ABOUT BEING EMBARRASSED AND THE WORK YOU ARE ALLOWED TO DO AS A BLACK WOMAN
There is one thing that I find fascinating. I say it now, so that I can look at it from a distance. It is about the work you are allowed to do as a Black woman. The community of Black women tells us that this is by no means every kind of work.
BY MONIKA ODUM
September 13, 2020, 12:00 CET | Updated on October 11, 2020, 23:50 CET
First published on rosa-mag.de on 28.04.2020.
What white society tells us, trusts us, allows us to do, or rather does not trust us, is painfully well-known to us. We know the glass ceilings or quarrystone walls that we keep running into and climbing over. But that is not what this is about. As important and healing as the view to the outside is, it does not free us from critical self-examination and an examination of how we, as Black women, look at our occupations. Of how much we define and evaluate ourselves and others upon them, of where these evaluations might come from and of what they do to us as a group but also as individuals. Some of us, myself included, are obviously too embarrassing for the Black women’s community in Europe in terms of our profession. But now that “our silence does not protect us”—thank you, Audre Lorde—it is time to talk about it.
About dictates on professions and other constraints.
There are dictates on professions about which we prefer to keep quiet. That’s why from here on it might be unpleasant and painful for a moment, similar to removing a plaster. But when this wound is exposed and when we look at it honestly with compassion and with real interest and strive for healing without keloid formations, then we have regained something very important. But more about that later. We are the invisible, untouchable ones, the ones everyone has in their family or among their ancestors, but doesn’t like to talk about. Generally, people prefer to talk about us instead of with us.
If this happens, then the sound, the vibrations, and the content of their words remind us strikingly of what each of us knows from conversations with unreflected white people. The range of these conversations runs between changing topics as quickly as possible to speeches of consternation, which seem to come directly from the deep valley of cluelessness and play the keyboard of stereotypes up and down. There is no questioning of oneself; on the contrary, we are often asked to explain why we do what we do. Does this pattern seem familiar to someone from another context?
We are the ones with the embarrassing professions. We are the ones who cook.
Or care for them.
And we do it full-time.
We work in the professions that were assigned to us in those days, that we were forced into and that we had no choice but to do.
While we have consequently resisted the prejudice that we are too stupid and incapable of running a company or inserting a new heart valve, we have unfortunately, at the same time, gone over to taking the information about what is “valuable work” and what is “menial work” without criticism.
White feminism (our previous commanders), still traumatised itself, did the rest and proclaimed the liberation of women from the cooking pot, sickbed, and nursery as the way to go.
Shy voices saying that it might be less a problem of the work itself but rather the value we attach to it were nipped in the bud, and those who spoke out were described as backward, submissive, unwoke (okay, it was called “not emancipated” then).
As a result, we avoided anything that even remotely resembled a “menial job.”
Own your passion, no matter what.
“You may become everything you want.” Mashama Bailey shows how Black women reclaim cooking for themselves by celebrating their ancestors and their heritage and, ultimately, overcoming the question of whether or not they serve a stereotype. How free are we when limits and pigeonholes that have always kept us locked up prevent us from following the call of our soul?
“You may become anything you want,” we say to those born after us and to ourselves. Okay. Also a cleaner or cook or gardener or nurse?
Or do we start to slide restlessly back and forth on our chair at that? The rarely questioned postulate of “menial work” has caused and continues to cause a fatal division in our thinking. We admire and adore women like Rosa Parks (seamstress), Fannie Lou Hamer (farm worker), Mary Seacole (nurse), Maya Angelou (sex worker), Madam C.J. Walker (laundress/hairdresser), and Leah Chase (cook) for their contributions to Black history, but we have no appreciation for their work and refuse to acknowledge the reality of their lives. We behave similarly towards those who are engaged in one of the professions above today. We look down on them, are not aware of them, or perceive them either as backward, embarrassing, submissive, or educationally deprived.
Those who are outraged now and wonder how I dare? These are experiences, insights and impressions from over thirty years of working as a nurse.
Safe space? Not for the chosen profession.
As soon as I mention what I do for a living in the circle of Black women (safe space? Not really, sorry), I encounter an embarrassed silence, or many “Oh”s followed by silence.
Usually, the person concerned tells me that then that they could never do this themselves, and asks me whether I wouldn’t find it degrading to help white people off the bedpan, whether this is a training occupation, and when I plan to start studying medicine. But it was good that I did it, because “people like me” had to exist too. And there was no money to pay for it anyway. No joke. And then, in 2020, spring came, and we came into contact with the corona pandemic.
And suddenly we, the embarrassed ones, are relevant. Systemically relevant.
Which is basically a synonym for “please continue doing the work we have always looked down on so far, so that we don’t get sick.” Seriously? Pot banging? We may not have studied, but our mothers certainly didn’t raise idiots.
So put the pots in the cupboard and go out on the streets with us for more pay and better working conditions when this is over.
But what is really nice and what we are happy about are the heartfelt gestures that really help, and there are many of them.
Value is also defined by the content that we define and co-determine.
All of a sudden, people understand and realise that hygiene is important and that it is of enormous value if someone takes care of a clean environment. Suddenly, it becomes evident how fragile our supply situation is and how infinitely valuable the knowledge of how to grow what feeds us is. Suddenly, it comes into focus that all the flour in the world won’t help you if you don’t know how to bake bread. And suddenly, it becomes clear that the nice nurse does a bit more than wiping people’s bottoms and drinking coffee.
All of sudden, it doesn’t matter how many “likes” your Instagram channel has and how many meetings you are invited to. It also doesn’t really matter that you are one of the WOCs who “made it” and make up the small percentage of the “Black Elite” (aargh), but you have no idea how your housekeeper (of course you pay them well and you are almost like girlfriends—sure) managed to pacify the children, prepare a biodynamic five-course meal for you, bae, and the dear little ones, and keep all the glass surfaces in the house mirror-like.
And while some of us move in a circle around their thoughts, themselves and possible end-times scenarios, those of us who clean, cook, care, tend, plant, and preserve are busy healing the world.
Yes, it is just as simple as that. And as difficult. We call it “being there for others,” and we know with the fibre of our being what this means.
We do what matters at the end of the day. Living creatures need an environment in which they feel comfortable. That includes that the environment is well looked after. That includes that there is enough food. It also means that the food is cooked. It means taking care of the weak who are too young, too old, or too sick. It means that when life comes to an end, we are there. Holding space for the pain. Holding hands. Being present. This includes an earth on which we can all live, and whose balance is ensured by caring for the soil, water, and air. We do not need praise that is not really praise. Please spare us this form of dishonesty. We know who we are without it. Our expertise goes beyond the general imagination. However, we would be delighted if, next time you mention our existence in your stories, novels, blog posts, rants, vents, and other statements, you not just mention us because it is trendy to tag #nurse or #thankyou or #heroes, but because you have an interest in why we do what we do. Could be exciting. In that sense: sisterhood is powerful. Or, hopefully, it will be soon.
The English version of this article is supported by the Stars4Media pilot project.
Photo Credit: Monika Odum