The Black Woman In My Closet

I just read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book about relationships between white women and their black domestic “help” in 1950’s Mississippi.  The book is an excellent read, thought-provoking and compelling.  I was appalled anew by the casual injustices, the ignorance, the segregation, and the day-to-day racism prevalent in that culture.   And then I discovered that the black woman who cleans my apartment eats her lunch in my coat closet.

In The Help, the black employees don’t sit down to eat with their employers in order to preserve the social hierarchy and avoid creating even the illusion of equality or friendship.  They don’t use the same bathrooms, ostensibly because of white fear of contamination from black cooties, but also as one more means of reinforcing the message that blacks are inferior servants in whites’ homes.  At first the book reads like a missive from a long-ago though still poignant time, a shameful history that thousands and thousands of people have worked hard to put behind us.   But it’s closer than we like to think.

Nearly every person who has ever been paid to clean my home, starting from my childhood, was a black woman (the others were immigrant women).  Right now I use a service that sends Amanda (not her real name) to my apartment every other week to spend a day cleaning my bathtub, emptying my garbage, changing the sheets on my bed.  My white guilt has kept me uncomfortable with the relationship and its reminder of Jim Crow and “domestics” who tended to white women’s houses all day.  But I treat her with dignity and pay her well, and since I was always away at work when she was at my apartment, I wasn’t often confronted with the unpleasantly familiar dynamic.

Now I work from home, which is how I found Amanda eating her lunch in the coat closet.  Feeling a little sick to my stomach, I asked her if she wouldn’t prefer to eat at the dining room table.  She said she wouldn’t because she just cleaned it and she didn’t want to dirty it up again.  I told her she could eat at the desk, on the couch, anywhere she was comfortable, but I have a bad feeling that she is most comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront us and vice versa. 

My employment relationship with Amanda is a common one in my neighborhood.  On a weekday there are gobs of strollers on the sidewalks carrying white children pushed by dark-skinned women.  Many of them likely have their own children whom they have left alone or in the care of a family member or friend so they could get paid to watch white people’s children.  The sheer number of these mismatched stroller duos is unsettling.

It’s no big news that although we have a black president, racism and economic inequalities persist.  It’s another thing to realize that each of us contributes to them.  I don’t know what to do about it on an individual level: it won’t help anybody for me not to employ Amanda or for my neighbors to fire their black or Hispanic nannies.  But as long as these economic relationships continue, the ghosts of Jim Crow walk among us.  They bring new meaning to the phrase “service economy”: the less privileged serve the more privileged and the colors of each remind us that poverty disproportionately afflicts minorities, while whites monopolize the best-paying jobs. 

The persistence of these patterns is disturbing, but it helps to remember that they are patterns and not universal rules – many blacks are successful professionals.  Nevertheless, blacks are still clustered on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, he was turning his focus from civil rights to economic rights, particularly the Poor People’s Campaign.  He was in Memphis to boost the sanitation workers’ strike and to raise awareness of the link between racial oppression and economic oppression, about the impossibility of eradicating one while the other remained.  Our failure to recognize or act on that truth is the reason blacks remain disproportionately poor. 

The next step is to pick up where Dr. King left off and fight for economic justice.  Get it on the national radar, remember it in the voting booths.  The minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage, not even half of it, so many people are struggling to hold down two minimum-wage jobs in a doomed effort to support their families.  The jobs in which minorities are concentrated, like childcare, tend to pay less than living wages and thus perpetuate black poverty and the old racial relationships without the need for anything as overt as Jim Crow laws and separate bathrooms.  It is time for Americans to ease up on the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology and accept the reality that it takes a whole society to eradicate poverty.  And if that is what we really want, we can do it.

12 thoughts on “The Black Woman In My Closet

  1. John says:

    Amen. Having lived in the south my whole life and similar experiences, I think most problematic is the separateness with which we lead our lives. The gradual, seeping and mounting distance between day to day life of mostly white employers and mostly minority “help.” The distance starts to define an “otherness” that may not have been intended but nonetheless hits each of us in the face in chance moments like your closet encounter. The closer we can bring ourselves to each other perhaps the more the incentive for economic justice or maybe, simply, a better opportunity for being nice, for recognizing basic human needs and emotions.

  2. Mr. Moscato says:

    Wow, talk about Rocking the Boat! You touched on quite a lot of hot buttons, I am surprised there aren’t more comments. Of courss, if you threw in statistics on poverty to prosperity paths/speed for different minority groups, that would really get the Internet buzzing.

    You best post yet, keep it up!

  3. Benjamin Solotaire says:

    That is a great essay. I don’t know where you love but it describes my neighborhood of Park Slope perfectly. In a neighborhood that prides itself on it’s liberalism how many women in the closets are there? Thanks for writing this, I look forward to reading more.

  4. Marianna says:

    I think you should build her her own separate closet.

  5. Judith says:

    Very important issue. Thanks for bringing it up. When I was flush enough to have someone help with housework it was a Latina woman. She was very warm and we struggled to communicate and sometimes had to call a third party to make certain we were on the same page. Though she spent 5 hours cleaning my place once a month, she would hardly stop to take a break –at least when I was home. She had some health issues that were scarey for her and I made a couple of calls or spent time helping to clarify what tests were being taken and why and when the results would be available. She knew that she could ask me to help and that I would do what I could. I did not know her legal status and did not ask. She shared some personal family information with me from time to time and asked about my family (she also worked for my mother). I referred her to a couple of others and before I moved away we said our goodbyes somewhat tearfully. I respected and appreciated all that she did and I let her know–not just via compensation, but by being open to communication and helping when I could. If she had been part of a group that provided medical insurance and she had needed additional money from her clients for coverage would I have given her that money? I think I would have. Having been self employed most of my life I can appreciate how difficult it can be getting affordable coverage….One of the most important things in life is to treat people with respect for who they are, not what they do. There are 2 human sides to the employment equation and each person must work to humanize the “workplace”. If the “power” rests with one side, it would be correct for that person to set the tone of openness and respect. On a political level, money for education models that work, job training and mentoring, putting money into programs in inner city communities to prevent kids from going to jail (prisons being one of the worst possible way for our tax dollars are spent) would all be important steps toward economic justice.

