On “The Help” (Originally posted August 2011)

So the “The Help” opened yesterday at a theater near you. It should do well, particularly among the “Chick Flick” set, and like many, I’m looking forward to seeing it.

I enjoyed the book for a couple of reasons: First of all, it made fun of the Junior League, a great organization of women to which I have devoted a great many volunteer hours and nearly half my life, but still appreciate its very special culture, north or south, east or west. You have to have a sense of humor to make it as long as I have.

Secondly, I’m a sucker for a story about seemingly unlikely friendships and people who have the courage to form them.  Remember that show, “I’ll Fly Away?” I cried at every episode.

But here’s the thing about The Help: Place the story in the south of the early 1960s and everyone thinks that racial segregation and discrimination happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. “Phew, glad we’re done with that” or “Thank goodness I didn’t live in the south back then.” It might as well have taken place in outer space.

Cut to New York’s Upper East Side in 2005, just steps from Park Avenue and, quite coincidentally, at the headquarters of the Junior League. There’s a party going on: Someone’s turning eight. Upon arriving to fetch her own son, my friend was surprised to find women – babysitters of varying ethnic backgrounds – gathered together in a separate room, on a different floor from the festivities. Before heading upstairs, she stopped to greet those whom she knew, and had to ask why they were not with their various charges. She learned that the mother had requested that all of the babysitters wait in this holding room until the party was over. Puzzled, my friend went on to the room where the children were gleefully partying and asked the birthday boy’s mom what the deal was with the nannies being excluded. The mother scoffed, “Well, you don’t want the help to be where you socialize, do you?”

There it is: “The Help.” In New York City, 2005, and I’m pretty sure that’s no isolated incident.  Go back a bit and read my earlier entries on the Nanny Syndrome and invisibility. That’s just a tip of the proverbial iceberg.

No, we are not done with that. Women of color still make up the majority of the domestic workforce throughout the country. They’re expected to. I could be wrong, but their relationships with their employers don’t seem terribly different from those between the maids and the Junior League gals in “The Help.” Look around: You’ll see what I’m talking about. For example, practically every recommendation, or request for a recommendation, that I’ve seen for a babysitter or cleaning lady carries the word honest. Seriously, would you suggest someone who wasn’t?

Seven years ago, I shared and elevator to my apartment with an older woman, who turned out was visiting my neighbor in a very swank, minimal minority building. We chatted about the weather on the way up, but when we parted company on my floor, she said, “Oh, you work for the woman next door?” “No,” I told her, “I am the woman next door.”

The official slogan for “The Help” is “Change begins with a whisper.” Clearly, we haven’t been whispering enough. There’s still time, though.





Just Last Week…

It seems to be big news, in the midst of even bigger news – after all, the story broke in People Magazine: the President, while wearing a tuxedo, has been mistaken for a waiter and valet parking attendant. Once again, we’d all like to think that such a thing wouldn’t happen today, at least not anymore.  And after all, the man is The President, which is great; but meanwhile, back in the lives of other men of color…

Last week, at the annual Christmas party for the parents and faculty of our daughter’s independent school, my husband – who, by the way, was not wearing a tuxedo, but rather cords, a nice shirt, and a sports coat – was next in line at the bar to get a glass of wine. One mother stepped in front of him, without skipping a beat in her conversation with another mother, and in one fluid movement handed my husband her empty glass and placed an order for a full one.

I saw the whole thing. My husband informed the woman that he was not a waiter and granted, she appeared mortified.  Hell, maybe she’ll learn from that moment. But really, what are the odds?


The Nanny Syndrome (originally posted November, 2008)

So focused on this election business was I that I almost missed a great opportunity to introduce what will no doubt be a recurring Diversity Mom theme – something I call “The Nanny Syndrome.” It’s a Halloween tale of sorts, at least it happened at a Halloween children’s dinner organized by a women’s group – many of them friends, practically all of them white – of which I am normally happy and proud to be a part. I was not the only brown-skinned person in the room. Several mothers brought along their nannies and, of course, there was the wait staff, but my daughter was clearly the only child of color. Over the course of the evening, an older woman I did not know, but who sat our table, generously divided her attentions between the little boy who had come with her and my daughter, who looked quite glamorous dressed as a movie star.   Dinner was lively and fun, as were the rounds of bingo afterwards. Towards the end of the evening, however, the woman leaned over and just had to ask me, “So, you are this beautiful little girl’s babysitter?”

Well, there I was dressed the part in my cashmere sweater, fancy French silk scarf and Italian designer loafers, sitting next to a little girl who looked very much like me, and after close to 90 minutes, it had not even dawned on the woman that I was the child’s mother. Why is it that for some, in this day and age, a woman of color in certain environments with a child – any child – still can only have one job?   Nanny, babysitter, caregiver: call it what you like, but mother seems to be out of the question. This just makes me crazy.

I remember overhearing a friend of my mother’s talk about how someone asked whose maid she was while grocery shopping near her new Beverly Hills home. That was forty-something years ago, when barriers were just starting to fall and middle class blacks were beginning to find their way into affluent neighborhoods, independent schools and big business.   No one will argue that in many ways, times have changed; what concerns me is how in other ways, they have not. Just look around some of the private schools today, not to mention a good number of corporate boardrooms. If progress is this stagnant for those who have supposedly “made it”, then what about those still struggling to get there? And forty years from now, will people carry the same faulty preconceptions about my daughter? Now, that’s scary!

The Legend of the Scary Black Man

About a year ago, my husband urged me to write about a Scary-Black-Man moment that he had had outside our daughter’s school. These days, with recent events, the legend appears to be enjoying broader circulation, if not deeper discussion.

SO, on an especially freezing winter’s day, my husband – a brown-skinned Latino – had been kind enough to offer to pick me up from a morning Parents Association meeting, which of course ran long. Fortunately, there was a space just in front of the school, where he thought he would sit in the car, motor running and heat blasting, until I arrived.   The sign said, “No Parking School Days, 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM,” but never mind: He was ready and willing to move if need be. A few minutes later, he looked up from whiling away the time on his iPhone to see the school’s head of security, a former NY police officer, approaching the car with his I’ll-get-this-guy walk, a white woman following close behind him. Recognizing my husband by the time he got to the car, he said, noticeably relieved, “Oh, it’s you,” and asked him to move so that the woman, a teacher, could park her own vehicle. Now granted, I don’t know what transpired to bring security out running into the cold, but I’m certain about one thing: It wouldn’t have happened if the man in the car had been white. I doubt if it even occurred to her that my husband could possibly have been a parent.

I’ve never taken a class in psychology, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that such behavior is Pavlovian, simple stimulus-and-response: See brown-skinned man, think trouble. Look at the madness whirling around the President. I once read about a study that found that white mothers, instinctively gripping the hands of their young children a little tighter, and maybe even crossing the street at the approach of a man of color, were conditioning their children to do the same, to feel fear and respond accordingly. And where do you think these mothers got it? This has been going on for generations.

Why do these things continue to happen? Look to the legend and Pavlov’s dogs. In increasingly diverse environments, such as the schools – and universities – that our children attend, it’s time to apply a little rational thinking, to look beyond legends.