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.

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