The First Lady…or The Help

So…this headline happened: Obamas on Race: We’ve Been Treated Like the Help. To which I responded: Come again? Sigh. Click.

The absence of quotes in the headline is intentional since the Obamas said nothing of the sort. (So glad I didn’t have to write that blog) What’s described are the Obamas’ experiences with racial microaggressions. You know, not being able to hail a cab, being mistaken for a valet, assuming that a person works at the place where you are shopping just because their melanin levels are different than yours, woe is me etc.

At the end of the article Obama is quoted expressing his support for those speaking out against recent events relating to police brutality, especially celebrities and athletes.

I assume that this is the Obamas’ subtle (because…public relations and stuff) way of asserting their identities as a black family in addition to (in spite of?) the role they play as the leading family in the free world. Pardon the expression. I like rhetorical drama. What is the “free world” anyway?

But I digress. There is, of course, that one *small* issue that being mistaken for the valet seems awfully minor when compared to, I don’t know, violent death of a young black man at the hands of police. Thankfully, I am not a political scientist, a journalist, or a pundit, so I can just leave this here without commentary. *PHEW*

Now back to that ridiculous headline.

Obamas On Race: We’ve Been Treated Like the Help.

Thank you internet headline writer for exemplifying in just nine words the racial stigma surrounding domestic work and the reason why we desperately need this movement for domestic worker rights and the wonderful women who run it. You have done this better than I ever could. Sarcastic slow clap.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with being “the help.” In fact, can we move on from that movie and re-eliminate this dumb phrase from our lexicon? I have said it before and I will say it again: domestic work is real work. It is skilled work. It is work that is imbued with both love and dignity.

Domestic workers are not some symbol of racial regression or lack of progress. If there is anything we should be ashamed of it should be the inability to provide domestic workers with basic labor rights, minimum wage, maximum hours, healthcare, and workman’s compensation.

Thankfully organizations like the Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are giving us a chance at redemption. Go ahead and click those links to find out how you can support the workers who make all other work possible.

But I digress again.

Domestic work is not, and should not be, a metaphor for white supremacy. Ever. Full stop.

This easy metaphor is based on an archaic cultural stigma, dating back to slavery, concerning the triad of blackness, whiteness, and labor. But domestic work is different now. It is a part of a growing service industry that includes nannies, eldercare workers, and housecleaners. Shame on you ABC news for reducing this amazing community of workers to “the help.”

But as always, those who do domestic work can explain this so much better than I can. When The Help film was released, NDWA began a #bethehelp campaign that included a video series where domestic workers told their stories in an effort to capitalize on the success of the film but also to resist our fixed image of what it means to be a domestic worker thanks to a cornucopia of films, books, and characters in the American racial imagination.

Ugh. I’m so annoyed that I had to write this. But its still a chance to continue to bring visibility to the amazing activists and advocates for this incredible community of workers. Thankfully, this one will remain on the cutting room floor.

How to Conduct a Revolution

A lot has gone on since my last post. Basically the country imploded. Exploded? Basically police are running amok. And people are rightfully outraged and saying so in a myriad of ways. A few days ago I posted the following facebook status:

Over the last few days I have heard, overheard, and participated in conversations about the current resistance movement(s) and its impact on working people. In the spirit of Ella Baker I humbly offer my thoughts here: Step one of every black political movement from voters rights, to bus boycotts, to the Panthers was to provide daily necessities (food, clothing, etc) for those affected by and committed to the cause. Go easy on our brothers and sisters who take issue with the shutting down of streets for protests because they can’t get to and from work. Fear of losing jobs or arrest is real for those who have families in particular. Not having to worry about these things is a privilege. Remember these folks as you organize and demonstrate. Make sure that your collective or organization works to put infrastructures in place to provide resources to the black working poor who can and should be in positions of leadership as those most affected.

Similarly, I have been praising the efforts of domestic workers, Walmart workers, and fast food workers. They should be our examples for how to organize. They get it.

