History Makes Hiring Household Help A Complex Choice : Code Switch Many black women in the U.S. have or know someone who has done domestic work. With an expanding black middle class, some find themselves conflicted: To hire help or not?

History Makes Hiring Household Help A Complex Choice

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. For generations of African-Americans, especially women, the job most available to them was working in someone else's home as a domestic. With the expansion of the black middle class, many black women are themselves hiring help. We have the latest story now in our series on The Changing Lives Of Women. Karen Grigsby Bates, of NPR's Code Switch team, explores why some African-American women are conflicted about being the ma'am their help answers to.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Solange Bumbaugh has a busy life. She's a mother of two small boys, and she's also completing a doctoral degree. She and her husband have a housekeeper, and she believes the money they spend on paying her is a good tradeoff for eliminating the marital spats they used to have over who cleaned what. But even though she's had help for several years now, Solange Bumbaugh remains conflicted about being the boss lady.

SOLANGE BUMBAUGH: It feels very weird. I know for me, certainly because of - you know, African-American history in this country, it feels uncomfortable being on this side of the divide.

BATES: Her current housekeeper is from Central America, and they speak to each other in Spanish. They have a good working relationship, but Bumbaugh says she still flinches a little bit every time she asks for work to be done. She doesn't want to feel like one of the housewives in "The Help," barking orders to their black maids.


BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: (As Hilly Holbrook) Put mama in a chair before she breaks a hip.

BATES: But she's not a white socialite in 1960s Mississippi. So Solange Bumbaugh tries to put aside her middle-class guilt, to realize not employing her housekeeper isn't going to help either of them.

BUMBAUGH: Clearly, that's why she's here. She's here to make money for her children.

BATES: Maria Reyes says, in essence, get over that guilt thing. Reyes has worked as both a nanny and a housekeeper. She's now on staff with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and says having an employer of the same race doesn't guarantee anything.

MARIA REYES: (Foreign language spoken)

BATES: You and your employer don't have to be of the same race, Reyes says. What matters is that as an employee, you be treated with dignity and respect. We're human beings, she insists, and we deserve respect.

Natalie Preston-Washington is a marketing communications specialist in Tampa. She says friends and colleagues her age have no problem hiring help if they can afford it, and they are not conflicted in the least.

NATALIE PRESTON-WASHINGTON: We recognize that - you know, you can't be all things at all times to all people; and there is something that, you know, you will have to let go of. And for me, you know, it was cleaning.

BATES: So Preston-Washington hired a black couple to deep-clean her home monthly, after she had her son. She thought she was being respectful. But things got rocky when one day, she left a list of to-dos for the husband-and-wife team. The couple was offended, and so was Preston-Washington.

PRESTON-WASHINGTON: I feel like they treated me like it was a personal relationship rather than a professional one.

BATES: Forty years ago, if a black woman had help, frequently it was a personal relationship. Her housekeeper often was a friend of a friend or a neighbor, or someone from church. In 1975, the hit TV sitcom "The Jeffersons" built its first episode around Louise Jefferson's refusal to hire a housekeeper friend to clean the deluxe apartment in the sky she shared with her husband, George.


ISABEL SANFORD: (As Louise Jefferson) Remember when Lionel was growing up, and I did domestic work twice a week to - sort of help out?

SHERMAN HEMSLEY: (As George Jefferson) Yes.

SANFORD: (As Louise) Remember the folks I worked for?

HEMSLEY: (As George) Uh-huh.

SANFORD: (As Louise) It was all "yes, ma'am, no ma'am." Now, how can I ask Diane to say"yes ma'am" to me?

HEMSLEY: (As George) Because now, you're the ma'am.

BATES: "Weezy" Jefferson eventually did hire an opinionated maid who stole the show. But Duchess Harris, professor of American history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., sympathizes with black women who cannot get comfortable with the notion of being the ma'am. She says for more than a century, there was one occupation open to them.

DUCHESS HARRIS: The job that black American women could get was being domestics. And they were awfully - incredibly disrespected. I mean, even my paternal grandmother was a domestic. And so for a lot of black American women, we can't let it go.

BATES: Harris and her husband, a surgeon, have gotten around that problem by hiring au pairs from an exchange program, to live with them and help with their three children. The young women mostly come from European countries that are part of the exchange, and it works well for her family. But Harris says a lot of her black friends and acquaintances wouldn't consider it.

HARRIS: I find that black Americans are open with how uncomfortable it would make them, to have someone living in their home from a different background.

BATES: Given demographic shifts, it's quite likely that "someone" will be a person of a different background. The majority of housekeepers in the U.S. are no longer African-American; they're Latina. And as the Latino middle class grows, many Latinos, like their African-American counterparts, have begun to ask themselves the same questions: Can I hire someone who looks like me? Is it OK to be the ma'am?

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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