Formative Experiences in Whiteness: My Family’s Cleaning Ladies
February 8, 2018
As I write about these formative experiences that shape who I am today and what I do for a living, I’m discovering just how much privilege I grew up with.
My family never talked much about having money and a certain status in the small Ohio town I grew up in, and for that I’m thankful. But as a result of that reticence, I didn’t quite grasp that most people who are what we call upper-middle class didn’t have the things I did growing up.
Mary had been with my family for as long as I could remember. She’s in her nineties now, and still cleaning houses, though not offices anymore. Her caramel-colored, lightly-lined face still beams when we meet, and her smile welcomed me the last time I visited her in Alliance, my hometown, and hers.
She had cleaned my father’s Eye Clinic when it was on Market Street, downtown, and after it had moved into a new building on Sawburg Avenue, years later. She had cleaned house for my grandparents, and later for us.
She was, and always has been, like a member of the family…sort of. I know we saw her as a member of the family. I don’t know how she sees it, nor do I think I’ll ever know. Because she’s always been somewhat deferential, knowing the boundaries, the “terms of the relationship,” though we’ve never discussed them openly, ever.
Because that’s what you do when one person is privileged and the relationship is unequal: you don’t bring it up; you just go along to get along. To do other than that would be to break a boundary that, for me, has been there since I was a child.
Likewise with Mary Frances, who did housecleaning and babysitting for us when we were an Army family in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, from 1966-68. Only a short distance from Memphis, and the MLK assassination, in the middle of a still-segregated South, amid Civil Rights marches and Vietnam.
As a kid, you don’t have the historical perspective, but you know, at some level, that there are unspoken, but very evident, “terms of the relationship.”
But you can never be completely honest. I know Mary and I are unlikely ever to have an honest, no-holds-barred conversation about my privilege and her deference to me and my family because of skin color and income. And not because my mom has moved away from Alliance and I have no reason to go back there now.
No, it’s because she’s unlikely to feel she can speak honestly, and her generation didn’t do that, anyway. And I wouldn’t bring it up with her because I would feel I was offending her.
But it would be amazing to have that conversation, wouldn’t it?