#51: not being mistaken for the nanny of your kids because of your race
March 17, 2017
Last week, a video went viral. By now, the BBC live interview with political science professor and South-Korea expert Robert Kelly who is interrupted by his two small kids bursting into the office has been watched more than 20 million times. There has been a ton of debate around it and I am not going to repeat or address all of it. But I still want to explain briefly why the video exemplifies perfectly why I write this blog.
First of all, I think we can all agree that the video is simply adorable and I am sure that this short clip will be an all-time classic at every single family gathering of the Kelly family (oh gosh, let's reclaim this family name, please). I watched the follow-up video that BBC published two days ago, and what I see is a lovely, funny, down-to-earth family. It seems like they are dealing OK with all the hype and I really hope that they do not allow all the negative debates and critics to affect them in any way.
Of course, the video caught my attention because of the debate around Jung-a Kim, Kelly's South Korean wife and mother of the two kids. Watching the video, many people (including journalists) jumped to the conclusion that the person we saw skidding frantically into the room was the kids' nanny or his maid, not their mother. And to my disbelief and embarrassment, I was one of them.
Why is this problematic?, you may ask. There are indeed a lot of Asian girls and women working as nannies and maids for other people around the world! Yes, that is true. The problem of human trafficking has long expanded beyond the realms of forced sex labor. It is a sad fact that hundreds of thousands of South-East Asian women work as modern slaves in the garment industry, sex businesses, and private households. Even legal immigrants often face dire, exploitative work situations without any rights or legal support, let alone the prospect of a better future. 'One in every two Filipino women working abroad is unskilled, and employed as a domestic worker, cleaner, or in the service sector' (Global Slavery Index, 2016). So like every cliché and stereotype, the Asian-nanny image contains an element of truth. But this element does not consider any problematic socio-cultural processes which makes clichés and stereotypes so harmful and dangerous. It jumps from "Asian woman" to the conclusion "domestic worker" without shedding light on the whole world in between, this world where race, ethnicity, origin, and gender define who you are and what your life will look like.
Just one role is seldom cast with Asian women: the one of a normal woman, doing normal things which are not defined by her race and ethnicity at all.
Apart from all this, I wonder: how many east Asian nannies do you know personally? I guess your answer ranges somewhere between zero and two, unless of course you live in east Asia. Mine is zero. So what makes me think that Kim is an employee rather than Kelly's wife? If that thought is not grounded in my own reality, where does it originate?
Do you remember my previous post about Asian stereotypes and representation in the media? I think that this is one answer to the question. In an excellent article for the Guardian, Vera Chok reflects on the video at hand and describes common stereotypical depictions of east Asian women in movies. They range from exotic but tragic romance between white hero and east Asian beauty (à la Miss Saigon) to the sexy, bad-ass slash hyper-intelligent female Asian who facilitates the (male) hero's mission. A very common character is the submissive, shy, and delicate "lotus flower" type. Just one role is seldom cast with Asian women: the one of a normal woman, doing normal things which are not defined by her race at all.
Expanding that thought further, Chok writes: 'So, to those who assumed that Kim was the nanny, it’s worth thinking about what kind of woman you might have expected Kelly to be married to.' This includes the perhaps most important figure of the video: Kelly himself. Because it is only in relation to him that we perceive Kim as a nanny. Was Kelly a Korean man, for instance, nobody would doubt that they are partners, not boss and employee. But Kelly is a white US-American, middle-aged associate professor of political science, wearing a black suit and a red tie, and sitting in a home office with a large world map in the background.* In short: he is one of the straight white men who are the most privileged group of people in this world. His habitus is well-suited for that role. He manages to keep his composure, doesn't turn to look to his kids or talk to them, leaves the work of collecting the children and dragging them out of the room to his wife. Unlike others, I don't blame him, I am not sure what I would have done in the same situation. After all, you don't get a live interview with the BBC every day, associate professor or not. But his behavior definitely underlines his authority, his statues, his power.
