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Workers of the World Unite: From Domestic Workers to Santa’s Elves

This year was a quiet Christmas at my childhood home in Virginia with just my parents and me. Inevitably, we began reminiscing about young Shana and her hilarious ideas about Santa. I realized that when you are honest with your children about labor, wages, and money, Santa is somehow less magical. My innocent questions (and my parents’ answers) about Father Christmas reveal a lot about my current fixation with labor and workers’ resistance movements.
Like any black working class kid, my first mission was to make sense of the disconnect between common narratives of Santa Claus and my own reality. We didn’t have a chimney and my parents were pretty serious about making sure that no one came into our house uninvited, so my first question was, of course, how did Santa gain entry? Their answer: Every year we loan him a spare key to the back door. Thus, he came in via the garage, a place that I associated with my mother’s arrival from work everyday.
I’m pretty sure Santa gave me my first lesson in capitalist consumption because my second question was: How did Santa afford presents for children all over the world? I was not interested in how they got made. Or how he knew what to make for whom. I did not leave any room for Santa to wave a magic wand or sprinkle jingle dust and make toys appear. Somebody was paying for these toys and I wanted to know who.
Adult, marxist scholar Shana has even more questions. For starters, how do the elves make all these toys and never get tired? I idolized my parents as wonderful and nurturing super humans. But when I met my mother at the garage door everyday, she was ALWAYS tired.
At worst they were enslaved. At best, their status was similar to the domestic workers I’ve been studying for the last several years. Do they work in exchange for living expenses, like pre-Depression era live-in domestic laborers? Or do they live in North Pole tenements where they return to their families after working long hours for inadequate wages?

My parents’ answer? It was simple. Every year we (and all mommies and daddies) write Santa a check. He uses that money to acquire the gifts that end up under the tree. Somehow, they knew that would be a sufficient answer for me. It was THEIR labor and THEIR wages that made Christmas magical for me every year. Santa was simply a liaison.

To this day, I believe that I am entitled to love, respect, and care. That, too, comes from Paula and Charles Russell. Good behavior isn’t enough to deserve material things. Those things always come from someone’s hard work. And that work must always be compensated.
Hence my shock when I discovered in 2012 that domestic workers were not entitled to basic labor protections. A living wage is a human right, even for Santa.

With love and respect to all workers this holiday season,

Shana A. Russell (writing from the cutting room floor)

The Blogs I Thought I Wanted to Write but Didn’t and the One They Prevented Me from Writing

The Blogs I Thought I Wanted to Write but Didn’t and the One They Prevented Me from Writing

So here’s what happened in 2016 which was supposed to be my year of once a week blogging. Well, a lot of things happened in the world. Things I felt pressured to write about. Then I repeatedly couldn’t find the words to write about them in long form. I missed blogging. I love blogging. But s*** just kept happening. The kind of s*** that I don’t want to think about let alone write about.

Here are the Cliffs Notes of those blogs in no particular order:

  1. Our president-elect is the grab her by the p***y guy. 
  2. I am more interested in what people think about said president-elect than what they feel about him or his rhetoric or his administration. 
  3. No new friends as a result of the 2016 election. I don’t want to process your feelings and my feelings. I only do that with my mama.  
  4. I’m indifferent to the safety-pin thing. 
  5. Policing is a practice and an institution that is predicated on the death and incarceration of people of color and free labor. 
  6. January is too cold to march for anything. Even against the grab her by the p***y guy. But that’s just my personal opinion. 

Now, in 2017, I will write what I want. Even if it makes me seem insensitive. Even if the timing is bad. Once a week. All the things on my mind. And believe me there are lots of things. For example:

This week’s inspiration comes in the form of a featured StoryCorps participant. Before we get into the nitty gritty, let me just say that I love StoryCorps. And I am beyond glad that this particular story has been told. But I have some thoughts.

The storyteller in question is Dr. Joseph Linsk of New Jersey. He is 94. He’s got Parkinson’s. In journalistic speak this means he has one foot in the grave and whatever he says counts as a dying wish. You can listen to the full story here but allow me to summarize. A young eight year old Dr. Linsk broke the glasses of his schoolyard playmate and quickly needed to come up with $2 (it was the 1930s btw) to replace them or he was gonna be in for it.

