Can the Nanny Speak?

An article in this month’s Essence (available only in print, not online) gives me pause. Veronica Chambers’ “I’m Her Mother, Not Her Nanny” tells a Black Latina’s testimony about the frustration of being misidentified as the nanny of her biracial child.
Veronica explains her experiences of racism:

I have to deal with strangers who treat me as if I were a hired hand. It angers me because when someone asks something so ignorant, I’m reminded that even under the leadership of this historic Obama administration, there are many people who only see me as a dark-skinned woman in a position of servitude.

Veronica has every right to be properly identified as the mother of a child she helped bring into the world. Also, feelings of anger and frustration are perfectly legitimate given the history of African American women being forced to serve as caregivers to white families while neglecting their own children. However, Veronica expresses unnecessary condescension towards a perfectly legitimate occupation as she describes her pain.

The notion of being in a “position of servitude” or serving as a “hired hand” completely obscures the educational and emotional support many nannies provide to other women’s children.Veronica has other moments of subtle elitism, that also sting when recounting this anecdote:

This past spring, when I took cupcakes to Flora’s school for her birthday, the mother of one of her friends looked at me–dressed in a Lanvin blouse, jeans and Jimmy Choo heels–and said, “I hate when these working women send their nannies for their kids’ birthday. I mean, really.”

The implication here is that Veronica’s class status, signaled by high-brow designer apparel, should lessen the burden of racism that she carries. While racism is unacceptable in all of its forms, one has to wonder where the voice of nannies and caregivers are in this. Despite a needed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that recently passed in the New York State Senate, nannies are largely unprotected by labor laws in all other states and often have a triple minority status. In New York, for example, nannies are usually low-income, immigrant women of color who are vulnerable to all kinds of labor exploitation ranging from sub-minimum wage pay to physical abuse. While recent coverage is encouraging, these caregivers often don’t have capital on their side to get mainstream media attention when they are swept under the rug by self-righteous parents. The fact is, Veronica never mentions that condescending comments aren’t just inappropriate when they misidentify a biological mother, they are also unjustifiable if they are meant to pass judgment on a profession that many wage-earning mothers rely on.
It’s important that writers like Veronica with capital and critical acclaim use their literary access not just to give visibility to their own personal testimonies–regardless of how legitimate they are–but to also recognize the modern day plight of low-income women of color who are bound by the legacies of labor inequity. And at the very least, if crusading for justice on behalf of nannies isn’t one’s cup of tea, one certainly shouldn’t resort to putting down marginalized women or objecting to racial stereotypes on the grounds of class superiority.

Join the Conversation

  • blickblocks

    It’s kind of gross that she mentions her designer apparel in order to evoke class status. I can understand the frustration of not being recognized as a mother but she clearly is more worried about class. That’s classy. -_-‘

  • Key from the City

    My niece is biracial and her mother and I are always mistaken for her nanny. One lady commented to her husband that lots of white children call “the help” Auntie, like the pancake lady. After I called her on her stupidity, I had to check myself on what really made me upset. Was it the idea that my dark-skin self couldn’t be seen as blood related to my light skin niece? Or the fact that I was called “the help”? I think it was a little of both. So I kind of understand where the writer is coming from in that regard. But wearing Lanvin doesn’t mean anything. I see Black nannies dressed to the nines all the time in Manhattan.

  • Mike Crichton

    Why are you so sure that _they’re_ nannies?

  • sukiwoyaxul

    I look like my (actually quite dark) dad, and literally nothing like my (very light-skinned and pale) mom.
    When my mom used to walk me, people would constantly ask her if she was the babysitter. But one couple walked up to my mom, and asked, “where’d you get her?” (insinuating, I guess, that I was adopted from overseas).


    I’m sorry, but I don’t see the mentioning of expensive clothing as carrying the meaning that she cares more about her class or thinks being wealthy should lessen the racism against her. Her point was obvious-there was nothing about her other than her skin color to make people think she was a nanny/hired help.
    Other than race, she did not have any of the other common attributes associated, wrongly or not, with nannies.
    While I think we should support nannies and their rights/freedom from discrimination, and I see nothing wrong with working as a nanny, I don’t see what “valuble” contributions they’re making. They raise the children whose parents choose not to:
    “completely obscures the educational and emotional support many nannies provide to other women’s children.”
    And you know many of the children with nannies don’t even have working mothers, or have both parents working. Lots of working mothers can’t afford nannies-and, get this! A lot of those nannies would rather be with their own children, giving them emotional and educational support.
    I’m glad nannies’ jobs exist for the women that need them-but acting like the widespread use of nannies is some noble and good thing is just ridiculous to me, and seems classist in itself.

  • supremepizza

    That’s not at all obvious. Have you ever been looked down on? I have. Its really infuriating when you dress & carry yourself professionally, or otherwise well attired.
    From what I’ve read you folks are being hard on her. For a woman who’s maternal status is important to her, having that ignored–actually downgraded to ‘nanny’ status–is a punch in the gut.
    And I say that even tho my grandmother was a nanny whose ‘charges’ loved her as dearly as they loved her own mother. Cried as hard as my aunts & uncles did when my grandmother finally passed away. Was my grandma great to those kids? Hell yeah. Was she their mother? Not in the slightest.

