#NotTheNanny: A Very Good Lesson In How Bias Works

I erred in the wrong direction and had to think hard about what that meant.
03/12/2017 03:45 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2017

Earlier this week, a video of children interrupting a man’s BBC interview made its rounds on the Internet. In the video, the man stays more or less composed as an interviewer explains, “I think one of your children has just walked in.” Hilarity ensues when two small children invade the room and then a panic-stricken woman, trying to keep out of sight of cameras, speedily pulls them out.

While the man was identified on the video as Robert Kelly, a political-science professor at Pusan National University, the woman was unidentified ― and many people assumed she was a nanny and not his wife, Jung-a Kim. Eventually, it was revealed that they were married, and commentary on the speculation about who she was resulted in the hashtag #NotTheNanny.

Like many others, I first I thought she might be his wife but then considered that maybe she was the children’s caretaker. I shared the video on Facebook with a note that if she was, I hoped she wouldn’t lose her job. A spouse, man or woman, might be momentarily disgruntled with a partner, man or woman, but a sufficiently irked employer might fire a nanny, 95 percent+ of whom are women. On Twitter, I retweeted content referring to her as potentially a wife and potentially a nanny, then eventually shared confirmation that she was the former.

Along the way, various people called me a racist for commenting that in the absence of information it was more likely she was a nanny than a wife. While I felt there were facts behind my speculation there was, almost certainly, implicit bias too.

When I mentioned the likelihood that the woman in the video was a nanny, I didn’t consider bias, which is how bias works. I was busy considering the very low rates of intermarriage between whites and people of other ethnicities. According to Pew research, in 2015 only 7 percent of white newlyweds inter-ethnically married, compared to 19 percent of Blacks, 28 percent of Asians and 58 percent of Native Americans. Given that the man seemed to be of Northern European descent, it seemed fair to assume that it was unlikely.

None of this means bias wasn’t at play, even if I myself have been on the receiving end of the exact same assumptions. The whole point about biases is that they’re unconscious and that everyone has them, even if they are themselves affected by bias. Black police officers, for example, exhibit racial bias against black citizens. Most people, including women, fail to recognize pain on women’s faces in the way they do men’s.

When my children were younger, I was routinely taken to be their nanny by adults and children. One 6-year-old playmate, two hours into her first visit to our house, was genuinely and openly confused when my daughter called me “Mom.” She looked around the room for another woman and, not seeing one, was mystified. When my daughter said it again, I watched her processing my appearance and reassessing my position and authority. In another instance, after I clarified that the child I was holding was mine, a woman, refusing to understand I could be her biological parent, asked, “When did you get her?” assuming she was adopted. After 9-11, when I traveled alone with my kids, I was always worried that they’d be taken away from me.

By far my favorite episode, however, was the day a mother in a park insisted that I give her my employer’s contact information. One of my daughters, an expert climber, had shimmied her way up a very high jungle gym. The woman demanded a name and number so that, she made a point of stating loudly, she could report how reckless I was being with “a child’s safety.” I gave her my name and phone number, explaining that I wouldn’t be able to pick up her call until we got home later in the day. She blanched and said nothing else.

None of this means I am not biased in similar ways.

For the most part, these exchanges were harmless, not always the case, and taught me a lot. They made me uncomfortable. They made me think about whiteness, motherhood, women’s insensitivity and cruelty to other women, and the lack of respect and compensation that caretakers get. They made me consider my own biases and what I might be passing on to my children. I often saw women treat other women with little or no respect for their dignity, humanity or personal feelings and lives.

The distinction between “wife” and “nanny” is one of status, relative both to men and to other women. When my aunt moved to the United States from Haiti with her husband, they left their own three young children behind, and she became a nanny to three other children. While she was a political refugee, most women in her position are forced to separate from their children for economic reasons. She was soft-spoken, curious, funny, sweet, bilingual, well-read and intelligent. Like most nannies, she did not distribute her affection on the basis of how much she was being paid, but cared deeply for her charges and loved them deeply, staying in touch long into their adulthood. Like all child care workers, she forged a complicated relationship with the mother whose children she cared for. (Jessica Auerbach’s 2007 book, And Nanny Makes Three: Mothers and Nannies Tell the Truth About Work, Love, Money, and Each Other, describes dynamics like these well.)