For example, domestic workers plan meetings on days when household workers are usually off. At these meetings they provide childcare for members. Ai-Jen Poo, head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, plans to use her MacArthur grant to provide wages for women to work on the movement full time.

More importantly, domestic worker organizers have figured out how to facilitate a transnational movement that pays very close attention to local contexts. While immigrant rights are central to women working in New York, in Atlanta the history of African American women’s labor takes precedent. As it should.

The resistance work that these folks do is highly organized and very strategic. It is done in the interest of serving the folks each movement represents.There is a tremendous amount of thought and research that goes into each step.

But most importantly it is done with the greatest amount of empathy. There is room for folks to feel. The most effective movement leaders, past and present, figure out ways to say “I hear you.” They can simultaneously build a resistance movement and a community of people who are strong enough to sustain it in spite of obstacles.

I do not profess to be some sort of expert on organizing. There is certainly not only one right way to do it. What I am saying is that there are movements happening now that we should look to as we begin an urgent and necessary movement against police brutality.  Humbly I share with you my thoughts, from the cutting room floor.

So…this happened

The above video is a recent advertisement from Hong Leong Bank in Malaysia. The ad was aimed at domestic workers in Hong Kong (most of whom are Indonesian or Filipina). I tried in vain to find a translation but basically its encouraging employers to get insurance. It didn’t go over so well. For obvious reasons. Its since been pulled. But it came across my social media platforms (mostly because I’m that friend who writes about domestic workers and people kept tagging me). So lets break this down:

The commercial opens and there is this music…sort of like the Muzak version of reggae.

Then from afar we see this woman cleaning a table. Wait for it…we must set up the reveal.

Next the doorbell rings. Oh its the employer! He is a handsome Chinese man played by a handsome Chinese actor. And he is ringing the doorbell to his own house for whatever reason.

Now the big reveal! The woman from the opening scene is the same handsome Chinese actor, playing a Filipina domestic worker. His own Filipina domestic worker. Which requires blackface and a terrible wig. To review: a male Chinese actor in blackface and drag playing a Filipina maid in a commercial that aired in Hong Kong for employer insurance from a bank based in Malaysia.

Maria (our maid), who, by the way, is wearing an apron with a trout pattern and pink house shoes, is so incredibly clumsy. So of course her employer needs to get insurance. What if something happens? What if she breaks his expensive things?

So yeah…get insurance from Hong Leong Bank. End of commercial.

And…all of this in 30 seconds. Without a translation. Now lets make sense of all of this shall we?

The music lets us know that this is a classic humorous commercial. A throwback if you will. I know I am thinking of this within a US context but it really triggered so many things in my mind. Think about those old Looney Tunes cartoons. Or television shows like Beulah. Or films like Gone With the Wind or the original version of Imitation of Life. Or minstrelsy.

Side note: During my trip to South Africa this summer I learned that American minstrel performance, thanks to the global capitalist market, had made its way to the continent. To this day South Asian communities in Capetown have a festival that happens right after the New Year with minstrel troupes and competitions and costumes, etc. Its on my list of things to read up on after the dissertation. But for our purposes its worth noting that there is a relationship between minstrelsy and Asian communities.

Anyway, the commercial really takes me back to a moment in popular culture when domestic workers were a source of humor. Something to be ridiculed. Asexual, doting mammy figures. Anything but workers. And this humorous trope reemerges here during a serious global organizing effort for domestic worker rights. And a true moment of visibility for this movement. The migration of women across borders to serve the world’s elite as domestic workers or sex workers (voluntarily or involuntarily) is at the forefront of transnational political discourse. It is the reason that Filipina and Indonesian women end up working in Hong Kong to begin with. This conversation, often times, is about anything and everything but labor.

Advocates and activists are really working hard to make sure that the labor process is at the center. The most common discussion that happens about domestic work is always whether or not the work is skilled or unskilled. And this is something that crosses national boundaries. It has happened over and over again throughout history. The first thing activists and advocates will tell you (and I will say it again here): Domestic work is skilled labor. The women who do it take their work very seriously. They should be paid fairly for their labor. They deserve to have their labor respected and protected.

