When my mom became a nanny for white children, I learned what proximity to privilege gives, and what it takes away By Olivia Olivia
Reblogged from: http://www.salon.com/2013/10/08/castoffs_and_leftovers_the_mixed_benefits_of_working_for_a_white_family/
Throughout my life, I’ve experienced white privilege by proxy. By surrounding myself with rich white people I have gained access to a lot of relief, food, education, clothes, you name it — just because I was near them. This isn’t new by any means. The house slave was often treated better than the field slave, and so the domestic servant is treated better than the migrant worker in the fields, and so it has passed on through the Latino and Afro-Caribbean diasporas in the United States. I didn’t understand as a child why my father was so relieved to hear my mother had found work in a wealthy white woman’s home. My mother had a degree – she was a certified accountant in El Salvador. But here she was, grateful to have a job working closely with a white family that would treat her a lot like the nanny-dog in Disney’s “Peter Pan.” It took a while for me to understand.
My mother used to take me to work with her in the summer, so I would play with the white children. I learned English this way at a young age. The white children passed on their castoffs to me. If a rich child didn’t like his or her toy, it was mine. If a rich child grew out of clothes, it probably wouldn’t fit me, but my mom knew someone with a baby would appreciate it. If the rich family couldn’t finish all their food, we ate it. Always rich people leftovers, which to be honest were always better than our first-overs.
It drew attention in our little Salvadoran community that my mother was working for generous and careless white families. Other immigrants, who were not so lucky, would ask us to keep an eye out for certain goods. I remember a very pregnant women coming to my mother and asking her to see if one of the families would soon be throwing out some baby clothes or a car seat. My mother could look into it. The pregnant woman, who worked in a meat factory, would have no way of having such goods just fall into her hands otherwise. The trickle-down economy of whiteness was extremely difficult to come by and everyone knew where the current drips were concentrated.
I also learned that my abusive mother would not hit me in front of white children, and that white children got “timeouts,” and that white children did not have to finish their dinner if they wanted dessert. I learned that white children had activities, commitments, expectations. White children were told “when you grow up.”
My mother never in her life referred to “when I grow up.” I didn’t know what college was. I didn’t know that I would really have options. I didn’t know about the future. My parents never asked me about my hopes or predicted a life for me, because as far as they knew the future didn’t include me. One day, we too would be cast away, like so many meals, toys and leftovers. “Mommy, I don’t like them anymore,” the white child might say, and who knows where we’d end up then.
The trickle of white surplus we had run into was tenuous and never guaranteed. We frequently moved and never looked back. White motherhood, and the white feminist dream of “having it all” – having a career and having a family – often depends on the subjugation of women of color. These women have to sell not only their time, but their love, and indeed their own children. My mother could not raise us. I could not afford my mother’s care. I was competing with a handful of extremely wealthy women from Palo Alto, Atherton, Mountain View and Menlo Park, for what could have been my mother. When she came home she was controlling, abusive, vindictive. Cheeky white children had tried her patience for hours on end and she had none left for me. I would not be attending any extracurriculars or having a home-cooked meal. I had been pushed out of the market for my own mother so that a white woman somewhere could raise her well-rounded children. I got the sour ends, leftovers once again, of someone else’s memory of a great nanny.
I remember fantasizing that one day my mother would be very old and estranged from me. I would have escaped her clutches like a rabbit running into the woods. She would be driving alone in her minivan to yet another family’s house in the California foothills. She’d be looking for a woman who called her recently looking for help. She wouldn’t know exactly how many kids or how much cleaning, but she’d know the pay would be good. She’d pull into the driveway and see no traces of children from the yard. No slides or tricycles. She’d knock on the door and there I’d be, a full-grown woman. “Go on,” I’d say in Spanish. “Raise me right. I’m paying you this time.”
* * *
I did escape them, just like I fantasized. I went to a good white college, and white children continued to cast away their goods to me. At the end of the semester, white children left the dorm fridges full, furniture strewn across the laundry room. Go have your pickings, I’d think to myself, the white children have left this for you.
The worst was when there was too much, and I no longer knew anyone to give it to. It wasn’t like when I still talked to my parents and mingled with the diaspora. Now I was isolated from those people who used to come to my mother hoping for castoff goods. I had a feeling of utter helplessness staring at the mountains of microwaves, water heaters and ergonomic chairs. Privilege by proximity to white wealth meant I could get the chairs and electronics if I needed them. But it increasingly meant I wasn’t near the people who needed the castoffs the most anymore. The chasm widened as I got older. As one approaches whiteness, whiteness surrounds and attempts to erase whatever else existed in its place. Languages, families and countries are destroyed in its wake.
The effects of what my father would call white American terrorism destroyed El Salvador during the late ’80s and early ’90s. But the victims weren’t limited to the dead. My father also talked about the problem of the “undead” – those who were dead inside but were forced to live on long after their passions and dignity had been taken from them. This existence rendered one inevitably the servant of the conquerors. You had no choice but to belong to them in one way or another, to approach them, to assume proximity to them.
The proximity we find in white houses as women of color, as domestic servants and household help, follows much the same rules of erasure my father explained to me when I was a child. My father, a vocal Marxist and critic of the United States, used to scream at the television after having spent hours at work or looking for work. I asked him, “Why did we move here if it’s such a horrible place, if the Americans did such horrible things to your country?” (I didn’t see it as my country – I barely even had a memory of it.)
He said something that applies to both working in your oppressor’s house and moving to your oppressor’s country: “Better to be in the belly of the beast than at its jaws.”
This piece is the latest in a series by feminists of color, curated by Roxane Gay. To submit to the series, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Olivia is a Salvadoran American writer living in Portland, Oregon. You can find her writing on Jezebel, Salon, and the Rumpus. More Olivia Olivia.
