Elevator Story, Trois

Seriously.  This is from Philip Galanes' advice column in today's New York Times--

I am a dark-skinned Mexican woman with a baby who has the lighter skin of her American dad. We live in an apartment building on the Upper East Side. Often, I find myself on the elevator with residents whose comments make clear that they assume I am the nanny or a maid on my way to work. Granted, I’m not in my best clothes, but I find this assumption racist. Should I say something to convey my irritation or just ignore them? --Martha in Manhattan

I don't think it's racist of the other residents to think Martha is probably the nanny.  Perhaps  9 times out 10, a dark skinned woman carrying a light-skinned baby really is the nanny, and they know that.  What's racist is the other residents having the level of certainty that would make them open up their mouths and talk to Martha as if she were the nanny.  It's racist to think a dark-skinned woman must be the nanny of the lighter-skinned baby she's with.  Surely the residents wouldn't overtly treat her as the nanny just based on a hunch--they think must be.
Should she say something? Sure.  Partly to correct people's errors about dark-skinned women, partly to enjoy getting mommy-credit for the baby--if that's wanted.  I used to be bombarded with compliments when I took my twins out into the world.  Until they were age 3 or 4, there were about 10 how-cutes per day.  That was much fun, and I think I would have been treated differently if everyone had been assuming I was the nanny.

Philip Galanes' response is quite moronic. Before he acknowledges the residents' racism and advises Martha to correct their error, he accuses her of classism:

We all make silly assumptions, some of which (sadly) are ageist, racist, sexist, you-name-it-ist. Even you, Martha: Why should shabby clothes peg you for a maid? Classist much? 

He actually misundertood her! Clearly she does not think her clothes "pegged her" as a maid. She's saying her clothing may have given them them a misleading clue--she's generously granting that as a possibility--but she's saying that that was not enough of a reason for them to think she was the nanny.  They must have reached that conclusion on the basis of skin color. That's why she complains that the other residents' assumption was racist.  Duh.

To add insult to injury, Galanes' goes on to tell Martha not to wear starched white uniforms, if she wants to avoid being mistaken for a nanny.  If he understands, in principle, that clothing sends signals, why was it impossible for him to understand what she was saying about her clothing? And what's with "shabby clothes"?  "Not my best clothes" is what she said.  Racist much?


ianbargain said...

Galanes is suffering from a reading comprehension problem or clutching at straws to buttress his opinion. "Not my best clothes" is commonly used and readily understood in this context. Obviously residents don't dress up everytime they step out of their apartment. Not even in the upper east.

I've always found some behavior hard to understand. One is - writing to these advice columns. They are often amusing to read - but the "writing to" part is weird, given the lack of necessary to-and-fro. If there is any advice column that is consistently good, I'm yet to see it. Some letters are plain cry for help from people in difficult situations - but they are probably ill served by these columns. At least, I hope in the background these columnists send sensible personal responses with reference to better sources and publish only a small portion. The worst, I have seen is from a person who was plainly suicidal and got a "get over it" response. End of irrelevant rant :-(.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the NYT advice columns have gotten pretty not good. But I confess--I actually did once write a letter to The Ethicist when Randy Cohen was the writer. Here was the question--"I made a mistake when inputting final student grades and recorded a higher grade than the student had earned. Should I submit a grade change?" There were no further facts, no to-and-fro needed. I was curious what Randy would say. Sadly, he didn't respond--didn't even acknowledge the email. I asked a couple of other people what they thought, because it was uncharted territory. I just couldn't see what was the right thing to do. (Outcome: I changed the grade.)

ianbargain said...

My professor gave me a good grade. Then she just changed it to a lower grade. Should I confront her?

- disgruntled student.