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On Shame

Now that the dissertation is over, the university has #blessed me with a postdoc. A big part of my job is researching and conceptualizing this new initiative concerning the university’s partnerships with organizations and institutions in Africa. As far as this new job is from my actual interest, it seems that I just can’t get away from the issues concerning domestic work. And for this I must admit I am truly grateful.

Just last week I was attending a high level debate at the UN on unemployment and youth development on the continent. (It’s a fancy postdoc…I must admit). The importance of domestic worker rights was, to my pleasant surprise, mentioned more than once. It was a moment when the global reach of this current movement became very real to me. From the park bench to the ILO to the United Nations. Never underestimate the impact of working class women. They do not play games.

Anyway, in addition to attending UN debates (still sort of in shock about this being my life), we were also visited by the CEO of one of our South African NGO partners. Their organization is sort of like the South African equivalent of the United Way. Except, to my surprise, they have some pretty radical politics.

I sat with this gentleman, Lorenzo, one afternoon, while he was taking a bit of a breather from fancy coroprate university meetings and enjoying a very New York lunch (a bagel with lox and capers, one of my favorites). I wanted to pick his brain about the state of education in Capetown. I learned a lot about that subject during our conversation, but it’s what I learned about Lorenzo that I remember most.

Lorenzo spent his entire childhood in foster care. At age eleven, while still in primary school, he began working as an assistant to the janitor everyday after school. Although I am interrogating this thought process now, my initial reaction (in my head, anyway) was that young people should be able to learn and not have to work at such a young age. But before I could finish that thought, Lorenzo began telling me how thrilling an experience that was. How much pride it gave him to be a part of what allowed the school to run on a day to day basis. He helped the school survive. And, more importantly, he supported family.

It was a moment of self-discovery in his life, Lorenzo explained. He found something deep inside himself that transformed him from a victim of circumstance into a provider. And this transformation is what allowed him to shed the sense of shame he felt.

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in conversations about domestic work. Representations of domestic workers in popular culture are so painful and pervasive that their impact spills over into questions of the labor itself. It’s something that domestic worker activists are very aware of. Every time I am in the presence of activists, they always introduce themselves by name and then express how proud they are to do the work they do. The dignity of domestic work as a form of labor that allows all other workers to work is consistent across the globe.

When I asked my mother about shame she was perplexed. “Why would you be ashamed of someone for working?” she argued. In fact, my mother and Lorenzo, who came of age at the same time on opposite sides of the world, said many of the same things. My mother told me that the work she did as a young teenager exposed her to another side of the city where they had beautiful things. She was proud to work and help support her family. The lessons she learned as a young domestic worker followed her throughout the rest of her life.

Lorenzo and my mother’s words make me think of work differently now. Student poverty certainly made me a part of the working class, but I guess I, too, took pride in the work I was doing. It is idleness that produces shame. Which makes me think that this constructed sense of shame associated with domestic work is something we should think of as a part of the system of oppression that prevents domestic workers from advocating for the rights they deserve rather than a hurdle to domestic worker organizing.

I have ardently resisted the temptation of being a theorist during this academic journey. So, my thoughts on shame shall remain here, on the cutting room floor.

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About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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