Archive for the ‘interracial intimacy’ category

“The Help” Yesterday and today

September 6, 2011

There has been a war of words over “The Help” since the phenomenal success of both Kathryn Stockett’s book and the recent movie adaptation.  One argument has to do with how Hollywood (and white authors) portray Black women.  A second argument has to do with applicability of “the Help” to today’s domestic workers.  The argument goes like this:  “It’s a great story, but it’s about the civil rights era.  It has nothing to do with domestic work today.”  The other side argues that today’s nannies face many of the same challenges as Abilene and her friend Minnie.  One side argues that to make the connection between today’s domestic workers and those living in the Jim Crow South is an insult to the violence and degradation faced by African Americans after slavery. The other says that to ignore the similarities to today’s domestic workers is to deny the oppression going on under our noses.  Which side is correct?

Both are. Nothing in contemporary domestic work can compare to the caste system enforced by the threat of violence and permanent unemployment that reigned in US prior to the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement. The status of African American women as the ultimate “other” in American society made “colored woman” synonymous with “maid” and vice versa. Thus, the beautiful economy of Stockett’s title: “The Help” simultaneously captures what it meant to be a black woman in the South, and what it meant to be a domestic worker. Like those at the bottom rung of any caste society, the dirty work simultaneously defined both status and occupation.

But there is also a through-line to this story. Declared “obsolete” in the 1970s by eminent Sociologist Lewis Coser, domestic workers have not disappeared but rather, domestic work has proliferated as economic disparities have increased, and the 71% of mothers in the labor force seek relief from the double day of the first shift in the office and the second shift at home. Today’s domestic workers are overworked, underpaid, often unprotected by labor laws and made more vulnerable by immigration laws. However, there is no one group designated to fill the contemporary role of “domestic.” Rather, multiple groups of women, immigrant and native-born, fill increasingly specialized roles of hourly cleaner, mother’s helper, and nanny.

Black women in the south might spend a lifetime cooking, cleaning, and raising children for generations of the same white family.  In today’s era of competitive mothering, however, most employers are not content to have the same person who mops their floors raise their infants and toddlers. In my interviews for “Shadow Mothers,” I found that employers hired nannies based on “Ethnic Logics” – developmentally-specific criteria designed to match the right type of nanny with the age-specific needs of their children: a patient, older immigrant for infancy, an outgoing, younger au pair for the social-skill building years of toddlerhood, and perhaps someone with a degree in early childhood education for the crucial pre-school period. Rather than one all-purpose maid who stayed with a white family until her employer threw a tantrum, nannies now turn over based on children’s developmental needs. As one respondent who bounced between care for children and care for the elderly explained, “they either die on you or they go to pre-school.”

Employers have changed, too since the 1960s. The caricatures of status-conscious ladies of the “league” have been replaced by harried, working professionals. Their concerns have changed as well. The wife in the “companionate marriage” of the 1950s and 1960s concerned herself primarily with enhancing her husband’s status at work by being a hostess and by improving her family’s social status through engagement in civic and volunteer organizations. Mothering was an important, but lesser concern. Contemporary women, by contrast, are judged by the upward mobility of their children, not of their husbands. Evidence of “competitive mothering” is everywhere from Baby Einstein to enrichment classes for one-year-olds, to the long waiting lists for the best pre-schools. Demographer Susan Bianchi has shown that the at-home mothers of that golden age of the nuclear family actually spent less time with their children than do the working mothers of today.

Thus, in today’s domestic work relations, the stakes are higher in drawing the line between mother and not-mother. The white mothers in “The Help” express relief one moment at their children’s desperate clinging to the maid, and the next moment pitch a fit because the child misused the word ‘mommy.’ Among the nannies I interviewed, allowing a child to cross the boundary between “mother” and “not-mother” was often a firing offense. The employers in “The Help” were less threatened by children’s attachment to their maids because the caste line was unbreakable, and because mothers were not held so deeply accountable for how their children “turned out.” For the help of the 1950s and 1960s, the sacred, uncrossable barrier was the color line; for the today’s help it is the line the “mother/not-mother” barrier.


Transracial adoption when the baby is white

April 30, 2009

Last week ran a piece called “Raising Katie: What adopting a white girl taught a black family about race in the Obama Era,” an unusual story about transracial adoption in that it focused on a set of black parents who adopted a white child—an almost non-existent form of transracial adoption.

The article is interesting for the ways that it details, by way of this very uncommon example, the common experiences that interracial families often have in public: the stares, the comments, the bizarre behavior that indicates the trouble people have reconciling familiar displays of affection, caring and relations of authority in an unfamiliar racial context.  We learn of the various ways that white strangers surveil the Riding-Smith family, for example, following them around the mall to make sure Katie is not being kidnapped, asking Katie directly (in the presence of her mother), “Are you okay?”.

The story traverses the terrain we have come to expect in coverage of issues of transracial adoption, though the racial signifiers are reversed: accusations that these parents must be self-hating black people if they chose a white child over all the many black children lingering in foster care; the fear strangers express that Katie will be confused about her identity when she gets older; and a discussion of the rights of children to be raised by their racial and (it is assumed) cultural similars balanced against their right to be raised in a family at all.

What I find especially compelling about this story is the way it demonstrates that when racialized abstractions are replaced with real live human beings, the hard line positions people often take on the subject of interracial intimacy, and adoption in particular, become less defensible. Katie’s adoptive mother, Phyllis, you see, is a former head of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, and supports that group’s policy discouraging transracial adoption. Even so, when she received Katie, who had been bounced around to a dozen foster homes by age 3 because she was considered unmanageable, Phyllis “couldn’t say no.”

The article hints at, but never really moves its analysis of transracial adoption “upstream,” as Barbara Katz Rothman puts it, to understand the historical, political and social conditions for why so many more black babies are available for adoption than white and, further upstream still, what makes adoption necessary in the first instance.

Allison’s post about Shanley’s concept of a “relational right” to support is relevant here. That is, if we operated from the principle that parents and children have “a positive, “social right” that leads to claims for support to sustain their relationship,” far fewer women would have need to surrender their children to the vagaries of the adoption and foster care system for we as a society would create the economic and social conditions in which such family relationships thrive.