Enter Pearl. The domestic laborer (a black woman…gasp!) for the Linsk family. She made…wait for it…$2 a week. Which, during the Depression, was actually a pretty good wage for a domestic worker if you can believe it. At the end of this particular week her wage mysteriously went missing. And Dr. Linsk was mysteriously able to pay for those glasses he broke and evade trouble.

Pearl asked about her missing wages. As anyone would do. Mama Linsk said she stole them without question. As anyone would have done in the 1930s. Pearl got fired. Word got around that she was a thief. And she couldn’t find work. Oh and she had a lot of kids.

At 94, this is Dr. Linsk’s first time telling this story. He has held this dark secret for over eighty years. And NPR wants us to help StoryCorps find Pearl so we can hear the rest of this unfinished story. 

While the remainder of this blog is going to be pretty snarky, I must say I feel kinda bad for Dr. Linsk. He did a dumb thing that eight year olds do. A thing that had grave consequences because of the historical, political, and social context in which it happened. And he has seemingly gone his whole life thinking that his eight year old self deserves the sole blame for all that happened to Pearl.

But seriously. This is not a unique story. Not even a little bit. Black domestic workers were accused of stealing all the time. ALL THE TIME. I have read hundreds (not exaggerating) of accounts like these in oral histories. And hundreds more statements by white women who feared that domestic workers would steal their money or their husbands.

Which is why I don’t have beef with Dr. Linsk. Mama Linsk thought Pearl was a thief (by virtue of her blackness) long before that two dollars went missing. I know about the history of Atlantic City (the scene of the crime). They were committed to segregation.

At 94, Dr. Linsk remembers his mama saying that Pearl stole that money “without question.” It wasn’t that she thought her eight year old was a perfect angel. Most mamas know better. But when faced with a black woman who chose to advocate for herself and ask for her wages (also very common), Mama Linsk had a narrative prescribed about Pearl that was ready and raring to put the kibosh on that kind of black self determination.

The relationship between white female employers and black domestic workers is one that has fascinated sociologists and historians for years. It is what everyday white supremacy and racial hierarchy look like in practice. Which is why I’m glad Dr. Linsk told this story. He was able to demonstrate all of that in a two-minute story that he narrates in the way that one would narrate brushing their teeth in the morning.

That’s what racism and labor exploitation look like. These are not extraordinary or exceptional instances of injustice. They are routine parts of the American soci0-political fabric. Banal and necessary to bolstering capitalism and racial hierarchy.

Which brings me to NPR’s call to find Pearl so we can finish this story.  If I had to guess (I don’t. But I’m gonna.) the post-racial reconciliation that you are expecting to come from this story isn’t going to happen. More than likely being accused of stealing didn’t come as a surprise to Pearl. There’s a good chance she knew it was a young Dr. Linsk who was behind the missing wages.

The hardest part to swallow was probably the fact that she, as a black working-class woman, was a thief no matter what she did or said. In the same way that black men were (are?) rapists and needed to be lynched. These are prescribed narratives that justify violence and guarantee physical and social death. And they had nothing to do with little Dr. Linsk stealing $2 to stay out of trouble.

The resolution to this story is not some forced conversation between Dr. Linsk and Pearl’s descendants. For me the story is the resolution. It is an honest and everyday story. I find comfort in the fact that it’s not exceptional. Because white supremacy is not exceptional or extraordinary. The mundane is where the truth of history lies. It serves our emotions somehow to leave these kinds of stories on the cutting room floor. Yet, when we recover them they have to be shaped like fairy tales. Dr. Linsk’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t need one.

The Prodigal Daughter Returns…Again

It was a busy summer. Busy but good. I decided about halfway through that I wouldn’t get back to blogging until September. And this post has been sitting in my draft folder since then. For the first time I couldn’t pull the trigger.

Let me back up a bit. Sometime in the middle of the summer, about the time I declared my blogging sabbatical, my father received a random email from a white woman in upstate New York via an account that he had long forgotten and was no longer actively using. This woman was the granddaughter of his grandmother’s employer. Yes, my great-grandma Mattie, a woman I had never heard of before, was a domestic worker.

But this time, I wasn’t the one telling the story. And that bothered me more than I knew. Hence, the whole post in the draft folder thing.

