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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.


About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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