So coming back to Chok's question what kind of woman I might have expected Kelly to be married to, the answer would probably be: a white woman. A white woman, pretty, blond, cheerful, who looks like she loves yoga and teaches English literature or something. I know that this sounds awful when written down but yeah, I guess that would have been the sort of woman that absolutely no one would have mistaken for Kelly's nanny. I think this would be an excellent addition to Peggy McIntosh's white privilege knapsack! #51: Not being mistaken for the nanny of your own kids because of your race.
In the follow-up video, the couple is asked how they feel about the fact that many people mistook Kim for a nanny. Kelly starts saying "It has made us really uncomfortable" but then Kim takes over and gives a sort of very innocuous answer. I wonder how they talked about this in private. I feel for both of them because it must have been a humiliating and distressing experience to have that gigantic virtual mirror held up in front of them. It makes me sad that we live in a world where the power dynamics are so messed up that bi-racial couples oftentimes face so much prejudice. Sometimes I struggle hard to not be judgmental towards certain bi-racial couples I pass on the street, even if the man is white, unattractive, and considerably older and the woman looks south-east Asian, pretty, and seems considerably younger (which evokes all these awful associations). Because who am I to judge? I remember I saw such a "couple" on the Camino de Santiago. He was almost cliché American, a tall, loud, rough-looking retired police man with a southern accent, she was a tiny, black-haired Filipino-looking woman, probably in her early 40s. I kept running into them over a couple of days and watched them with a lot of suspicion. This is, until I learned that he walked the Camino as a tribute to his wife who had passed away and always dreamed of going on this pilgrimage. And she was simply the Filipino-American wife of either his son or a good friend, I can't recall exactly, who happened to walk the Camino at the same time. Boom boom.
"Unconscious bias or outright racist assumptions have real consequences. If we don’t consider certain people to be as human as we are, their happiness or wellbeing is less important to preserve."
So why does all of this matter? From a very personal perspective, it makes me wonder how I am perceived by my surroundings. After all, I am a young woman from South Korea, I live in a pre-dominantly white environment where most people have seen more Asians on screens than they have talked to in real life, and I am in a relationship with a (the most wonderful) white academic. If even I have these racially biased assumptions about east Asian women, I wonder, how does my appearance shape the way people perceive me? And how does this perception then translates into action? I deliberately look very "westernized", so I am easily recognizable as an educated, middle class, leftist person. This certainly helps to decrease belittling stereotypes. But what is so powerful about this short video is that the reactions it provokes in us are entirely unconscious and thus extremely meaningful. We don't think about the way Kim is dressed, how she wears her hair, how she talks. But we immediately identify her as Asian. And from that and the way she looks and behaves in stark contrast to her husband, we jump to the conclusion that she must be an employee. Even if it does not do harm to anyone if we sit at home and watch this video and think Kim is Kelly's maid, it is the bigger picture that matters. That matters a lot, in fact. Our prejudice, bias, and assumptions shape our social interactions. Of course most people would not think "Oh, she's an Asian woman AND merely a nanny, I don't really have to take her so serious." But I think there is no doubt that it does impact our actions if our subconsciousness puts people into higher and lower status categories based on their gender, race, and appearance.
Once more, I want to borrow Chok's words because she beautifully explains: 'Unconscious bias or outright racist assumptions have real consequences. If we don’t consider certain people to be as human as we are, their happiness or wellbeing is less important to preserve. We get to treat them how we like or we stand by as they are treated badly.'
So, yes and of course, it is just a video. Just a hilarious comedy video of a sweet family and a funny incident that every parent working from home can relate to. And yet, I deeply agree with Roxane Gay who twittered:
* One detail that I really liked was that the map on the wall is definitely an Asian one. I remember seeing a map like that for the first time (actually, it was also in South Korea) and feeling completely stunned. I just stood there and stared at it for minutes and it literally changed how I look at this world.