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Category Archives: Domestic Worker Activism

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.




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.

Profiles in Black History: Georgia Gilmore

“The maids, the cooks, they were the ones that really and truly kept the bus running…And after the maids and the cooks stopped riding the bus, well, the bus didn’t have any need to run”

-Georgia Gilmore, on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

The best part of black history for me is learning about ordinary women who did extraordinary things. Georgia Gilmore was one such woman.

Georgia Gilmore

At the time of the boycott she was the mother of six, and worked as a maid, a cook, and a nurse. When the boycott started she founded what was known as The Club from Nowhere, a group of domestic workers who made and sold sandwiches, cakes, and pies to raise money for the movement. They donated more money to the Montgomery Improvement Association week after week than anyone else. And only Ms. Gilmore knew the masterminds behind the collective’s success.

The name of the collective was meant to shield members from scrutiny from employers. But it couldn’t save Ms. Gilmore. She was eventually fired for her involvement in the movement.

So she turned her kitchen into a restaurant and meeting place. Because…black women.

I spend a lot of time thinking about mundane spaces like kitchen tables and their pivotal role in movement building. Places like barber shops, and front porches, public transportation, and beauty salons. These were the only places where domestic workers could congregate. Otherwise they worked in isolation.

My own politics were developed from these kinds of spaces. In my grandmother’s living room, as she crocheted. Over meals at bars with those who have lived much longer than me. At the breakfast bar in my parent’s house, which allowed me to be close but not in the way. Here I learned about my own black identity from women with far less formal education than I have, but more wisdom than I could ever imagine.

A local pastor in Montgomery remembered Ms. Gilmore as a woman who had no formal education but she had something he called mother wit. Mother wit can design a movement that will change history. They would never teach black children that in school. If they did the world would look different.

People in Montgomery still remember Ms. Gilmore. Most of all, they remember her cooking. I suppose that’s the thing that made her exceptional among black women. Her steadfastness, her strength, her refusal to take oppression sitting down, that was par for the course. It’s the one thing every woman in my family has in common. Perhaps that’s how it ended up on history’s cutting room floor.

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

2015: The Year of Dignity for Domestic Workers

It’s been quite a year for me. I finished a PhD. I learned a lot of new things about the history of domestic work in my family. I traveled to three countries. I read for pleasure. I published 15 blogs on this site. And, more importantly, my musings about domestic workers became a part of an amazing media collaboratory, a project we call The Newest Americans.

But even more than that I witnessed domestic worker activists make history over and over again. I am awed by their hard work, dedication, steadfastness, and most importantly the pride and dignity with which they do this hard but important work for women, workers, and migrant families all over the world.

I witnessed a dynamic conversation surrounding Ai Jen Poo’s new book, The Age of Dignity. It’s a short book that tells a big story about the central role played by elder caregivers in the health and wellness of our society.

I share in the celebration as Oregon and Connecticut became the next two states to pass legislation guaranteeing labor rights for domestic workers.

This year, over a hundred domestic workers marched one hundred miles to bring attention to the need of immigration policies that support women and families. Side note: they are advocating for “common sense immigration policies.” Brilliant.

These historic moments are being created and facilitated by working women of color. The everyday women in families like mine whose names we may never know, but whose work we all benefit from.

I am always honored to be asked to participate in this important discourse about domestic work in any small way. The experience is always transformative and I am consistently reminded that their story is my story. Its our story. Because these are the women that make all other work possible. They  make us who we are. Literally. When they win, we win.

Inspired by their relentless journey to justice, and by several conversations I’ve had this year with those wiser than me, in 2016, I pledge to write more. Not for academic credentials. Or for visibility. But for the women in my family who have taken this lifelong journey and are unafraid to share their stories with me. For the scholars I revere, people like Mary Romero and Premila Nadasen, who have spent their entire careers researching and writing about domestic workers and lending their support to the movement in any way they can.

But most importantly for me. Because I need to write in order to understand. So here’s to a new year of blogging. (Once a week…I promise…really…I put it in my google calendar.) And to remaking these thoughts into something more powerful than the cutting room floor.

900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope: A Photography Series by Xyza Cruz Bacani

[Insert excuses for irregular blogging here]

There is an idea floating around among people who study domestic work that *we* are uncovering the reality of a hidden form of labor. As a historian, that’s a little difficult for me. You see, in New York City during the Depression there was this little thing known as the Bronx Slave Market. At the market, on the corner of 167th and Jerome, black women, in their uniforms with bag lunches in tow, would congregate, and wait for white women (and occasionally white men) to come and offer them a pittance of a wage for a days work.

While the actual work happened in private homes, the marketplace for this labor happened in public. The economic (and racial…and gendered) exploitation of these women was readily on display. It was unmistakeable. Which leads me to believe that sometimes we call the things we refuse to see “hidden” as a way of protecting ourselves.