  • empezar

    You really glossed over the fact that this article is addressing the plight of mixed race families. The larger point isn’t even about racism against her in particular (i.e. saying that the article is first about the wrong assumption that she’s the nanny), but racism that denies her family legitimacy in the public sphere. And beyond that, racism that denies the legitimacy of her maternal relationship to her daughter.

  • its_me

    It may be that I’m completely misunderstanding you, but to me a good nanny is making the same contribution a good teacher makes, though on a smaller scale (one or a few children vs. an entire class). Still, their impact on that child can be great. I’m speaking as someone who had what we called a babysitter, but would probably fit the definition of a nanny, from the time I was a year old until I started first grade.
    This woman, S., was a tremendous influence in my life. She taught me to read, encouraged my creativity (my mom still has copies of the poems we made up that S. copied down to save). She bought me tickets to the Children’s Orchestra every year for Christmas and took me on the bus downtown to attend, making me the only child in my elementary school class to have actually seen the city outside of field trips to the museum. She encouraged me to be fearless and unashamed of speaking my mind. In fact, she’s one of the main reasons I identified as a feminist back in middle school. She came to my graduation party when I finished high school and followed my progress through college. Both I and my parents believe that her work was valuable.
    Also, “They raise the children whose parents choose not to” is both true and at the same time incredibly cavalier regarding the reasons childcare from someone other than the parents is used. Sometimes it’s economic necessity, sometimes it’s selfishness. Sometimes it’s in the best interests of both the parents and the child. My parents both taught public school. Theoretically, they could have lived on one salary for longer than the year immediately following my birth. Practically, however, this would have been a struggle. Additionally, my mom is a great teacher. She excels at getting kids who everyone else has given up on due to learning disabilities or behavior issues to learn. That said, she prefers a class list full of ‘problem kids’ to one that includes kids from the Gifted & Talented program. It’s just not her strong point. Had she stayed home to care for me, we would have driven each other insane, we did much better in smaller doses. This was a good decision for both of us, but it most certainly does not mean she didn’t play a part in raising me.
    Sorry, for the excessive me, me, me-ness, especially since I was reacting to a comment, rather than the original post. But I have to wonder, how much of this attitude comes from the fact that rich people have ‘nannies’ while middle- and low-income families have babysitters? Would the opposition be the same if we were talking about group childcare? And couldn’t the same arguments be used towards teachers- they only teach the children because the parents choose not to teach them themselves by homeschooling?

  • gypsy

    Kinda sideways of the topic – but it’s JUST AS BAD to be identified as the mother of the child you’re nannying…
    I was a nanny for a wonderful family. (and NO, it wasn’t because “they wanted some one else to raise their kids” – the dad was in the Navy overseas and the mother owned her own business. The only close family member was in a nursing home. I took the kids a few days a week for about a year until things were more normal and the dad came home…)
    By the end of the job, I felt like I needed hazard pay to take those kids in public… I was 19, and looked young and was therefore subject to long, loud lectures from moms, elderly people, and supermarket cashiers on what a sl*t I was and how I was “ruining my life” and a “terrible mother.” I was “getting knocked up for the welfare money” and “should learn to shut my legs..” the list of what they said IN FRONT OF THE KIDS just goes on and on….
    Oh, and I looked nothing like those kids. But no amount of politely stating “they’re not mine!” helped. People need to just shut up and mind their own business; after all, these are the same people that (statistically) won’t stick their nose in when it’s necessary like when the child is being abused.
    Ok. ends rant. :)


    For one thing, it sounds like your nanny *wanted* to be a nanny. I quote from the post, so I don’t know the source, but
    “nannies are usually low-income, immigrant women of color who are vulnerable to all kinds of labor exploitation ranging from sub-minimum wage pay to physical abuse.”
    Yes, some women love working with children and choose to be nannies, because they like a more personal relationship with the kids, or because they can give the time and attention that you can’t give as easily to 30+ kids at a time if you work in a school or daycare.
    Most nannies likely don’t want to be nannies. They may have lacked the educational opportunities that would allow them to pursue the careers they’d truly enjoy. They may be unable to work in a variety of jobs because of citizenship status. A lot of them likely *need* the job. They are at the mercy of their employers.
    Any job contributes to something. Those immigrants that were beaten and sexually assaulted in a meat plant? They contributed to bringing meat to Americans, but what does that mean? Does that somehow justify their abuse? Does that mean their choice, if they had one, would be to work in a meat packing plant? Is the position of being an abused factory worker now desirable because it contributes?
    The black women that were forced to be nannies to white children, they contributed to those children’s “emotional and educational support” too. My apologies. How dare I express condescension towards a perfectly legitimate occupation.
    As for your questions about the feelings against nannies being more negative than those against daycares, teachers, etc. My guess would that those positions often don’t have the tainted past and position that nannying occupies-forced labor, helpless employees, etc. They’re also quite adept at keeping immigrants from those positions-daycare workers usually require a more extensive background check than many jobs because they have to screen for child abuse offenses & DCFS cases. Teachers have to have a college degree, and many poor immigrants lack that.