Last month, Jennifer Freeman sat in a Chicago coffee bar, counting her blessings and considering her problem. She had a husband with an M.B.A. degree, two children and a job offer that would let her dig out the education degree she had stashed away during years of playdates and potty training.Another black family experienced racial slights when they privately interviewed applicants for a nanny position in their home:
But she could not accept the job. After weeks of searching, Ms. Freeman, who is African-American, still could not find a nanny for her son, 5, and daughter, 3. Agency after agency told her they had no one to send to her South Side home.
As more blacks move up the economic ladder, one fixture — some would say necessity — of the upper-middle-class income bracket often eludes them. Like hailing a cab in Midtown Manhattan, searching for a nanny can be an exasperating, humiliating exercise for many blacks, the kind of ordeal that makes them wonder aloud what year it is.
“We’ve attained whatever level society says is successful, we’re included at work, but when we need the support for our children and we can afford it, why do we get treated this way?” asked Tanisha Jackson, an African-American mother of three in a Washington suburb, who searched on and off for five years before hiring a nanny. “It’s a slap in the face.”
Numerous black parents successfully employ nannies, and many sitters say they pay no regard to race. But interviews with dozens of nannies and agencies that employ them in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Houston turned up many nannies — often of African-American or Caribbean descent themselves — who avoid working for families of those backgrounds. Their reasons included accusations of low pay and extra work, fears that employers would look down at them, and suspicion that any neighborhood inhabited by blacks had to be unsafe.
The result is that many black parents do not have the same child care options as their colleagues and neighbors. They must settle for illegal immigrants or non-English speakers instead of more experienced or credentialed nannies, rely on day care or scale back their professional aspirations to spend more time at home.
“Very rarely will an African-American woman work for an African-American boss,” said Pat Cascio, the owner of Morningside Nannies in Houston and the president of the International Nanny Association.
Many of the African-American nannies who make up 40 percent of her work force fear that people of their own color will be “uppity and demanding,” said Ms. Cascio, who is white. After interviews, she said, those nannies “will call us and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me’ ” the family is black?
In several cities, nanny agencies decline to serve certain geographic areas — not because of redlining, these agencies say, but because the nannies, who decide which jobs to take, do not want to work there. “I can’t service everyone,” said Maria Christopoulos-Katris, owner of Nanny Boutique, an agency that turned down Ms. Freeman’s request, even though it claims to cater to the city of Chicago. “I don’t discriminate....”
Similarly, Ms. Jackson was told by some of the best-known nanny agencies in Washington that they did not serve Prince George’s County, Md., a largely black area bordering the District of Columbia.
“We have problems getting people to certain areas because of logistics,” said Barbara Kline, the owner of White House Nannies, which Ms. Jackson contacted. “I’m always worried people will interpret it the wrong way.” She added, “Nannies like to go where other nannies go or where their previous jobs were.”
This summer, Tomasina and Eric Boone of Brooklyn sought a nanny for their baby girl because their jobs — she is the advertising beauty director for Essence magazine, he is a lawyer at Milbank Tweed — require evening hours. After a Manhattan agency did not return Ms. Boone’s call, they searched on their own, and sat through one stomach-curdling interview after another.What's interesting about the article is how black nannies are choosy about for whom they will work. If you're around enough black folk, you'll see the racial pecking order within the community. For a lot of black nannies, they probably would be treated better by a middle class white family that an equivalently situated black family.
One sitter, a Caribbean woman living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, asked about the “colored” people in the Boones’ neighborhood, Clinton Hill. A Russian sitter said enthusiastically that although she had never cared for a black child, she could in this case, because little Emerie Boone, now 7 months old, was light-skinned. All sitters expressed surprise that a black couple could afford a four-story brownstone.
“There were points where I got so frustrated that I picked up my child and I said, ‘Tomasina will show you out,’ ” said Mr. Boone, who is African-American and serves on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Boones now use day care. It is inconvenient — the center closes at 6, often forcing Mr. Boone to race to Brooklyn and then back to his Midtown office. But “there is no way we’re doing the whole nanny thing again,” said Ms. Boone, who is African-American and Puerto Rican.
Mr. Boone said, “To have someone refer to other black people as ‘colored,’ what does that teach your child about race?”
As for the discriminatory aspects to the piece, well, a key aspect of the black experience is that one learns to deal with racial slights. John McWhorter, in his book, "Losing the Race," argues that lingering elements of racial bigotry will always be with us. The trick is to distinguish between inconvenient racial slights -- which are inevitable, because life's not perfect -- and outright Jim Crow-style racial discrimination -- of which there's very little in the U.S. today. That said, there's always a bitter feeling inside when experiencing disparate treatment on the basis of skin color, especially so when one is educationally and economically successful.