You see, my father wasn’t close to his father’s family. His familial world  began and ended with his mother, an Italian immigrant, and his father, a black GI. And so, my paternal side of the family is small. Two aunts and an uncle. Four cousins who come in boy-girl pairs. And a whole host of people whose names I don’t know and assumed I would never meet.

Mom’s side is different. She has eight siblings. And they have kids. And they’re kids have kids. And the elders…boy do they have stories. Every last reminiscent blog post or essay or talk I have given about my family comes from a combination of archival research, historical knowledge, and these first- or secondhand stories from mom. It’s a joy to make them my own.

But Mattie. This didn’t feel like a story passed down. These weren’t fond memories of extended family members. It was Mattie through a stranger’s eyes. Pictures of her holding children who weren’t her own. Her Lemon Pie recipe that had been annotated and altered by her employer. Faces of children and friends I don’t recognize.

And there isn’t a single person in my family I can call to make sense of it. To ask if they knew what Mattie liked to do outside of work. Who her friends were. Where she went to church.

But I do have an email belonging to a woman in upstate New York who I have never met.

It’s funny because even now most folks never think about domestic workers’ families. So, I find it an incredible act of humanity that this woman, sifting through her late grandmother’s scrapbooks and memoirs, thought that perhaps Mattie had a family somewhere who might not know this about her life. Who might not know that she was famous for her Lemon Pie. And she was right.

But I don’t know how to ask a stranger for stories about my family. It’s not a Saturday morning phone call with my mother. Even in archives, thanks to the magic of headphones and music, I can transform a library table into my mother’s kitchen table and sift through old photos like they are my own personal family album.

I’ve never had to ask permission. And so, another piece of writing in the draft folder. It begins:

My name is Shana. I am Charles Russell’s daughter. My father mentioned that it was okay for me to reach out to you regarding my great-grandmother Mattie. I was wondering…

I haven’t been able to finish it. But putting my feelings down here somehow feels like a step forward. Soon I will pull the trigger on that one. Once I can continue to recover from being stuck in the emotional mud. In the mean time, this marks the end of my blogging sabbatical. Gotta get back to making stories my own, rescued from the cutting room floor.

When We Analyze Representation in the Absence of Reality

Oh snap look at me back to posting once a week. *sips tea*

So Franchesca Ramsey has her own segment on MTV News called Decoded. The premise is essentially y’all people don’t read, stop being racist, let me break it down for you. It’s actually pretty good and necessary. The kind of thing young MTV viewers need to watch. (Insert joke about young white kids and music festivals.)

But the most recent episode engages in a conversation about representations of black women that has always bothered me.

It bothers me because I have trouble analyzing these painful stereotypes without talking about labor. Both the cultural labor done by the black women who play these characters and the real labor done by sex workers and domestic workers that these moments of pop culture claim to represent.

Ramsey starts with the Jezebel trope, which she refers to in the video’s opening as the “sexy prostitute.” She continues by (rightly) outlining the history of sexuality and rape as it relates to the context of imperialism in Africa and slavery in the United States. She continues by making reference to music videos and reality television as examples of the sexualization of black women in popular culture.

It’s not that I disagree with her. The idea of black women’s bodies being exploited for sexual pleasure is unsettling. But I worry about the sexual labor (and the women who perform said labor) getting erased in this conversation. Even in Ramsey’s video, we never hear from the women she references even though their voices are well represented in oral histories and interviews.

In this respect I am really grateful for the work of Mireille Miller-Young who teaches feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara. Miller-Young calls the work of video vixens a part of the illicit erotic economy. She so brilliantly incorporates the voices of sex workers and their analyses into a complex discourse on sexual agency and exploitation. It’s a difficult thing to do. I don’t always do it well. But I try. And it is something missing from this episode of Decoded that I noticed and couldn’t disregard.

Then, of course, Ramsey gets to the mammy figure.

She referred to the mammy as fat, old, and dark-skinned. At this point I began to itch. She related mammy’s aesthetic to her asexuality. Yes, mammy is supposed to be asexual. This is related to the history of sexual assault that domestic workers were often subject to. Sexuality is an important dimension of black women’s oppression as workers. But this doesn’t exactly come across in the whole “fat, old, and dark-skinned” description. It almost suggests that size, age, and skin color automatically mean undesirability. Not that I think this is what Ramsey intended. It’s just a sticky situation to unpack.

