Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has reignited a national conversation on race, class privilege, and the relationships between domestic workers and their employers. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the commentary, some of which I agree with and other pieces that I don’t. But recently, I read Piper Hoffman’s essay, “The Black Woman in My Closet,” and found myself in an awkward place.
In summation, Hoffman discovered that her black housekeeper eats lunch in her coat closet. Upon the first encounter, she immediately offered the dining room table, desk, couch, or anything that she could think of to get the woman off the floor. But her housekeeper declined and Hoffman believes that the unintentional class tension makes her housekeeper “comfortable in that closet with the door closed, where she doesn’t have to confront (her) and vice versa.”
Grappling with Hoffman’s revelation, I started to reflect on my childhood relationships with domestic workers and lifelong experience of class privilege. While it may sound like a media anomaly, I grew up middle class, privileged, and black with two hardworking parents in the same home. My father is a lawyer, my stepmother is a software engineer, and our blended family of five never had to struggle for anything. We lived in a two-story colonial style house with a half circle driveway—the equivalent of the American Dream minus the dog. And like many of our (white) neighbors, we had “help.”
We had a cleaning lady come every other week and paid a family friend to help with our laundry every Wednesday. But much like the Obamas, my parents were clear: the “help” was hired to help them, not the children. I still had to fold and put away everyone’s clothes in their rooms. I did dishes every other night, washing each plate thoroughly before sliding it in the dishwasher, my father’s rule. And my brother took out the trash twice a week while helping my father fix just about everything around the house. Even though I did not have to contribute financially to the household, I also held down a job from age fourteen. It simply was expected as an affirmation of my parents’ values in hard work and independence. Yes, my siblings and I were privileged. Spoiled? Not so much.
During my childhood, I never saw any signs of class tension or inappropriate dynamics between the cleaning lady, laundry helper, and my family. My brother, sister and I were to address both women with the upmost respect. It was always Miss or Mrs. so and so. When you walked into a room and saw them, you were expected to initiate a greeting and as they left the house, you always said goodbye. My parents never exemplified or tolerated condescending behavior toward either of these women, and gave them the same rights as extended family. Both women could and would check you in a heartbeat for any insolence.
I’m not sure if white families had such close knit relationships with their “help.” But all of the black families that I know had similar relationships with the women that tended their homes. My parents knew the full names, family background, and “situations” of both these women. We knew that this job was their families’ bread and butter. We paid them well, my father often gave them free legal representation, and they were always invited to family gatherings. In my parents’ eyes, they were peers and nothing less would be appropriate.
When I read that Hoffman discovered her black housekeeper eating in her coat closet, I knew that she intentionally did not set up a dynamic that would make her housekeeper feel “less than.” However, it takes conscious effort to defuse class privilege and uncomfortable social dynamics, particularly if you’re white. Regardless of race, my parents went out of their way to make sure the two women that contributed to our households did not feel inferior. It’s not enough to give a standard greeting at arrival and departure or simply hand someone a check. They dove into each woman’s livelihood, asking about their families, where they grew up, etc. It’s no different than getting to know your co-worker or an employee that is ranked beneath you. After all, if you trust this person enough to work in your home, shouldn’t you know a thing or two about them?
Perhaps, renouncing class privilege comes easier to black folks due to the fact that we, ourselves, are just a generation or two removed from domestic work as a dominant career path for black women. Regardless, race aside, we’ve got to do better. We can’t have people eating in our coat closets.
Do you have a housekeeper? Or did you grow up with “help”? Speak on it.