Yet, in this advertisement, great pains are taken to make this woman look unskilled. To demean the actual work that it takes to do what she does. Plus this is happening along racial lines. The contrast between the employer and the caricature of the maid depends on the racial division between them. There are 300,000+ migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. And the commercial reduces them to a type. One that is imbued with the worst kind of racism.

At one time we would have been able to say that domestic workers were an invisible workforce. But I’m not giving Hong Leong a pass here. Clearly, since they made a commercial specifically targeting the large (and no doubt noticeable) population of household workers in Hong Kong they know better. Some of the bank executives probably have domestic laborers who work in their homes. Activists and advocates are a visible presence all over the globe.

Nope. No excuses. None. They should be ashamed. Domestic workers in Hong Kong were not afraid to say so. The company pulled the add. They didn’t apologize or express their shame and embarrassment. But the movement continues.

In case you need a palette cleanser after that one please check out NDWA’s page on international organizing. Visibility and education are two of the most important aspects of the movement. Show the amazing women who make all other work possible some love!

from scholarship to real life

So…I have been working on this super secret project in a neighboring city a couple days a week. (Don’t tell my advisor…k?) Anyway, while getting a doctorate may seem glamorous, fellowships just don’t pay enough to match that glamour. Alas, its the life I chose. And I love it, but still graduate poverty is real. Anyway, I live well below my means so I take public transportation everywhere. Which I actually like. I get a lot of reading done that way.

Anyway, because I am an expert at it I naturally found the most cost effective and efficient way to get from a to b. I knew that a number of transit routes are designed for workers but now I saw it first hand. This particular bus goes into said neighboring city (a wealthy community) during the morning commute and doesn’t make the return trip until the afternoon. I took the first trip back and the bus driver asked me why I got off of work so early. The bus was empty. And it was sort of eerie. In fact, the building I am working in has a bus stop that coincides with the underside of the building next to the service entrance. I have never been to a building with a service entrance. Also weird. Everyone on the bus was a person of color. Mostly women. Many of them latino and spanish speaking.

As I was telling a friend of mine it sort of reminds me of the historical sun down towns, where African Americans during Jim Crow were permitted to go to work (and only in uniform) but they had to be gone by sundown. It sort of blows my mind that there are entire transit routes dedicated to restricted access to communities. If one were going there to shop or see a movie it would be almost impossible to do it. The bus doesn’t stop there. The train station is nowhere near it.

Thus even in congested places like metropolitan areas, there are ways of organizing communities on the basis of race, class, and immigration status. I’m wondering what Marx would say about public transportation. Or even global technologies of travel, migration, and trafficking. But that is way outside of my purview. And other scholars have done it. So its here…on the cutting room floor.

Justice in the Home: Domestic Work Past, Present, and Future

This past week I had the honor and pleasure of attending a conference on domestic work co-sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. And I do not use the words honor and pleasure lightly. The purpose of the conference was to enrich the engagement between scholars of domestic work (historians, sociologists, labor studies, economics, etc) and domestic worker activists and advocates. I have so many thoughts about this conference so I’m gonna take my time and think it through and write a few posts about some ideas that came up.

But for this post I want to talk about the opening plenary. The panel consisted of the foremothers of scholarship on domestic work: Elizabeth Clark Lewis, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Tera Hunter, Eileen Boris, and Mary Romero. So…basically the all-stars of my dissertation bibliography all in one place. I was totally fan-girling. But I digress.

The first question posed to the panel was how did they come to this work. And then something really incredible happened. They all shared stories of their lives and the women in their family. Like me, they all come to this work from a deeply personal place. Glenn talked about Japanese women in her family who worked as domestics in California. Romero discussed her mother’s migration over the border. Hunter and Lewis discussed the legacy of servanthood in the black community dating back to slavery. What they shared was the inability to find the histories of “ordinary women” in their academic fields when they all entered graduate school in the early eighties.

