Monday, May 11, 2009

Somebody Better Get Miss Millie!

My niece is a cashier at a local "casual dining restaurant." It suits her usually bubbly personality well. There's also the fact that she's 5'11", quite thin, and pretty. That draws a lot of attention paid in the forms of compliments, unexpected tips, and advice for her to model. Her manager admits she's the first black woman they've ever had "at the front" and that part of the reason she's there is because of her visual appeal. She is not monstrously conceited, but she does spend a lot of time on her appearance and is not particularly modest--I'm not offering that as a criticism of her. We know women are valued and rewarded for their physical appearance and adherence to rigid beauty standards under the patriarchy.

Anyway, she worked Thursday, and one group of her customers was a young white family. The woman, who was pregnant, told my niece that she was pretty and so friendly, then proceeded to ask her if my niece would consider babysitting for pay.

My niece was shocked, which is why she told the story to me.

And I said, "Girl, somebody better get Miss Millie!"

Miss Millie, of course, is the woman on The Color Purple who inspected Sophia's kids, determined they were clean and well-kept, and asked Sophia to be her maid.

Let me tell you how I and Sophia--given her reaction--hear that: "Random woman of color, I see the love, care, and time you invest in yourself and your motherwork. I think that such effort would be better placed in my home, with my family. I have no problem trying to change your labor of love into one of sorrow* because we both know full well that I will probably underpay and overwork you. I feel that you, who are used to it, should do the drudgework, while I do more important things."

This incident--and the fact that I'm revising the chapter of my manuscript that discusses black women's work options in the early-to-mid-20th century--started me thinking, once again, about feminism and long-standing divisions along racial/ethnic and class lines. One of the things that it has been hard for white feminists--particularly essentialists--to accept is that white women have and do benefit from the relegation of women of color to low-wage, low-status "reproductive" work. Here is a passage from a post I wrote a while ago:
From Dr. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, who expresses it much more eloquently:
White women may actually have a material interest in the continuing subordination of women of color in the workplace. To understand the contemporary divergence between the priorities and interests of White women and women of color, we must first understand the historic differences in their experiences as workers. A careful reading of the history of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women workers reveals a persistent racial division of "women's work." This division of labor has subjected women of color to special forms of exploitation, subordinating them to White women and ensuring that their labor benefits White women and their families.**
In other words, work may be divided by gender, but it's divided by race, as well, a significant factor to "overlook." From another article by Dr. Nakano Glenn:
In the first half of the [20th] century racial-ethnic women were employed as servants to perform reproductive labor in white households, relieving white middle-class women of onerous aspects of that work; in the second half of the century, with the expansion of commodified services (services turned into commercial products or activities), racial/ethnic women are disproportionately employed as service workers in institutional settings to carry out lower-level "public" reproductive labor, while cleaner white collar supervisory and lower professional positions are filled by white women.***
What has been equally hard to accept is that white women's role in the subordination of WoC's labor has not been indirect or oblivious. Even if we wanted to argue that white women didn't realize that overworking and underpaying WoC made it physically impossible for many of them to care for their own children (demands on their time meant that domestic servants sometimes only saw their kids on the weekend; low pay meant that adequately feeding, sheltering, and clothing their children was often little more than a dream), there are many times that white women directly and vocally opposed and impeded WoC's efforts to improve their working conditions and attain a decent standard of living. Two examples:

Domestic workers were left out of legislation that protected women workers in the early 20th century, left out of the provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935, left out of minimum wage/maximum hours legislation of 1938. Prompted, in part, by such exclusions, domestic workers tried to organize themselves, again and again, into unions. Their white female employers, at best, were ambivalent, and at worst, resisted unionization, refusing to negotiate or hire domestics involved in organizational activities.****

Then there was the Bronx Slave Market, where Depression-Era Black women, desperate for work, offered their services for unbelievably low wages:
Back in the 1930s one of the largest black presences in the Bronx was the women who would come over from Harlem and line up on a street corner in the Bronx looking for day work as domestics. It was the Depression, and some of the few jobs available to black women were working as charwomen, cleaning white homes. Most of these women were Southerners recently arrived in New York. One of the most populated corners for the day workers was on 167th St. in the Morrisania section, not far from where the Bronx’s original slaves toiled on the Morris farm.