  6. Barbara Reskin says:

    Between Women, a book by Judith Rollins, is a real eye opener regarding the interpersonal dynamics between black female domestic workers and their and their white female employers (and where white men come into the picture). The book is based on Rollins’s dissertation for which she did participant observation, working for several white families as a cleaning person. Although Between Women was published in the early 1980s, as far as I can tell, the dynamics remain the same.

    I’m not sure that “humanizing” the relationship is the solution. As Rollins pointed out (or maybe I figured out from assigning the book for classes a few times), the personalistic, informal relationship puts domestic workers at a disadvantage. Their lower power and status does not permit them to avoid intimacy that they do not want. Personal relations with their employers often put them at risk of having to do “emotional work” (read Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart). In general, subordinates are better off in bureaucratic employment situations in which their duties and rights are clear, and their job does not require them to be nice or pleasing. And find or create a place other than your closet where this employee can eat her lunch in privacy.

  7. Kat says:

    Talking about race relations and the help. A few moons ago, i was at a party in park slope with many liberal, smart folks, who are all white except for “the help”… In this case, the “help” included a teacher from Berkley Carroll (a prestigious Bk high priced school) and a nanny who was completing her law degree. (I knew this since the nanny and i had buddied up because of our need for coffee and chitchat every morning. I am getting ahead of myself… I went to the party because i had been in the city only six months and was hoping to make friends… So, I went to the party with my son (the party was for kids too) with the high hopes I would meet some folks I might like. I attempted to join a few conversations and was not particularly acknowledged. Following a third or fourth attempt, I decided “fuck this” I am just gonna have me some wine and enjoy some high times. But in truth, I spent a few minutes trying to figure out if i was being ignored because I was a single woman amongst a bunch of couples, am i being ignored because I happen to have an accent that places me below the Dixie line (and everyone knows southern folks are dumb), or is it because the blackest child in the room happened to come out of my vagina. Oh, I know some of you are saying..”oh, girl. you are paranoid. That never happens. No one cares about those pretty little biracial kids anymore.” And to that I say, uh huh. Anyway, I got my glass of wine and moved to another floor. There I saw my friend, the “nanny”, and the teacher. As it happens, the “help” were black. And guess what… they were by themselves by a mantle with not a sole engaging them. Well, I felt huge relief to see a person I did like and rushed over with my wine in hand. Turns out that I was not the only one shunned. Now, I know that I listed a few reasons for why I might be shunned, but the consensus amongst us, was they were shunned because they were “the help” and black. And as God is my witness, not another damn person approached us throughout the party. While I happen to know you, I absolutely know that you recognize the unfortunate racial divides that still include the hiring of “the help”. I am delighted that you were disturbed and wrote this blog. Because, unfortunately, there are far too many folks who would dismiss the closet eating as idiosyncratic behavior instead a reflection of race and economic relations….

  8. Daphna Roth says:

    When I was a kid we had at least one white cleaning lady. I remember her in particular as her granddaughter who was about my age had 6 fingers. I thought that was so cool…

  9. jen lupo says:

    I am not surprised that your cleaning women eats in your coat closet. The fact remains that the diversity issues (race, gender, socio-economic, ethnic, et cetera) of bygone eras still haunt us in our everyday lives. We’ve been ‘educated’ about such issues. We’ve, as a society, made great strides in many ways on issues of diversity, but on the macro level. On the micro level we are eons away from equality.

    Here is a funny aside on the issue…A few months back the director of development from my daughter’s prestigious prep school on the UES of Manhattan (we live downtown which in and of itself makes us diverse) telephoned my home to confirm a meeting we were to have the next day. He then telephoned my cellphone and left a message where he stated that he’d left a message with my ‘housekeeper’. In fact, he’d spoken to my Cuban mother in law. When I returned his call to confirm, I pointed out that he’d spoken with my very thick accented MIL (who has two advanced degrees I might add) and that my housekeeper is white and Irish American. The assumption from this white person (who is homosexual I might add) is that all household help belong to a racial or ethnic pool that does not include the White race. We live in some peculiar times.

  10. Brendan says:

    It’s worth keeping in mind that one thing that can be done for these women is to pay Social Security taxes for them. I’m sure you’ll find some of them who’ll say they prefer to be paid under the table and have you just give them what they’d send to the government, but it can make a huge difference to them to have recorded earnings with the Social Security Administration – it can mean qualifying for disability benefits, having their children qualify for survivor’s benefits, etc.

  11. Michelle says:

    I employ a housekeeper to help my parents out in small-town Iowa. The town has few minorities, and thus the housekeeper is white. She is also very kind to update me on how my parents are doing in case they are having problems they don’t want me to know about.

    It’s an economic issue, not a race one. I do wish people would stop confusing the two.

  12. I agree that the more significant issue is socioeconomic level, but race is undeniably tied up in that. Great piece, Piper. I’ll be haunted by the image of your housekeeper eating lunch in the closet. Have you shared this piece with her?

Comments are closed.