Traveling about the North Jersey/New York polyglot is not for the faint of heart, whether one is driving or using mass transit. I consider myself pretty thick-skinned about human foibles that unfold during rush hour, but something I heard on the train the other day impacted me like a slap in the face. A couple of friends were catching up after apparently not seeing each other in a while. Both seemed like well-educated professionals. The man was white and married, but his wife was not on the train with him. Judging by his comments about his wife, there is a good chance she was of Caribbean descent. Thanks to my marriage, I’ve almost developed a canine ear for giveaway phrases, like the ones he was using: “patois” and “dialect” and “sometimes can’t understand her aunts” and “all her cousins.” Come on, now! I think it is a safe bet that his in-laws are from one island or another.
The woman was clearly of Indian descent, with shoulder-length jet-back hair, a bejeweled bindi dot and a kameez top over jeans, instead of the more traditional salwar-kameez combination. Her mannerisms almost came across like a performance, with affected patrician inflections and the bawdy laughter at flat, nerdy jokes. I suppose that’s why their conversation pulled my attention away from my reading that morning.
The two were catching up about their children, and it became clear that the husband had a baby daughter. The woman asked: “Is she at daycare, or do you have a nanny for her—some warm kindly island mama?”
Did she really just say that? What was that supposed to mean? Obviously, it was no big deal to her, because she made a smooth transition into the next comment. She even threw in a remark about his daughter being his “little Barack Obama.” Apparently, her friendship and familiarity with the man bred contempt for his wife’s cultural background. Her remark trivialized the experiences and hardships, of an entire class of domestic workers. That educated-sounding woman overlooked the obvious: The family hiring the nanny might project some cozy gauzy image of a “mama” onto her, because she is caring for young children in a home setting. But don’t forget that these Caribbean nannies often have their own kids. The house is a job site, and the family is an employer. This is a business arrangement in a dog-eat-dog world, where she is trying to support herself and probably sent remittances back to her own children in her native country—on tiny wages. Some of these nannies work for women who spend more money decorating their childrens’ rooms than they do on their annual salaries. For generations, black Caribbean and American women have toiled away, rearing the children of upper middle class women, some who worked and others who did not. They are not rotund cartoons from an antebellum picture book whose greatest calling in life is to run after other people’s broods for less money per year than one of the family cars. I doubt any of these workers would go along with a woman in a more privileged position making verbal sport of her situation. Painting her like some mammy. EcoSoul, a guest blogger at The Intersection|Madness & Reality, wonderfully articulated these sentiments, and more, in this post last year.
Let’s assume that the male passenger and his wife actually preferred to hire a Caribbean nanny, as a way for the wife to anchor her child in her heritage. Certainly there is nothing wrong with them doing that. Nor would there be any particular shame for the nanny to work under those conditions, assuming they pay and treat her well. But I don’t get why women like the one on the train can’t find less pugnacious ways of expressing themselves. Certainly I don’t talk about any domestic workers that way, especially because my mother and aunts held those types of jobs. Their experiences are not ancient history or playthings for the upper middle class. The feelings and the memories are still fresh. It doesn’t matter if they happened years ago. Does that silly woman know just how far into American culture her friend’s wife is steeped? What if she speaks patois among family and friends after work? Cooks the food and still vacations on her native island sometimes? To others, it might seem like a joke, a light slip of the tongue, but I wonder if this woman would be just as candid were she at a dinner party at the wife’s house, and the aunts and cousins were present.
I made my way out of the station and onto Broadway, into the sunshine of another clear and mild fall day. Downtown Manhattan, with its historic churches, cobblestone streets and the New York Stock Exchange, looks majestic on days like that. Lots of Caribbean nannies were well into their workdays already, pushing their charges along in high-end strollers that glided along the sidewalks and park paths. Those women are majestic, too. When they do their jobs well, it gives their employers the peace of mind to function well as bankers, attorneys, real estate developers or whatever kind of Manhattan titan they happen to be.
It struck me that the Indian woman never asked her friend about his wife, and when he volunteered information about his wife, she deftly ignored it and changed the subject. To take such an interest in a child while overlooking the mother is weird to me. I don’t think it means she is racist. At the very least, she is careless, silly and out of touch with people who walk a different path in life her. I’m sure that makes dinner parties at the wife’s house interesting places to be, for all of them.