The eye in the sky and “low-status” domestic workers

Not long ago, I watched a PBS Frontline video called “Rape on the Night Shift,” an expose delving into the abuse of and violence, often by their own supervisors, against female immigrants who work as janitors for poor wages in buildings that I would wager the majority of Americans have frequented for one reason or another. One of the reasons for the lack of oversight and protection of these women is due to the fact that they are invisible, so to speak, in terms of labor rights, or else cannot pursue recourse. Many of them are undocumented and/or lack the literacies and language use needed to advocate for themselves, things which most of us born as citizens and into English-speaking worlds have more access to.

How is it possible that we can allow such things to take place? It’s hard to fathom that we don’t feel compunction when we hear of such events, and I imagine that since Frontline added this to the queue, it has an audience. Still, there is a seemingly long distance between one’s couch and the ballot box or the street, where political action takes place…but where does this distance come from? I connect this to two points: the first, one of geopolitically-/economically-derived guilt, which inadvertently commits the middle-class White American to an uneasy avoidance, and the second, the straight-up social (and even geographic) distance we have from such lived experiences.

In my sociology class this semester entitled Immigration in an Era of Globalization, our class read a book called Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, which charted the experiences of Mexican and Central American women who work as nannies and housecleaners for wealthy White and Latino families in Los Angeles. These workers are not referred to as such, according to the text, by many employers, who prefer to call them “the babysitter” or “the help” because class guilt makes more direct (and perhaps honest) references distasteful. This doesn’t just happen in LA; I know people who use such indirect ways of speaking about physical laborers who come to their houses, almost as an aside when talking about what’s happening with their day. “We need to be out of the house when the cleaners come,” they say, “because we don’t want to be here when they’re here.”

The Eye in the Sky allusion in the title of this post brings in my second thought, which is one more of the lack of global consciousness (if such a thing exists) of those of us in positions of wealth and power in the world relative to those who have less. I saw a movie tonight with the same title, which brought much of this home to me. Eye in the Sky deals with the complex philosophical terrain underneath the decision-making in questions of war, especially as it relates to questions of contingency and the value of human life held in the hand as an abstraction or a real proposition. I strongly recommend the film, especially as it brings to bear the same struggle I mention above, asking the following question: Does our ability to disarticulate ourselves from others, especially those who are dark, who are poor, who are foreign-tongued and strange-ritualed, who live far away from us geographically and/or culturally, make it easier to ignore their suffering? Clearly put: do we employ an “eye in the sky” when we train our sights on those whose lives are convenient to us only insofar as we do not see a better reason to extinguish them? Does this metaphysical distance cloak these people with an invisibility that is only vaguely and temporarily lifted (if at all, when the other risk of course is commodification, a topic which merits its own post) by Frontline or a well-crafted movie?

ca. 1910 - 1930 --- Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

ca. 1910 – 1930 — Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

PS – Such questions are clearly philosophical but require deeper exploration using various lenses, including postcolonial and critical race theory as well as feminist theory, among many. Another good step is to avoid luxuriating in white guilt and other Western catharses.

Social class and the not-so-hidden curriculum

One of my favorite papers from my master’s program was “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” by the late CUNY professor, Jean Anyon. Anyon’s work identifies and interrogates assumptions made in education about learners of low social status – primarily students of color and/or those living in poor households – and how such assumptions mask the greater sociopolitical, macro-economic and historical forces at work. “Social Class” is a discussion of a study done by Anyon of five elementary schools with distinct curricula and classroom expectations that corresponded to preparation for a class-specific social position later in life; for example, the working-class school prepared students for “future wage labor that is mechanical and routine” (88), while the school in the highest-income neighborhood, which Anyon calls the “capitalist class” (72), used a curriculum that prepared students for leadership positions by guiding them in the acquisition of symbolic capital (a concept coined by Bourdieu) that would help them to understand and learn to manage systems of production such as those which their parents managed before them.

