Nannying in New York is a black and white issue
It never looks quite right. On any sunny afternoon in Manhattan’s wealthy Upper West, there are swarms of black nannies pushing young white children in strollers.
At a glance, it’s a deep south plantation fantasy, minus the tobacco fields, bullwhips and chains. But we’re in the north of America. And the north beat the south because of slavery.
Is it a status symbol to possess a black nanny? Is there a modern mammy conspiracy?
Black nannies are in high demand in New York. People eye off others’ “good” black nannies with envy. They make plans to inherit them from families once children have grown.
You never, ever, see white nannies in this neck of the woods.
A black nurse named Betty, having a lunch break on a bench in Riverside Park, admits that the sight of black nannies with white kids is so commonplace she never thinks about it.
“From the beginning of the time they brought slaves over, black women have been taking care of white women’s children,” says Betty. “Cooking, cleaning, babysitting and even nursing (breastfeeding) their babies.
“It’s been going on so long, it’s a hard habit to break.”
Last year, 140 years after the end of slavery, New York State finally passed its “Nanny Bill”, giving domestic workers pay and holiday rights.
Betty says if there is a mammy thing going on in New York, it’s because white people are too uptight, having convinced themselves that they are depressed and stressed.
Black women are seen as strong, gentle and capable.
“We are more passionate and patient with the children and take better care of them,” she says. “Some of the white women are more fragile. When we give birth, we have to take care of our own children. We have to do it on our own.”
Sitting on a nearby bench is Joan and her daughter Vanessa. From Trinidad, they are both nannies to young white children from different Upper West households. They meet in the park every day for lunch.
For Joan, the white thing about black nannies is neither a subliminal nor explicit longing for slavery. It’s simpler than that.
“Americans won’t do this job,” she says. And that suits Joan. “So for me, it’s better to do this job, get paid, and not be on welfare.”
Joan and Vanessa love their jobs. The children are nice, the money’s OK (about $600 a week), and they hang out in nice apartments where the fridge is open. Neither has experienced sexual harassment.
But they say they would never hand their own children to nannies, even if they were rich. Both have reservations about whether their constant presence in these children’s lives is a good thing.
“No, it’s not,” says Joan, who was raised in a far more communal culture. “Some parents seem to act like they don’t care and the children become too dependent on us. I have raised a whole lot. I’ve been doing this for 14 years.”
Vanessa says white parents with money are impatient to handball their children to nannies from a very young age.
“They don’t have the patience,” Vanessa says. “They cannot deal with them. They prefer someone else to raise them, so they can come along and tuck them in at night.”
Big little boys get pushed around in strollers till they are five years old. “It’s ridiculous,” says Joan. “We don’t use strollers with our own children.”
They get the impression that white parents, who aren’t around much, think their kids are more delicate than they really are.
And so the kids end up becoming demanding and lazy.
Both are day nannies and both like their current respective employers very much. It hasn’t always been that way for Joan.
“Some of them can speak to you like a person,” she says, “and some do not. Sometimes it’s not nice. Some of the children will say, ‘You are here to serve me.’ Or, ‘You’re black.’
“But children don’t care about the colour of your skin. They get it from adults. If you treat them nice, they’ll love you.”
Looking at the little girl she cares for, Vanessa says: “I love her and it’s a good thing for me. We basically raise these kids.
“I would prefer a parent raising their own child, but if you can get someone to do it honestly, and love them with their own heart, yes, it’s good.”
Joan says children can develop attachments to their nannies. No child has ever mistaken her for its mother, but says: “Sometimes there’s a bond where they’ll confide in you but not their parent.”
That can cause friction between the parents and the nanny. But they say the real heat they cop is from black Americans on the street, who see them pushing white babies.
“They have a problem with the way white people used to treat black people and they feel we shouldn’t take care of white children,” says Vanessa.
“But you have to do what you have to do.”
Paul Toohey’s American Story column appears on News Ltd apps every Saturday.
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