Today, the exploitative and oppressive conditions of domestic work around the world are much easier to keep secret, thanks, in part, to underground networks of forced migration and the internet…a different kind of marketplace that allows for more efficient exchange of bodies for capital.

And out of this kind of invisibility, there emerges a community of folks (investigative journalists, academics, non-profits, politicians, etc.) who seek to lift the veil on the “secret underground world of domestic labor” and the abuse against the women who do it. This is not meant to dismiss the harsh reality and the heinous violence that domestic laborers endure. It is, however, meant to demean those who are determined to speak for household laborers (or any worker really), as opposed to speaking to (or even through as artists sometimes do), the women who actually do the work. And, as I hope this blog has demonstrated, women who are more than capable (and much better at) speaking for themselves.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: the visual series 900 Square Feet of Hidden Hope, a project by photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani documenting the women of the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Shelter in Hong Kong, a refuge for domestic workers, particularly victims of abuse from employers. The shelter provides housing, meals, counseling, legal guidance, and, most importantly, community.

What matter to me is that Bacani is also a domestic worker. The commentary she provides for each photograph uses language that reiterates the fact that she is helping us to visualize a community of which she is a part. Her photos are both a representation of the subjects of each picture, but also a sort of self-fashioning of her own identity as a worker and an activist.

Many of the subjects of Bacani’s photographs are Filipina and Indonesian women. I have talked about these migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong in a previous post. In many ways this series is the counter-discourse to that analysis of the representation of domestic work in Hong Kong. But Bacani brings so much more to the narrative than I could ever capture in words through pictures.

I first came across the series in an article I stumbled upon on twitter. The author of this article (and others like it) was interested in one woman in particular, Shirley, who suffered third degree burns to much of her body after her employer burned her with a boiling pot of soup. The article posited the series as documenting “modern slavery” and abuse of domestic workers in Hong Kong, and talks extensively about Shirley’s case.

Why is it so hard for us to simultaneously affirm the impact of oppression and the multitude of ways that we cope and resist? This is something that Bacani does beautifully. The moments she captures create such a robust narrative.

One photograph depicts a Muslim woman praying on a makeshift prayer mat. The underlying text explains that Bethune is an interfaith community. Another subject, Vanjo, is lesbian. Her photograph is an opportunity for Bacani to address the inclusivity of Bethune House as it relates to sexuality and sexual identity.

Other photographs in the series show the women cooking together, sharing meals, giving each other comfort during what is called a “sharing session,” singing Christmas songs, taking care of children, and even participating in a labor day protest.

I don’t know…maybe I’m being naive or idealistic. But when I think of the women in my family, representing four generations of domestic workers, I don’t want the exploitation of their labor or an image of them as victims to stand alone.


Though there are several photographs of Shirley depicting the burns on her body, this one is my favorite. It’s a photo of Shirley as she prepares for the case against her employer. There’s something so compelling about it. And for me, it illustrates that the Hidden Hope that Bacani describes in the title of her series is not an abstract hope. It is one that the women of Bethune House create for themselves and work towards daily.

Images of domestic workers have fascinated me for some time now. Maybe one day I will write more about it. In the mean time (and I say this with so much gratitude to Bacani for the work that she does and with the knowledge that I will come back to it soon), it remains here…on the cutting room floor.

Domestic Workers Organize in the Arab World

Its a global movement my friends! Domestic workers in Lebanon are in the beginning stages of unionizing, making them the first domestic workers union in the Arab world. This is really exciting news, though the road ahead for these women will certainly not be easy.

As is true in the US, the vast majority of domestic workers in Lebanon are migrant women, predominantly from South East Asia and Africa. There are already 200 women committed to the movement, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens next.

What is particularly inspiring is that existing labor unions in the country have already lent their support to this new union. Seeing domestic workers as essential to the larger movement for workers’ rights only strengthens the movement for the working class. And let me tell you if you ever encounter domestic worker activists from anywhere in the world you would know that you want these women at the head of your movement! They are incredible organizers and tireless fighters for justice for all workers.

What is really interesting, at least to me, is how similar the language used by domestic worker organizers all over the world, and throughout history is. Poor working conditions, no minimum wage, lack of protection from physical/sexual abuse, no days off, no benefits, no insurance, no vacation…and no dignity. I read it everyday in the archives dating  back to the late nineteenth century. I read it everyday on social media as I keep track of the movement in the US. And here it is again in the Arab world.

In 2011, when I began this project I learned that domestic workers were still not guaranteed the rights that we all take for granted as workers. And I was horrified. And I’m still horrified reading it here. Honestly, it calls our global humanity into question. The cutting room floor is really comprised of the things that I just can’t stop thinking about. But if I put them in the dissertation my committee would hang me by my toes for writing too much.

But I owe to the women who fight to keep the movement growing in the US and other parts of North America, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, and now in the Arab World to keep talking about it. And I will.