Shocking but wonderfully eye-opening work. It might be hard to accept Bourdieu’s work if you are not a fan of Marx, but the study itself demonstrates that class and education certainly intersect to define how individuals move through schooling as a sociocultural formative process and not simply an educative one. But encountering examples of such phenomena can be a tricky process; how does one find a school that clearly says, “We teach kids how to be upper-class?”

Avenues (1)

Well, this one basically does say that: Avenues, The World School, which has locations in New York and several other large cities around the world, promises that its graduates will be “ architects of lives that transcend the ordinary” in the “learning community” where they can “help every student find something to be passionate about, something to inspire each one to work harder than an upcoming exam ever could.” (emphasis added) Wait a minute…I remember that they’ve been using more and more testing nowadays somewhere, in some educational institution…oh yes, it’s called public school.

Don’t worry, poor kid. You won’t need to worry about thinking independently, reflectively, or creatively; you won’t get a job where those abilities are needed anyway. You need to focus on meeting state standards for reading and math, which means – counter-intuitively – that we’re going to take away from instruction time and focus on dozens of tests per year, keeping you stressed out and focused anxiously on what’s immediately ahead. Don’t worry that the richer kids don’t have to deal with all this testing; they need to pay attention, be inspired and create their own source of curiosity, so they can learn how to be your boss someday.

Race, class, gender, disability,…and younger-ish

I got my nails done today. Dark blue. I struggle with color choice on the rare occasions when I get a manicure, and I usually end up choosing something conservative – “classic”/“what people in Paris would wear” often goes through my head as I select the bottle of medium muted red – even though I come in, with all intentions, to get a color that goes with what I consider my “youthfulness for 38 years old.”

IMG_0513

Dumb-sounding, I know, but I think it strikes at the heart of something the census doesn’t pick up when it asks us to check off the boxes of cultural self-identification. Cultural identifiers are arguably arbitrary categories that have been established through the historical development of race (a concept which has been used to establish in-group status and exclude undesirables, such as immigrants, African Americans, Irish people, Jewish people, and others in our country; read about this in this article from The Atlantic), sexual identity, gender, social class, disability, and other categories, which post-structuralists would aver create false binarisms to the detriment of individual choice and the flexibility of self-view in different times, sociocultural contexts, and moments of self-becoming (by which I don’t mean a theosophical process but rather just becoming our selves as a process of individuation).

There’s a word for having a border existence, namely liminality, but I don’t quite mean that. Liminality means having a position of standing at the gates to a particular phase of social existence without having access; an example of this is the way in which children who are born in another country but brought to the U.S. without becoming citizens occupy a liminal position in society upon turning 18 years old, because they cannot take up the full citizenship they are given upon reaching adulthood and maintain a border position of great uncertainty and suffering. What I mean is the idea of one’s wanting to seem like a different version of oneself; this is a general idea and could be attributed to ideas like cross-dressing/drag or wearing colored contacts or straightening one’s hair, but I mean it to include also performing a different age group, i.e., trying to seem younger than one is.

How unhappy a prospect! And how shameful to admit it. Yet older women – yes, we may have to delve into the gendered aspects of this – dye their hair, lift their faces, suck their lipos, etc…Is this not a cultural identifier in some way? Perhaps it doesn’t stand to be included on the census, but it means a great deal to attempt to look 5-10+ years younger, and one’s cultural identity – even if it’s reappropriating from one’s own youth – is indeed based partly on age, which is already a clear cultural identifier.

Could we argue that our age identity, then, might encompass age in both chronological and manifest forms? As women, we may not take note of this, as we are encouraged to purchase younger-looking-skin moisturizers, hair dyes, skin tighteners, Spanx, and so many other products (and we could even get into the intersectionality of class here, as poorer women of course cannot afford to purchase $200 skin cream), but I have to wonder: Are we (self-)identifying not only as people, but as younger-ish, hotter versions of ourselves today? What does this tell the world about us? How are we categorized accordingly, and how do we see ourselves and our social identity?