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!

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