“Which one of you is going to help me write my book?” The woman shouted her question at us for the third time, clearly not getting that our lack of response signaled that she was being inappropriate. The five of us had just entered the pool at the luxurious spa. We were probably an odd sight: five African American women hanging out at a spa on a Monday. We were a group of scholars working together on interdisciplinary volume on Black women and mental health. The project’s editor suggested that we embody good health practices with a full-day writing retreat. Truthfully, we did more retreating than writing.
We started our day at the pool. Two older White women were lingering after their water aerobics class. “Come on in!” they said, “the water feels great!” Their invitation was followed promptly with the question, “Are y’all celebrating something?” The spa is a frequent destination for weddings and spa parties, so it was a fair question to ask. When we responded that we were there to work on our book, one woman answered, “Oh, you’re writers! Y’all can help me write my book!” It wasn’t a question inasmuch as it was a demand. She affirmed that she was serious by asking repeatedly over the next 20 minutes: “Which one of you is going to help me write my book?”
It would be easy to dismiss her demand as a failure of emotional intelligence. But for each of us, it echoed a common experience that we’ve had as Black women: White women’s assumption that we are “the help.” For most of our history in the U.S., women of African descent have labored primarily in service to white women. Until the Civil Rights Movement, it was the only option available to most of us. As late as 1970, the average Black woman had a tenth grade education, worked as a domestic, and lived at or below the poverty line.
Fast forward four decades and the average Black woman has a bachelor’s degree, works in a professional or management field, and makes at least $25,000. But that doesn’t mean we have left service work behind. In many areas of the south, white families still employ Black and Latina women as household domestics. And Black women make up a disproportionate number of the “new domestics”: custodial workers, nannies, and nursing home staff. In each of these jobs, Black women from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa take care of White children, White elders, White homes, and White businesses.
In the 21st century, many Whites are so accustomed to us as their servers that they have a hard time imagining us in any other role. In my experience, this happens especially with White women. Here is a common scenario:
White woman: “Excuse me, where is the [insert random item here]?
Me: “I have no idea.” [Employs dismissive tone.]
White woman: “Oh, I thought you worked here.”
Me: “No, I don’t.” [How in the hell do I look like I work here when we’re in Target and I am not wearing a red shirt and khakis? Not to mention I’m carrying my damn purse and putting stuff in my basket?]
I have been mistaken for the help in Target on more times than I can count. Grocery stores, too. And I’m never wearing anything that looks remotely like the store uniforms.
Ironically, the woman in the pool that day was a Christian. Phrases like “Praise God” and “Amen” littered her conversation. Her book, it turned out, was a memoir on spiritual warfare. I should have asked her if she would be writing about the powers and principalities of patriarchal racism.
Even more ironically, her demand seemed very similar to my experience at a Christian social justice festival just a few days earlier. I had given a short talk on Black women’s erasure from discussions of racial justice before opening the floor for dialogue. The first person to raise her hand was a White woman, who asked, “What can I as a White woman do to help?” I gave a few ideas, including the strong suggestion that White men and women stop expecting Black women to educate them and do their own work (unless they compensate us). After the session ended, the woman told me that she enjoyed the talk but that I hadn’t really answered her question. “I want to know what to do. No one ever tells me what to do.”
I wanted to scream at her, “Did you not hear a word I said about doing your own damn work? Stop expecting us to do the work for you! I am not your Mammy!” Instead, I referred her to a few books and politely took my leave.
By the time that I got to the pool, I had reached the end of politeness. So I stayed away from our interlocutor. Or at least I tried. It was a small pool. Fortunately, one of our members had the name of a writing coach handy. That seemed to deflect her demands.
To be honest, though, I grow weary of deflecting White women’s expectation that I be their help. It takes too much emotional and intellectual labor, especially when it involves people with whom I am not in relationship, such as my students and friends. I am not your superwoman. And I am definitely not your help.