Sunday, September 18, 2011

Legal protections for domestic workers (Part 2 of 2): The (disadvantaged) help

This article is my second part of two, discussing a recent bill proposed in California (Assembly Bill 899) which would provide more legal protection for domestic workers.  This post will discuss the implications and undertones affecting this bill, which very few seem to address in the ongoing public debate: race and socioeconomic factors related to domestic workers. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass before the California Legislature recessed until January, and I cannot find any reports indicating whether it will still be on the legislature's agenda or whether it has been permanently tabled.

It seems like an almost too-well-planned-to-be-coincidental moment for this bill to be proposed in the legislature.  At the same time as the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help, is playing nationwide in a theater near you, a bill recognizing many of the issues faced by the African American maids in The Help was playing out on a state-wide stage in California. While I intended to read the book in its entirety before watching the film, I gave up last weekend after realizing that I had neither the time nor the patience to wait any longer.

I will attempt to summarize the storyline of the film without giving too much away. If you intend to watch and don't want spoilers, I suggest you skip these next four paragraphs.  Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the beginning of the 1960s, the story focuses almost exclusively on a group of (mostly) young white women, all members of the Junior League, and the (mostly) middle-aged African American women who work as "the help" in each of their homes.  As described by the iconoclastic main white character, Skeeter, the domestic workers serve as the mothers to the town's white children--feeding them, changing them, nurturing them, teaching them--until the white children reach adulthood and in turn employ and subordinate their former substitute "mothers."  The cruel white women pay "the help" less than minimum wage to cook, clean, babysit, and virtually run their households. If they "misbehave," or otherwise embarass their white bosses, the help are not only fired, but their former bosses spread lies about their behavior throughout the Junior League so that they are effectively rendered un-employable in the town at large. The cruelty is overtly and unapologetically racist. One of the white women even starts a campaign to mandate that all white households have a separate bathroom for their black servants, to prevent contamination of the whites with "their diseases."

Skeeter convinces one, and eventually, many of the women working as "the help" to speak up and tell their stories, in what she eventually publishes as an anonymous book, entitled (unsurprisingly) The Help.  Of particular interest to Skeeter is the fact that while many of these women are busy raising other women's children, their own are neglected and forced to fight for themselves.  The protagonist, Aibileen, even tells her about starting work as a maid at the age of 14, dropping out of school to help pay her family's bills.

The book is a resounding success, and not only are many of the white women in Jackson shamed into pretending that the book is about another town, but Skeeter shares the profits with each woman who contributed her story.

Even though the women seem to have developed their voices, the end of the film depicts Aibileen getting fired for contributing to the book,  knowing she will never be hired again in Jackson. As she walks away from the house of her former employer, the young white girl she had been caring for is screaming and crying for her to return.  The girl's inept mother is last seen holding her second child, appearing not to understand how to hold him or provide him with basic care.  As Aibileen walks away, she realizes she has found her voice and decides she will be a writer.

The Help has been characterized by friends of mine as being something akin to "racism light."  As an Ethnic Studies concentrator in undergrad, I couldn't help but view the film through a lens that was hyper aware to implications on race and class (and, partially because of this class, gender).  Indeed, by the time I left the theater, I was furious.  This film was witty, it was funny, it made me laugh, it made me cry.  It made all of the (mostly white, female) audience laugh and cry as well.  But it also appeared to emphasize the fact that the time and circumstances pictured were then, and this is now.

Thank goodness we no longer live in a world like the Jim Crow South! How wonderful that we are a fully integrated society!

Except... we aren't.  Everywhere I go throughout California, it seems there is a similar divide between domestic workers and their employers. Employers are (usually) white. Domestic workers in California are almost exclusively people of color--even more specifically, Latin@. As the text of proposed AB 899 states, "The vast majority of domestic workers are women of color and immigrants and are particularly vulnerable to unlawful employment practices and abuses." How often do we see janitors, gardeners, maids, and nannies who are white? Not often. Although many in the media would like to portray AB 899 as the "babysitter bill," most of the employees the bill targets are not white teenagers hired to watch the children one night a week so the parents can take some time for themselves.

Who will AB 899 affect? People of color.  Yes, white employers may have to pay them a bit more. But, if there is no regulation of domestic labor, how can we ensure that people with the means to employ domestic workers are not treating them akin to the treatment pictured in The Help?

More importantly, The Help does emphasize the importance of the roles of domestic workers in their employers' lives. They enable men and women to focus on their professional careers. They enable parents to share more equally in only one shift, without burdening either--and usually the woman--with a second one.

And, in California, it appears that a line of employment that is almost exclusively for people of color continues to be exempt from basic protections that would prevent abuse and recognize the value of domestic work. Unsurprisingly, a search on google of "Assembly Bill 899" and "white," or "race," or "people of color" or "Latino" or any other amalgamation of a word which would indicate that anyone has discussed the bill from this perspective turn up nothing remotely akin to the above arguments.


tomindavis said...

Caitlyn, this was a thorough and impassioned blog post. You have a natural writing style. I enjoyed reading the facts behind the CA bill, I also appreciated your individual and subjective take on The Help, especially the not so tenuous connections it makes to our current racially stratified society. I immediately thought of the numerous equal protection cases i have been reading this semester -- where a line of formalist jurists insist that the continued segregation of minorities, and the continued unequal positions held by women in the workplace and in politics, e.g., are outside of the scope of the decades of state-run ineqaulities that came before it. To look at how society is divided socioeconomically (not just on racia lines, but along gendered and class-based ones as well) is to know that these issues should never be outside the reach of a sensitive jurist.

On an interesting side note, just a month ago a Mississippi judge dismissed the lawsuit brought against the author of The Help (Kathryn Stockett), brought by the woman (Ablene Cooper) who argued that the character Aibileen was based on her.

Ablene was --and I think still is!-- working as "the help" for Stockett's brother, and had claimed in a civil suit that her story was wrongly taken from her without just compensation. She claimed $75,000 in damages. The case was dismissed for running the statute of limitations, and Ablene has asked the judge to reinstate the case. Draw from that parallelism what conclusions you may.

Also, and irrelevant to your post, this case formed the foundation of about 1/3 of my property exam last year.

Great post. I enjoyed it.

tomindavis said...

whoops, spelled your name wrong, sorry!

S said...

Caitlin, I am glad you tied in the "The Help." I especially appreciate your thoughts on how it creates a false sense of security; that because "we no longer live in a world like the Jim Crow South," the racist and classist stereotypes, interactions and social injustices produced by discrimination are no longer a problem in our world! Those were the problems were addressed in the Civil Rights Movement.

If this were true, then AB 899 would be unnecessary. The state would not need to create a cause of action for these individuals, whom, as Caitlin rightfully points out, are people of color. I suggest taking a few minutes and watching the YouTube video below. Like Caitlin, it attempts to use the recent release of "The Help," to raise awareness on the current working conditions of domestic workers.

I think it is important that look at the intent of the bill when talking about it with other people. There are many who understand the bill to be about "babysitters," and not domestic workers. I wonder if there is a correlation between these individuals and those who believe that racism does not exist anymore.

For those who are interested, AB 899 was kept in suspense in its respective committee, but there is still time to take action. Check out the National Coalition of Domestic Works Alliance for more information.