18 thoughts on “Castoffs and leftovers: The mixed benefits of working for a white family”
Great article, Angela. I have often felt like I’m in the belly of the beast and forget that it’s still better than the jaws. Thanks for sharing this.
So good to see your likes and catch on your blog. Hope all is well.
To exist in a world caught between two evils…talk about STRESS.
Great piece! What did you learn from it?
It was a very well written article, very close to home.
Rich white people hand me downs were my clothes.
“I also learned that my abusive mother would not hit me in front of white children,” My mother hit me wherever, whenever, for whatever, in front whomever for reasons known only to her.
Love was conditional based on your last act of obedience. Contrasting cultures lead to increase appreciation of one’s identity.
As I no longer live in a white world–not practicing medicine, just my own world–I disagree with many dominant cultural traditions that are suspect and dubious.
I no longer feel the need to behave within cultural norms that are not my own.
Many do not appreciate their rich environments full of entitled opportunities that are not afforded to those born into poverty.
Fitting in is alien to me. Always was.
Here’s a nice one about patriarchal cultures, hehe.
My dear Doctor, this is indeed a very discouraging post. One, in my humble opinion, which does more to deepen the rift between people than to bridge it. Envy and jealousy are just as destructive to self as greed and avarice. I do not know for certain, but I strongly suspect that the two greatest proponents of peace and understanding in modern times, MLK and Ghandi, would have been dismayed at the sentiments expressed. It seems to me that if justice in all its forms is the goal, then we must live it ourselves and ecourage others to do so by our example.
Hmmmm, “humble opinion” you say? I see no humbleness at all in your comment, sir John. What I see is a preacher preaching adaption to and understanding for a foul and despicable situation. What you just did, was and is done for ages already: Soothing and playing down a situation which doesn’t deserve any support at all. On the contrary, it deserves mega rejection! We don’t need a next “Uncle Tom” story, sir!
Seems to me, sir, you don’t have a clue of what is really going on, and have no idea about the hurt and degradation people feel when having to live with other people who, even when they do “good”, are as condescending as it can get! To bring in MLK (that’s jr eh?) and Ghandi (um that’s Gandhi, eh?) as alleged supporters of your view is really the pits, showing again your humbleness is fake! Btw, next time bring in Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X as well. Just for balancing things a bit out, you know.
To me Olivia is the right stuff, and we certainly need more women like her.
Hi Sir John,
Thank you for stopping .my friend. 🙂
Johnnie, you may be like that and your world is sheltered. Can I ask how often do you encounter people of color in your circle of friends? Are they treated separately but equally?
The article speaks of a child growing up with an abusive mother. A mother abusive because all her energies were spent taking caring of white families where she was unappreciated, invisible and irrelevant. At home, her mother expressed those frustrations in the form of physical and emotional abuse that left the author not knowing unconditional love.
How can you ask someone who has never experienced unconditional love to love in the face of adversity?
Oh how polite you are, Madame Angela. Even with that grain of sarcasm built in, it still sounds like…….(now be careful Ro)……um……er…..well…….as if you’re into bridge construction, My Lady.
Prematurely sent. Read the full reply…
It’s a bit better now, but still very polite.
Just look at his comment. Condescending from the start!
No mercy for him. Not even if there was no malicious intent.
I just adore you Roald. LOL
And remember, no compromising in matters like this.
Could I make a couple of comments here?
First, if I could make one tiny adjustment to your comment above: “A mother abusive because all her energies….” If I may say so, I don’t think these two things are causally related.
The mother was just abusive.
AND she spent all her energies taking care of white families.
But she would have been abusive, no matter what. She was probably abused by her own parents. She never learned to observe her thoughts or to practice mindfulness. She probably learned to take out her frustrations on those weaker than she.
Second, my grandmother was a housekeeper. A maid. To white families.
I was never embarrassed or ashamed of it.
Maybe because she was valued for her work? And when she came home, she was loving?
Sure, she got cast-offs. I think she was a bit embarrassed. But not me! You know what they call those cast-offs now? Antiques. And I’m happy to fill my house with them!
My grandmother also owned property and more than one house. She actually did okay.
I wonder if that is why I treat my own housekeepers extremely well – when I have them, that is! They provide a valuable service, so I pay well and treat them with respect.
This was hard to read. I have no perspective, so it hurts.
When I grew up my mom was home. There were four of us and dad worked a minimum wage job. What we had were cast offs from family, and sometimes a neighbor would give us nice dresses their girls had outgrown. My ‘rich’ aunt sent over lots of clothes and my mother cut them apart and refashioned them for me to wear. I never resented anything we got from others. I felt special to have it at all.
Mom didn’t work when we were small, but she still hit us for good measure and so did dad.
I understand there is more to this perspective. It runs deep as the blood in our veins, and is colored by the lens of experience in which we have viewed our life.
And for all that ‘knowing’ it still hurts.
Hi Lynda, it is difficult to notice the things we are accustomed to seeing. I feel the sincerity of your hurt at the realization there was resentment on the part of many black maids who sacrificed their children to care for the children of unappreciative and abusive white folks.
There is a lot more to tell, Lynda…
Thanks for your comments.
Thank you for sharing my piece! I just did a search for it again recently and fell in love with the people who promoted it. Thank you.
Thank you for stopping by… AN OUTSTANDING article….I re-read and still feel the same. Your story could have been mine with twists and turns.
“My father also talked about the problem of the “undead” – those who were dead inside but were forced to live on long after their passions and dignity had been taken from them.”
Your story resonated …..often I am the undead…existing…
Again, thank you for stopping by and I hope you are still writing….