As a nanny, my aunt’s station in life was considered by many people she knew to be reduced. She herself did not feel this and was always very proud of the work that she was doing. She was, however, often on the receiving end of rude slights and other people’s ignorance.

People’s responses to the video mirror millions of similar ones taking place in schools, parks, streets and homes. The everyday realities of childcare are still mainly women’s, as most families’ default parents, and hired or related carers, to think about. The racial, ethnic and gender assumptions behind people’s responses to the video actually reflect economic and social realities that, despite being part of regular life for millions, we rarely openly discuss.

Most people might say technology and manufacturing are at the forefront of issues related to globalization, but child and elder care are substantively where the great experiments of migration, globalization, colonization and gender transformations are taking place. Women, as mothers and as care workers, are intimately navigating our most pressing race, class, gender and power transitions, and in ways that most men, certainly not the ones in our government, rarely if ever think about in intimate terms and on a daily basis.

As Arlie Hochschild and Barbara Ehrenreich write in their book, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, domestic care is where the mainly-but-not-always white, upper-middle-class women of wealthy countries and communities come together with the ambitious, hardworking and risk-taking women of poorer ones. Women and their children make up more than 50 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States and 75 percent of those hoping to emigrate. Nearly 60 percent of immigrant women are involved in domestic and care work. Nonetheless, only 27 percent of U.S. work visas are granted to women. Even when they do find work, they remain among the least protected laborers, anywhere in the world.

In keeping with the current administration’s toxic border patrol masculinity, labor, immigration, healthcare, economic and social policies will overlap to hurt women ― as mothers and caretakers ― in different ways. Our government is happy to ignore that fact that demand for child and elder care work is predicted to grow by 48 percent during the next 10 years, relying instead on women to stay home and absorb the costs. The impact of what are called “childcare deserts” (and soon, eldercare deserts, too) will be that, in keeping with an almost decade-long trend, more and more American women will leave the paid workforce and fewer immigrant and poorer women will have opportunities that mark their most available first step on a wealth escalator that enables them to feed their families and educate their children. (It’s important to note that nannies’ paid labor, unlike wives’ and mothers’ unpaid labor, however, counts towards GDP.)

Wife, nanny or care worker, the bias behind these issues is the most powerful one: the assumption that women will continue to do this care work, unpaid or for low pay, in such grossly unequal measure. That assumption is the foundation of our economy and the GOP social and economic policies.

If the man and woman in the video had looked ethnically alike, few people would have paused to consider whether or not they were married, but there were also other important assumptions being made by everyone with very little comment ― and they matter, too. The ethnic and racial biases discussed in #NotTheNanny exist within a larger bubble of gender bias.

First, if the woman been the on-air expert and the man the retrieving adult, we would never have had this conversation. Very few people would have thought he was a child care worker instead of a husband, regardless of ethnicity. Second, if a woman had shoved her toddler to the side, even gently and with a smile on her face, half the world would have descended on her in viral wrath. Headlines like, “Children interrupt BBC News Interview” or “Professor Keeps His Cool As Children Crash His Live BBC Interview,” would have been far less likely to show up in “Comedy” or “Humor” sections and far more likely to appear in “Parenting” and “Work,” with titles such as, “Mother Shoves Child in the Face on Live TV” or “Are Working Women Degrading Standards of Professionalism?”

As Roxane Gay tweeted earlier this week, “Some of you should look long and hard at why you assume that mother is the nanny.” I would add that we should also look long and hard at how wonderfully this parent was treated in media because of his gender.

What most people exhibited this week wasn’t overt racism, but the bias that, left unexamined, feeds it. Bias isn’t the same as racism or sexism, and it’s counterproductive to conflate them. Tammy Winfrey Harris’ distinction, one of the best I’ve read, is that people have a tendency to “make bias a moral issue and not a human failing.” Racism or sexism spring from an inability to understand the difference, to examine our biases and work on addressing them and their institutionalizations.

I erred in the wrong direction and had to think hard about what that meant. While I’m sorry I did, I’m really glad that the issue of bias is being raised and publicly discussed with more frequency and complexity.

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