injustices around him; I am eager to interrupt ill-informed and inevitable raced-based conclusions, either about himself or others. But, this impulse doesn’t always go as well in practice. Here’s an example of one of our more recent conversations:
At my aunt’s house the other day, we were chatting with Vero, my aunt’s cleaning lady, whom I’ve known since childhood. She is Mexican and is very sweet and loving with my son.
“Does she know Juana?” my son asked. Juana is our housekeeper, who is also Mexican and very sweet and loving with my son.
“No,” I said, feeling acutely sensitive to how Vero might have been overhearing the question. “They don’t know each other.”
Later, when we were no longer with Vero, I re-visited the conversation and added:
“Maybe you noticed that both Juana and Vero are Mexican. But they do not know each other. A few folks who clean houses that we know are Mexican—that was observant. But many people who clean houses are not Mexican. They can be Black or White or any color. Like Gammie’s housekeeper…she is White. And many Mexicans do lots of other things for jobs besides cleaning houses.”
And then, wait for it, I started to list all different types of jobs that Mexicans do—lawyer, doctor, CEO of Macy’s! I was just filling the space confusion and babble. His eyes glaze. Conversation over.
I had wanted to validate his observation of some similarity, but nip the stereotype in the bud that Mexicans are housekeepers (since, at present, we don’t have any family friends that are Mexican to provide that alternative for him). I had wanted him to see how people from another culture have similarities but are not monolith. And why some people may be over represented in some jobs than others. I wanted all of that. For my four-year-old. From that one conversation.
As a reflected on this conversation, I envisioned a way of having a more effective back-and-forth with my son that might have sounded like this:
B: Does she know Juana?
Me: No, my love. Why do you ask?
B: I don’t know. They seem like they know each other.
Me: Did you like talking with Vero today?
Me: What did you like about how she talks with you?
B: I don’t know. She smiles a lot.
Me: That’s like Juana. She smiles a lot. Did you also notice that they both have brown skin and talk with a similar accent?
B: Yes, I noticed
Me: Well, the both were born in a country called Mexico, before they came to live here in New York. And they both work as a housekeeper, which is similar.
Me: People from Mexico, we call Mexican, or Mexican-American, or we could call them Latino.
I think this would have been the right amount of information for him. I validated his observation, offered new information, and hopefully left open the possibility of future conversations about various related topics, including stereotypes about who does what type of work.
It is incredibly important to me that I create a space for my son to continually ask questions about his observations about race and color. The more he asks, the more I can hopefully slow down, offer truthful information, and possibly, my perspective. I realize that these conversations will be hard, both because of what B may ask and because of what I will learn about myself (why don’t we have any Latino friends?) and my assumptions. This will be the on-going challenge: to be responsive and age appropriate while reflecting and revising my own behavior and thinking about both my own race a that of my neighbors.
Makeba is interracial, with a Jewish mother and Panamanian Black father. Makeba has worked in education and the non profit sector. She is a lifelong New Yorker, and presently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, a cranky Russian, and their two interracial children.
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.