Boris, a white woman told an interesting story. She recalled how her working class jewish mother was “loaned” her aunt’s maid to relieve her of the duties of keeping house. Boris was unsettled by this as a young person and began thinking about the intersections of race and labor as a result. Her first job was at Howard where she said that she learned more from her students and colleagues than she taught them. She learned how to listen. A number of scholars will tell you that it is almost impossible to talk about domestic work with white feminist scholars, since many of them employ nannies or maids. I have a lot of respect for Boris’s choices. And her scholarship, which is consistently well researched and quite good, demonstrates what a difference this makes.

When I started doing this work I noticed that women who write about domestic work are an intellectual community. I have not witnessed this kind of relationship between scholars in any other field. But what really makes it unique is that in this contemporary moment, while the fight for domestic workers rights is gaining some serious momentum, domestic workers themselves make sure to make their presence known in academic spaces. They show up to conferences and lectures and make us, as scholars, accountable to them. They are also a part of this community. And I think what we write is that much better for it.

Thus, these women scholars, my intellectual foremothers, spawned a whole field just by forging relationships with each other. Searching for themselves in what they were reading. And when they couldn’t find it, they began talking. And reading. And sharing stories. And from that came a cornucopia of amazing scholarship.

Oh and they were all so nice to me. Even after I introduced myself by saying “Hi! I’m Shana and I’ve read everything you have ever written.” So that was night one. More soon from the cutting room floor.

The Labor of Activism

Recently, a good friend of mine who is an advocate for Palestinian liberation posted this article about the potential toxicity of being employed in the social justice field. Its pretty good but my friend added in her commentary that we should also consider the unpaid work that we do on behalf of the political movements. At one point in my academic career I was invested in an intellectual community for whom nonprofit work was a rite of passage. For them it was also a privilege. While they were all working low wage non-profit jobs (with support from parents and partners), I was working in the corporate world. I needed the money and benefits to live. Unfortunately, the movement doesn’t pay bills.

But I also noticed, like the article mentioned, that for them the organization was the movement. And that sentiment placed me on the margins of our circle. It somehow called my loyalty to the movement into question. Which movement you ask? Didn’t really matter. As long as it wasn’t rooted in patriarchy. (A blog for another day)

Yet, under the oppressive system of capitalism we were one in the same. While we often critique capitalism in the activism we do, we never think about how the labor we do for social justice is labor. And much of the unpaid work is often done by women. In addition to jobs and taking care of families. In fact, when I went to South Africa earlier this summer I remember saying to many of the education and labor activists that we met how inspired I was that there were so many women in positions of power. Their response, “Its because nonprofit jobs pay the least.”

So I began thinking that the labor that is done by women on behalf of the movement is reproductive labor in the Marxist sense. Not sure where to go with that. Which is why its here, on the cutting room floor.

Congratulations Ai-Jen Poo!

Great news this week. Ai-Jen Poo, the fantastic and inspiring director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. I have never been so excited and more inspired. It means that this movement, that I know consider myself a part of, is gaining visibility and momentum. These women work so hard. State by state. City by city. To mobilize and educate women workers. I am so proud that Ai-Jen is one of the honorees this year. She intends to use the money to create a domestic worker fellowship so that more women can work for the movement full time.

And she is in such great company. Fair housing advocates, LGBT activists, a woman who serves as a legal advocate for domestic violence victims in the native community, feminist activist Alison Bechdel, so many women and people of color.

While we don’t like to talk about money often as activists, it matters. Movements cost money. And the MacArthur grants go to such great causes. And now ours is one.

See Ai-Jen’s moving video about winning the award here.

And while we are on the subject I have been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about what it means to be a scholar that is part of a grassroots movement. On a conference call recently that included a number of emerging scholars writing about domestic work along with a member of NDWA, a woman asked, “How can we create scholarship that is useful to the movement?” A simple question. And a challenge I have given myself. We’ll see what I come up with. But for now, just the cutting room floor.