The video then delves into the “domestic work as the only work for black women” discourse. Again, it is true that black women were once restricted to domestic work. But it doesn’t mean that the work itself is degrading. Ramsey tackles the spectrum of black actresses from Hattie McDaniel to Octavia Spencer. They appear to be passive victims of representational oppression. But the work they do is cultural work. Both McDaniel and Spencer pay homage to the women who do the labor they represent on screen. Although they are certainly meant to be a part of the scope of media that limits black women, they represented those women workers with as much dignity and respect as they could creatively muster.

There is one thing that Ramsey says that I absolutely agree with. She argues that media plays a part in how we view the world around us. Yes. Yes. Yes. But what we don’t realize is the way that our conversations about representation get in the way of the important and urgent discourses about labor. It’s one of the biggest battles that domestic worker organizers must deal with.

Yes it’s complicated. Yes it’s difficult. But black women workers deserve as much complexity as we can give them when we are dealing with these issues. This isn’t Ramsey’s responsibility. The sharp-tongued and quick-witted nature that characterizes her critique is important for her audience. At the same time we have a responsibility to dig deeper. We can’t leave these complicated and sometimes contradictory discourses on the cutting room floor.



“White People Have So Much Dirty Laundry”: Mother’s Day Edition

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For those of you who don’t know, when I am not postdoc-ing I spend my time with a lot of poets, musicians, and artists. They are my family. I think we underestimate the important political work that these folks do. Novelists, playwrights, poets, and musicians have given me quite the education. Sometimes more than historians.

As a labor scholar, it’s important to me to recognize these folks as workers too. Author Pearl Cleague says:

You have to do it. You have to get up, think about it, go to your desk, write things down. I think you have to work in the same way that you would work at anything else. My friend Toni Cade Bambara, who was a wonderful author who has passed away now, said that she didn’t like to call herself an artist because then it made you start acting precious like you were so above everybody else, that she thought that we should call ourselves cultural workers because we were no better than people who worked in factories, no better than people who taught school, no better than people who were nurses and doctors and all of that. We were cultural workers. And I thought that was wonderful because that actually is part of what you have to do is to resign yourself to, if you don’t automatically like it, the fact of the hard work that is required to do creative work.

Today’s blog is dedicated to the stories we tell about our mothers, inspired by my new favorite indie poet Paul Tran. But before I start fan-girling I want to honor Paul Tran’s cultural work. There is rarely compensation for this kind of intellectual and creative labor. And that is an injustice.

That being said let’s get on to it. A good friend of mine couldn’t wait to share Paul Tran’s work with me upon her return from competing in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSIs) this year. Knowing how important the labor of women of color is to my work, she came to my house, sat me down, and made me watch this poem.



There are over two hundred pages in my dissertation. But Paul Tran managed to articulate trauma, violence, white supremacy, imperialism, migration, labor, and gender in under three minutes. I listened to this poem and hung on to Paul Tran’s every last word.

White people have so much dirty laundry. 

That’s exactly what being a black historian feels like. Black as in black history. Black as in me.

White people have so much dirty laundry. 

And the women of color who I write about. The women in my family. And Paul Tran’s family I imagine. These women refuse to be made invisible.