There they would wait, standing around as white women would walk or drive by and eye them up and down. When they were chosen they faced a day of hard housework, for what they were told would be about 30 cents an hour, though sometimes employers reneged and paid only half that. The black women with the most callused knees would be hired first–worn knees indicated that the women were accustomed to scrubbing floors. The work was brutal, as the white mistresses would palm off on their black menials all the nasty jobs they didn’t want to do themselves.
How well "all the nasty jobs they didn't want to do for themselves" were done was absolutely crucial to the status of many middle-to-upper-class white women. Because they were under pressure to be domestic goddesses, with higher and higher standards of "cleanliness," white women demanded that WoC help them achieve and maintain that status. As Nakano Glenn notes,
We may have to accept the idea that any policy to improve the lot of racial ethnic women may necessitate a corresponding loss of privilege or status for White women and may engender resistance on their part.
Working with the example of domestic work was perhaps the most illuminating moment for me when I was trying to understand theories of intersectionality in grad school. At the root of the problem is the sexist demand that women should be concerned with and confined to the domestic sphere and that the work they do in the home and for the family has little remunerative value. But who really does that work and why it is is perpetually undervalued speaks to issues of race/ethnicity and class as well. Domestic work is monotonous, often grueling, and low status, the kind of work that has historically been constructed as WoC's work.***** It is also the work of poor women who a) have rarely been trained/allowed to develop a skill set beyond that which is determined "naturally" feminine and b)need the work desperately and can't afford to argue about hours or rate of pay. Thus, while gender privilege makes domestic work "women's work," race and class privilege make it, most often, poor WoC's work.

Something else bothered me about the woman's request of my niece, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. Even now, I'm not going to say that I can adequately argue it, but I can give you a look into it.

She was attempting to relegate my niece to a "mammy" position, an image white people took comfort in, that made them feel safe, even if it existed largely in their own minds. Mammy was fat, asexual, devoted to her white family.


And here stood my niece, in many ways, the antithesis of the mammy******--"attractive," self-confident, unwilling to blend into the background. The thing I'm wondering is, was this an attempt, even subconsciously, to put my niece in her "rightful" place and to protect her own, internalized sense of self as the "ideal" (i.e. white woman)?

* Here, I am referring to Jacqueline Jones's pioneering Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow. Jones posits that, while paltry pay and low status were real concerns for black women as domestic workers, they also disliked domestic service because white employers and the work itself denied their womanhood—their roles as mothers, wives, and community workers. It was these roles that constituted their “labor[s] of love.”

This issue is also discussed by Sharon Harley in “For the Good of Family and Race: Gender, Work, and Domestic Roles in the Black Community, 1880-1930,” Signs 15, no. 2 (1990): 336-349.

** "Cleaning Up/Kept Down: A Historical Perspective on Racial Inequality in
'Women's Work'," Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1333-1356.

***"From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of
Paid Reproductive Labor," Signs 18, no. 1 (1992): 1-43.

**** I should also mention that organized labor was often opposed to organizing women--particularly AFL unions that saw working women as threats to men. See Tera Hunter's To 'Joy My Freedom; Phyllis Palmer's Domesticity and Dirt; Donna L. Van Raaphorst's Union Maids Not Wanted . I just got Eileen Boris's and Premilla Nadasen's article, "Domestic Workers Organize!" but, given their previous work and my skim of the first few pages, I'd recommend it.

***** Which is not to say that poor white women didn't work "unpleasant" jobs, but that there have often been clear demarcations between what is white women's work and what is WoC's work.

******In the comments to
this post, for example, people argued that there weren't any racial overtones to the image of a black model cradling a white baby, because to invoke "mammy," the black woman had to be fat. I didn't agree, but there you have it.


Joan Kelly said...

Linking to this, thanks Elle.

ZIRGAR said...

There are many things wrong with that woman's assumptions/biases and are evident by her even feeling such a familiarity with your niece as to ask her something so overtly banal yet covertly biased as babysitting for her. Would she have assumed such a familiarity with a white stranger? Doubtful. Our language, symbols, and basic assumptions are all deep repositories of prejudices of which are not often even aware and until we take stock and analyze what we are actually saying and doing when we say or do anything we will never seall the breaches in our society anc culture.

Another awesome post!

Saran said...

Wow! Elle, what was your niece's response???

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...