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What It's Like To Be Mistaken For The Nanny

I have two lovely stepkids. It also happens that they’re white, and I’m not.

17/03/2017 4:35 PM AEDT | Updated 17/03/2017 4:35 PM AEDT

What started as a hilarious video on the perils of working from home quickly became a dismaying reflection of societal assumptions and bias. Many assumed the woman in Robert Kelly's BBC interview was the paid help:

"I bet that nanny is going to be fired!"

"Oh my gosh, that au pair is outta here."

"How panicked is that maid?"

When those assumptions were called out, the social media sledge-fest began.

Welcome to my life. No one assumes I'm the mum. I'm either the nanny or the mail-order bride, sometimes known as the gold-digger.

Why? Because I'm a woman who happens to have two lovely stepkids. It also happens that they're white, and I'm not.

Asians have frequently been seen as submissive, reflected in 'yellow fever' and a fetishisation of Asian women.

I've taken the kids to playgrounds, parties and supermarkets and smiled as people look at me with thinly veiled contempt. Sometimes with pity. I've overheard: "Oh, the nanny's here to pick them up." I've been excluded from countless conversations and interactions.

It doesn't matter that I've known the kids since they were tiny, and that I love them and they love me. When we go outside, people look at me differently. Without fail. And it feels like shit -- for me, for them and for my husband.

This isn't just because I'm a stepmum. Yes, there are some toxic stereotypes there that make me an easy target. My friend is an Asian woman with a half-Asian child. She's also been mistaken for the nanny.

"It's because you look so young!" people say. But this issue cannot be extricated from race.

Asians have frequently been seen as submissive, reflected in 'yellow fever' and a fetishisation of Asian women. We're the cleaners, the maids, the help. This isn't to undermine people in these roles, but rather to question why so many people immediately jump to the conclusion that the woman taking care of the kids was help.

I grew up in the era of Pauline Hanson version 1.0, when she was busy accusing Asians of 'swamping' Australia. This emboldened many into open expressions of their bigotry. I've been spat at, shoved and publicly abused. I've had men introduce themselves to me countless times with 'Nihao' and 'Konichiwa'. I've been told I'm a 'valuable commodity' as one of the few Asian women at an evening work function.

One vivid memory is using a public bathroom in an affluent neighbourhood and coming out of the cubicle to a waiting line. The woman first in line looked at me as I said it was free. She responded, 'no', with an upward curling of her lip, as I stood confused and finally comprehending.

More frequently, it's more insidious than that. Like constant questions about where I'm from or when I moved here. Looks of surprise when I speak assertively in a meeting, or just speak actual English. Being asked in a job interview about why Asians are forced to study hard. Browsing at the posh deli and being asked where something is.

It's experiencing bullshit like that that makes me take less kindly to arguments that identifying the mother Kim Jung-A as the nanny is a) not pejorative and b) unrelated to race.

Naturally, people are defensive -- most of us don't want to be called racist. "I thought she was the nanny because she was so panicked!" "You're paranoid!"

Common responses to callouts of the nanny assumption are evidence that many people cannot accept that they may be biased. You do not need to be an overt bully abusing people to be biased. We have daily proof of this in the workplace. You don't need to be sexist in order to think a woman isn't a natural CEO, or that a dad isn't as good a parent as a mum.

When people say, "I don't see race" and "everyone is the same under the skin", they marginalise the voices of others who say, "I might be equal, but society treats me differently".

Unconscious bias is pervasive. The workplace stats on diversity across race, gender or sexuality bluntly denote this. Our human brains take shortcuts all the time because they have to. We all make judgements based on what we see and hear, and our past experience. By the age of six, kids have already formed biases based on race. So to claim that one doesn't see race or that racism isn't relevant here is disingenuous, however well-meaning.

When people say, "I don't see race" and "everyone is the same under the skin", they marginalise the voices of others who say, "I might be equal, but society treats me differently". There's a power dynamic that is too easily forgotten. It silences the diversity that we should actually embrace.

We need to accept that people do not all have the same experiences. My lived experience will be different from yours, or another Asian woman's for that matter. It takes compassion and an open mind to see beyond this. It takes compassion to understand what it's like to be mistaken as a nanny. To understand that casual racism exists. That it can be unrelenting and hurtful to be judged on appearance rather than who we might be on the inside.

This requires people to think and challenge our own and others' implicit biases. It's uncomfortable, but it has to be if we want to take real steps to work against racism in society.


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