White people have so much dirty laundry.
But the women who wash their clothes and clean the dirty faces of their children aren’t it.
Paul Tran’s poem demonstrates through something as seemingly mundane as dry cleaning that sometimes women workers of color are living breathing embodiments of American imperialism’s dirty laundry. Sometimes I feel like Paul Tran and I are hanging that dirty laundry out to dry.
As I listened for the first time I realized that I know very little about Vietnamese history from this perspective. What if the grandfather of that army man who brings his uniform to your dry cleaners every week was the same man who dropped napalm on your Vietnamese community? What does it feel like to seek refuge in the country run by the same people who invented something as destructive as napalm?
At the Maid in the USA conference that inspired this blog, my friend K. shared with me that the women in her family experienced excruciating pain everyday from bending over the hands and feet of their clients at the nail salon. (By the way Paul Tran’s “#1 Beauty Nail Salon” captures this brilliantly.) I never knew this history of Vietnamese women. Thank goodness for Paul Tran and K. for sharing their mothers’ stories.
There is so much richness in the stories of everyday women. Women like Paul Tran’s mother. And mine. I wish I could tell my mother’s story with as much power and brilliance as Paul Tran does. But I admire Paul Tran as a fellow queer kid who still manages to find inspiration from the stories my mother tells me.
People might not remember the dissertation or academic book I will publish about domestic worker organizing. But I will remember Paul Tran’s words. And I will watch this poem again and again and hear something new. That, my friends, is the power of storytelling.
“This war isn’t over because she’s still gonna make you pay.”
The conclusion of Paul Tran’s poem imagines a world where the story isn’t over yet. And the quiet hero, his mother, the woman who washes white peoples dirty laundry, will get her revenge. It sort of reminds me of the work of Amira Baraka. And it’s something that cultural work can do that traditional scholars can’t. Scholarship tells you the world as it is. Art shows you the world as it could be. A world in which the Vietnamese woman who works at the dry cleaners can exact her revenge on those who decimated her community and murdered her family. A world where history gets recuperated, rewritten, and reimagined to honor the strength of the everyday women in our lives.
Here’s to Paul Tran for recovering the stories of our mothers from the cutting room floor of history, and hanging white supremacy’s dirty laundry on the line for all to see.

Queer Folks are Caregivers Too

There is an implicit assumption that domestic work is intimately connected to marriage, monogamy, and heterosexuality. But I know a number of queer folks that also work in the field. And sometimes they do so for other queer people who are raising children. Yet, this dynamic does not change the racialized, gendered, and classed dimensions of domestic labor. As usual, I have thoughts.

Nearly half of the staff at the National Domestic Workers Alliance identify as LGBTQ. They created a caucus. And a zine. Because this movement for domestic worker rights often cuts across dimensions of difference. And as I have said before: domestic worker activists are incredible organizers.

What’s amazing about the zine is the way that a community is created for queer domestic workers around the love that other women have for their children who also identify as lgbtq. Part of the organizing that domestic workers do involves being able to tell their own stories. The whole story. And connect with each other as whole people. Organizing takes stamina. It is this kind of honest and open community that allows folks to lift each other up and support each other through what is a long and difficult journey.

While some immigrant rights groups and migrant labor activists have done a great job advocating for their queer and trans brothers and sisters, the question of LGBTQ employers is still one that troubles me. Lesbian and gay couples who employ LGBTQ care workers often replicate the language of like one of the family or appropriate the queer vernacular chosen family when they make choices regarding who to employ to care for their children.

There is something I think should be cleared up here. Your mother takes care of your children because she loves them. You friends babysit for a night because they love you. No one agrees to take care of your children five days a week, 8+ hours a day simply because they love you or your kids. Yes they may care for you and develop a close relationship with your children. But they also need to be paid fairly. And adequate time off. And some sort of plan for workplace injury and accessible healthcare.

Just because your home is an affirming place for a queer person does not make it an affirming space for that person to work.

I say all of this to say that domestic work does not always affirm our archaic idea about what families look like. All kinds of families employ care workers. They do not always bolster heterosexual family models. But the denial of basic labor rights to domestic laborers does bolster capitalism. So friends…help me leave this one on the cutting room floor by using our resources to be better employers and even better allies to domestic workers. (Hint: the right hand menu of this blog is a good start. *wink wink*)

Domestic Worker Wage Theft? There’s an App for That.

Domestic worker activists are some of the most innovative organizers on the planet. So I was very excited to learn about a new app designed by immigrant rights activists in Jackson Heights for day laborers. The app allows users to record hours and wages, document working conditions, and identify abusive employers with a history of things like withholding compensation.

What is most important about the app is that it allows workers to do all of this anonymously. In addition to the isolation of the work, the risk associated with visibility is another barrier to domestic worker organizing. Because a number of domestic workers are undocumented, confidentiality is of the utmost importance.

And the hard work has already started. Just this week The Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn demonstrated against a woman named Jacklyn Wahba for refusing to pay her domestic worker…in front of her house. To which I say: good for them. Black women domestic worker organizers did something similar in the thirties.

The refusal to give domestic workers basic labor protections is an affront to their human rights. Even more than that, it gives employers the right to abuse those who work for them without every having to be held accountable. I support these workers in taking accountability into their own hands with this new app. And my hope is that we can leave abusive employers on the cutting room floor.