The inherent racism in employing domestic workers

So here I am again - in the middle of a "race" dialogue on whiteness - this time there are eight of us - luckily I am with a (black) friend - cause groups still make me feel uncomfortable, especially when I don't know anybody; and yes, it does matter that she is the only black woman in this setup, with one black man and one Indian woman(I am assuming that they would both identify with this description - but of course I can't be sure)  - the rest of us: white.

The more I am part of conversations about race/ism the more I feel confused and unsure about - everything. The only certainty is that the issue in itself is a minefield and there are as many different feelings, assumptions, opinions flying around as there are people in the room. As my somewhat simplistic assumptions about white Afrikaans people and their racially challenged attitudes get torn to pieces by somebody who so clearly doesn't fit this roster, my opinions have to stand back once more and my emotions scatter about ...

I notice my defensiveness kicking in, when somebody brings up the issue of black domestic workers and  the exploitative and demeaning nature of the work they have to do. This is said in the context of apartheid and slavery and ...
I understand.

Yet, I am defensive of my privilege to leave my children in the capable hands of a woman I trust completely, to be able to do what I want to do instead of looking after them myself.

I am defensive of my privilege to not have to spend the morning cleaning up after myself and my family and go to work for my business or study instead -  leaving somebody else in charge of my house and my belongings.

I notice how I am formulating arguments in my head defending these privileges.

This is my life. This is important to me.

Can I let go of these privileges? Could I stay home to clean my own house and look after my children 24/7? Would I continue paying my domestic worker and my au pair and ask them not to come to work anymore and do something else with their life instead .... could I? would I?  (it is questionable though that I would have the money to pay them if I am not working anymore - hah! defensive!)  but the simple point is I don't want to and I won't.

Yet I agree with the argument that in the context of  social inequality stemming from a history of oppression any situation where old patterns and stereotypes of inhumane social interaction get repeated is as such demeaning and exploitative. I really do.  As a result any environment where privileged white people employ black people with less privilege can only be defined as exploitative and demeaning.

How can I still employ black people in my home and even in my business?  I could tell you the story of my being a student in Berlin, working in a lawyers office as a secretary half days so I could afford somebody (somebody white from eastern Europe) cleaning my house once a week - because I am domestically challenged in a big way. Or I could point out the many "lowly" jobs I did in my lifetime to pay for my tuition or be able to live the way I wanted to. 


I could ask the question as to what are the criteria and who decides what defines a job as demeaning and exploitative in one context and a career choice or a means to an end in another. Maybe the matter of choice is the defining point? But do most people really have a choice when it comes to making a living these days? Does demeaning and exploitative only relate to black domestic workers employed by white people or generally to everybody  (not white) who cleans up after us in hospitals, offices or homes. Does it include the people who drive our garbage away and clean the roads? Is it just exploitative to have a black nanny in the house or does that criteria extend to nursery staff and school teachers? Are all these jobs demeaning in a certain context but not when it comes to being a security guard, aupair or personal assistant to the rich and famous? Do people who drive other people around for a living, who protect rich peoples properties, who serve food in restaurants - all do demeaning and exploitative jobs?

Is this being defensive? Probably!

There are likely as many people out there who would call these points defensive as they are those who think along similar lines. Who is right and who is in the wrong here? Is there even one ultimate right or wrong answer?

I do have a point with all this - other than just confusing everybody, including myself and shaking up some assumptions and opinions. My point is, that the picture can be painted in many different colors and from many different perspectives with each one having solid arguments and opinionated followers - and all of them missing the real, underlying issue once again: our basic humanity and connection to self and others.

 I can defensively claim and make a convincing point of how I am not part of the exploitative system and just as many people will condemn me as will believe me. Most of them will have their own agenda and might even use my points in furthering their own arguments.  Being defensive only serves one goal - to defend my position in the eyes of somebody else. Being defensive is always directed at an-other. It has at the chore a lack of self-awareness and substance and a need to define myself against that other-ness.

What is apparent to all of us - I assume - is the futility of a constant need to be "right" in the eyes of others. We all know it is not only a statistical impossibility but also energy draining and in the end not very rewarding: We will never find  love or true connection (and isn't that what we ultimately all in search of?) by being right. So why is it so tricky to truly embody our perfectly flawed authentic self?  If I simply look inside and find my connection with myself and as such my connection with (my) humanity - I will find the one solution that is right for me. I have more capacity for real listening and true learning when I am in sync with myself instead of trying to project or defend an image to an-other.

The tricky part is that this space or moment of true connection is not linear/intellectual but randomly shifting and mainly intuitive. We can not find it once and remain there, safely ignoring everything else as it requires constant awareness and interaction with all that is around and within us.  I can adjust my actions according to what I am learning on a daily basis by listening to others in the same way I should be listening to my children, my partner, my family. Here and now I can understand my responsibility for the ones that depend on me and honor and respect them as my extended family.

This is  the only way I can make sense of this world I find myself in. This is my perspective. It is not one that fits all and certainly not one that always comes easy to me. I make mistakes every day, miss important messages, mess up relationships, fall back into old patterns, exasperate myself (and others I am sure), and start again. Every day is a challenge and an adventure.

What I took out of this dialogue is our connection as family over our separateness as "other" in every life situation. In my life today it makes sense to employ people - and I hope to be able to sustain this attitude and extend it into respectful and caring interactions with everyone - this is my intention and my goal post.


As much as Western society may frown on it, employing domestic labor is a community service in third world countries. At the end of the day, people are crying for work, and you should feel privileged to have the financial resources to offer a job. The question becomes then in humanity. How is a person treated – are we caring for their human rights? Are we paying them a fair salary? Are we empowering them in other ways beyond giving them a salary –because more often than not, a domestic workers pay is not sufficient enough to cover school fees, or hospital bills. To argue from a standpoint of whiteness is inconsequential. In Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and many other African countries, the majority is black and they are the ones who will treat their domestic workers in the most unfair, inhumane way. In Asian countries, the problem is once again rampant. In India, employers treat domestic workers as slaves. It's a global issue and has little to do with whiteness. Privilege, yes. Human rights, yes. Let's not get caught up in the murk. Not everything is about racism.

Popular posts from this blog

Using my white privilege

Dear Black People