Un-Bossy Pants

There are lots of things I am afraid of: heights, Twitter, North Korea’s missiles, and pretty much all authority figures.  It’s pretty easy for me to manage my normal life in spite of these fears.  There are some fears, however, that are interfering with daily life.  One of those fears is the fear of my nanny.

Remember that hilarious part of Tina Fey’s Bossypants where she talked about how she is a big-shot producer/creator of a wildly successful prime time show, but she couldn’t tell her nanny to stop cutting her daughter’s nails so short?  I remember reading that last summer and chuckling to myself about how impossible it seemed that Tina Fey, whose talent and substantial efforts support a large staff of people, could really be afraid of a discussion with her nanny.

Tina Fey

Tina Fey, author of Bossypants

Well, ha ha.  It’s not so funny now that I am faced with an issue that I believe I should address with our beloved nanny, S.  I am just flat-out terrified.

S. is a huge-hearted, dependable, loving, spirited young woman who takes impeccable care of my children.  I know because (1) I end up being around a lot when she’s with them, and (2) I have hidden in the bushes at the park and spied on her.  She’s gentle yet firm with both kids, and both her and my children’s eyes light up when they are all together.  Also important, S. is really intelligent, both in an academic sense (she has a computer science degree) and a common sense way.  Jeff and I hired her because she combines some of our best qualities.

It so happens that S. is an American citizen who grew up in Algeria.  She speaks fluent Berber, Arabic, French and English.  Thanks to S., Sadie has a new habit of saying, “je t’aime, Mommy.” S. is also Muslim, and we are grateful that she can teach our kids, not only new languages, but also new customs.

A few months ago, Sadie suddenly became ill so we had to cancel of day of plans that included a much-anticipated trip to the zoo.  Sadie’s devastation tore me apart so we decided she would have a pajama day and watch a movie.  Sadie had no idea what a movie was, but we talked it up so much she thought she had won the kiddie lottery.  The movie she watched with S. was Mulan.  Shortly thereafter, we saw Sadie imitating Mulan’s Asian eyes in a gesture we thought was fairly racist. I know Sadie is too young for the proper intent or mens rea for racism, but I had to address the situation.  I asked Sadie where she learned that gesture.  She said S.  Jeff and I both explained to Sadie how everyone looks different but we don’t focus on appearances and we do NOT do the gesture that S. showed Sadie.

Last week, I was standing in the kitchen when I saw  S. make the very gesture we were trying to get Sadie to un-learn.  I froze.  I thought I should maybe say something right then, but I wasn’t sure.  Like the grown women with a law degree that I am, I hastily left the room and went upstairs to ask Jeff what to do.  We agreed I should say something.

But it feels complicated.  It feels condescending to explain to S. the ins and outs of racism.  There’s something paternalistic about me sitting her down and saying, “you know that gesture? The one you taught Sadie from Mulan?  Please do not do that because it’s considered an insult in this house and in society at large.” I know I need to have this conversation, and I also know that S. will be open and humble and respect our wishes.  She may ask some questions in order to get a better understanding of the issue.  Maybe I am not doing her any favors withholding this bit of information from her.  Probably not.

And still, another day goes by, and I haven’t said diddly about the gesture.  I wish there was a pamphlet I could just slip into her purse or a video I could suggest she watch.  I knew I would have to deal with racism as a parent, but I didn’t expect it so soon.  I don’t want to give it superficial treatment, but long explanations are not the way to go.  When we talked to Sadie about this, she acted like she was listening, but as soon as we asked if she had any questions, she asked me which potty she should poop in.  “You’re asking the hard questions, Sadie. Keep it up.”

I am hereby accepting all suggestions on how to deal with the topic of racism or being a chicken when it comes to having adult conversations with your children’s caretakers.

— Christie O. Tate (www.outlawmama.com)