My white privilege slaps me in the face every day. That’s what I love about South Africa. When it slaps me, it hits hard. Days like today pack some sort of soul-splitting punch that I can’t ignore. Here’s why:
Maids are extremely common here. Domestic workers, housekeepers, whatever you want to call them, aren’t just for the wealthy; they’re for whoever wants one pretty much. I remember having cleaning ladies in our hostel in India. That was a little different, though. Those ladies cleaned the public spaces and only cleaned our bedrooms upon request or upon our leaving. So very few of us asked to have our rooms cleaned and instead took care of it ourselves. But here, a maid comes in several times a week to wash our dishes, sweep and mop our floors, scrub our bathrooms, and take out our trash.
Granted, some of the responsibilities are overlooked or aren’t tended to every time the maid comes. And I can live with it and just be grateful for their work–when I’m not here. Just minutes ago, a housekeeper older than my mother came to tidy up. It’s different to sit here and watch this woman clean up after our house. It’s not right. While this woman scrubbed our dirty dishes, it would’ve been perfectly okay for my housemates and I to continue watching our movie, completely ignoring the elderly woman in the kitchen.
I’m not okay with that at all. My selfishness, my sense of entitlement, my completely American view of the world is rivaled only by the general feeling of “Someone else will do this for me.” or “Why work harder than we have to?” that I’ve encountered in South Africa. I understand that it’s a different culture here, and I don’t blame anyone or fault anyone for being okay with things like this. But that doesn’t mean I can assimilate and sit on my ass while someone else labors in front of me. For all of America’s faults, at least we’re taught responsibility and initiative.
While I helped the maid clean the kitchen, a thought occurred to me: who helps my mother wash dishes while I sit in the living room on my laptop? No one. Doesn’t she deserve the same empathy that I feel for our maid here? My mother is a maid in America, and it’s worse because she’s a maid in her own household. A home that she built from the bottom up. A home that she continues to toil over and maintain. I remember how, even though my mother has been a public school teacher my entire life, she’s always held down a second job. One of those jobs was as a maid in a condominium. Back-breaking labor. Two young kids to look after when she got home. And where was her appreciation?
I see my mother’s face, my grandmother’s spirit, and my great-grandmother’s mantra of leaving the world a better place than you found it. This is what I see when our maid scrubs last night’s food off our dishes. This is what I see when she doesn’t bat an eye at our laziness and indifference to her hard work. This is why I can’t watch that and not feel my soul screaming at me to do something.
You can take the night off, Mom. I’ll wash the dishes when I come home.