On Sunday, October 20th, 2013 I went to lunch with my family at a restaurant in Beirut. We don’t go out often, because to do so we have to get past the homework, the hangovers, the late work nights, and the family duties. But the rare and wonderful times that we do go out together, we head on over to a restaurant (in one car, so it looks a little like Little Miss Sunshine )– and the first thing we do is scan the people around us.
We giggle to ourselves as we watch the couples who eat in silence, for whom time has run their river of conversation dry. We chuckle at the botched plastic surgery jobs, we “aww” at the little ones with gorgeous curly locks, and we always, always, tut tut in disappointment at the families who have brought the help.
Let me preface this debate by saying, I can understand that not everyone treats their “help” badly. I can understand that many, many families have a loving and wonderful relationship with their housekeepers. I can understand that she often comes out with them to lunch, and sits and eats a nice meal and has a lovely time. Fair enough.
But then I turn that around and I ask myself: how would you feel if you lived with your boss 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for indefinite amounts of time? Even if I loved my boss to the extent that they felt like family, isn’t it natural to crave space? To need it? Do I have to endure my working environment 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?
When we talk about labor rights, and complain about being underpaid and overworked, we come right home to someone who is feeling the exact same way – except they don’t get to go home. For the housekeepers, home is work and work is home. Round the clock.
On Sunday, October 20th, 2013, I went to lunch. At the table behind me, a family with a young child brought in their housekeeper/children’s nanny. She was dressed in a uniform that looked like blue hospital scrubs. They walked in and she assumed position, where she stood behind a chair, as the family assembled into their seats. She stood there for the entire duration of their lunch. She did not sit. She did not eat. She did not grab a glass of water.
I contemplated getting up and saying something. I contemplated sending dessert over to her, and telling her that it can get better. But I didn’t want to hurt her or subject her to further embarrassment. So I snapped a picture, and uploaded it onto social media sites. I rallied my sister and my brother. The three of us sat there, building a war room on our table. We were enraged.
300 retweets, 250 shares, and countless Instagram notifications later, I receive a comment. The comment says that I don’t know anything. That the family repeatedly asked her to sit down. That she refused, because she didn’t want to eat. That they did not leave her to stand; it was her choice! Her choice, guys!
I panicked. Did I wrongly accuse these people? Why was I so quick to judge? Did my sense of righteousness get the best of me? My cowardice took over. I removed the photo. I felt it was unfair to blame these people for abuse they did not commit.
But as the hours went by, I got angrier – this time at myself. I shouldn’t have taken the photo down.Even if the housekeeper didn’t want to eat, or sit down, the family should have insisted. Instead, they kept her on her feet, in uniform, staring as they ate their expensive meal. (Not to mention that Sunday should have been her day off!)
They did not make sure she had the same Sunday lunch that they did. There was no equality on this windy Sunday afternoon.
I was a coward who wanted to believe in the goodness of people. It couldn’t be that bad right? Now, hours later, I am still repulsed. This wasn’t about this lunch, but about the state of our society.
We live in a society where a migrant worker is treated as a lesser human being. When will she be looked at as a woman, who has left behind her whole world to care for ours? When will we realize that she deserves everything we get and more, but that we deprive her of it due to blind racism?
We keep her uniform on, so that she is recognized as the “Help” and never as one of us.
An even when we try, if she still feels too awkward or ostracized to sit at the table, that is our fault.
We are the ones who must make sure that she is comfortable and not subjected to this racist abuse.
We must ensure that she is treated as humanely as possible and accept for her only what we would accept for ourselves. That means no uniforms, no rooms without windows, no 24 hour working schedules, vacations, days off, phones, a life outside of the home, respect, kindness, professionalism.
Do not put your Celine bag on the chair, when the woman who raises your kids can sit there. Insist that she sit down. Insist that she eat, that she rests. Shame on you because you didn’t insist. Shame on the restaurant. Shame on all of us, for not speaking up more often.
And shame on me.