I don’t know—maybe her balls were just hanging low that day. How else to explain how easily it rolled off her tongue? “You’re not like all the other black men. You go to work and pay your bills. You’re not lazy like the rest of them.”
That was the pearl that Ms. Pearl, our former nanny, dropped on Nick one cold winter morning, as he stooped down to kiss our Mari and rub my pregnant belly and make his way to his job as the editor-in-chief of a travel magazine. Surely, Nick’s back stiffened. I know mine did.
Silence clung to the air between us like a nor’easter—thick and frigid and heavy and gray. This sweet little old Guyanese lady, charged with caring for my African-American girl pie while we, the married, loving, accomplished parents toiled away our day earning cash to pay the mortgage and the nanny’s salary, had managed to, in one breath, slap the crap out of us (and black people in general) with insult, stereotype and backhanded praise. Like, how do you even begin to respond to a “you’re not like the rest of them” statement and then leave your baby in your insulter’s care? And if she was willing to say that to the faces of her employers, what other stereotypes—certainly more bruising in their insult—did Ms. Pearl have tucked away in the recesses of her brain? And how much of it seeped out of her mouth when we weren’t around—in earshot of our impressionable little black girl?
Let’s just say that Ms. Pearl’s services ended soon thereafter.
Thing is, I’m almost 2000 percent sure that firing her didn’t change her perception of black Americans—or Americans in general. In our country for only a few years, she’d had some pretty clear perceptions about Americans—no doubt formed in her own country and bolstered by her tenuous surroundings in a not-so-nice part of Newark, NJ, the 6 o’clock news, and one-too-many episodes of Maury Povich and Cops. Americans in general (and, apparently, black folk in particular), she repeatedly stated in her trill Guyanese accent, are lazy, coddle their bratty children, complain about everything, and regularly squander the vast opportunities that this country has to offer.
This is a sentiment that has legs amongst far too many immigrants—people who, armed with their own cultural mores and notions of what is good and right and necessary to succeed, come to America in pursuit of the American dream, even as they shun the people who created and live it. I’ve heard Ms. Pearl’s words repeatedly, in different accents, in a myriad of situations, from African and Jamaican and Indian and Latino and European friends and strangers, alike. And this was certainly my takeaway after reading the pure and utter insults advanced in a Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
In it, Chua suggests that Asian children are academically, culturally and mentally superior than American children because their mothers are strict, no-nonsense parents who demand—and get—obedience and perfection from their kids, even if they have to use punishment, excoriation and shame to get it. American children, she compares, stay losing because, well, we moms coddle and worry and fret over our children’s “feelings” and let our kids “give up” easily because we American moms are quitters—too lazy to demand better.
What most disgusts me about Chua—and, by extension, Ms. Pearl—is this utter willingness to trade in stereotype of her own people to make herself feel superior, all the while serving on a platter every juicy stereotype she can muster to put down Americans. Be clear: There is some truth to stereotypes. By definition, they are oversimplified, standardized images of a people. Emphasis needs to be placed, though, on the word oversimplified, whether that stereotype is meant to be positive or negative.
To have Ms. Pearl tell it, for instance, Guyanese people are hardworking, intelligent people whose strict childrearing tactics produce respectful, hardworking, intelligent children. Never mind that Ms. Pearl’s grown, 30-something daughter laid around in her pajamas all day while her mother worked, or that Ms. Pearl’s 17-year-old granddaughter, who’d made Ms. Pearl a great grandmother at just 52, lived on public assistance and roused from her slumber only to eat, sleep, crap and watch Jerry Springer. It would be foul of me to say this is the condition of Guyanese people. Particularly because I’m sure that in Guyanese and Guyanese-American homes, there are people who are respectful and hardworking and intelligent, as well as people who are brash, lazy and dumb.
The same can be said for the Chinese. I mean, I’m glad that Chua cheerleads for her people and whatnot, but there are a BILLION people in China. And I can promise you, not all of the kids there are concert-level pianists with 4.2 grade averages who kick ass on standardized tests—even if the cultural norm there is for moms to berate and belittle their children into succeeding.
Still, that superior stereotype of the uber smart and talented and perfect Asian (and African, and Caribbean and Indian and insert-your immigrant-of-choice here) child plays big here in America, without any recognition by Chua or anyone else that these kids are the children of immigrants—people who, for whatever reason, found the gumption and wherewithal and mettle to bring their families to this, our vast land of opportunity, to find better lives for themselves—to better their families. And that takes some balls. The same kind of balls that I’m guessing you can find in any community of people—yes, even American ones—hellbent on winning and making sure their children do, too.
I see the proof of this up close every year around this time. My husband interviews prospective students for his alma mater, Yale—has for more than 20 years. Kids apply, the college farms them out to alumni for interviews that will determine whether they’re Yale material, and a handful of them wind up on my living room couch, shaking and nervous and praying to sweet baby Jesus/Buddha/Allah/Jehovah/whatever-God-they-pray-to that they can impress my husband—a beautiful, brilliant, successful black man whose parents did NOT have to beat up and yell at and berate and humiliate and threaten their son in order for him to succeed—enough to talk their way into one of the top colleges in the world. And I promise you, those students are not all Asian.
They are the children of white blue collar workers whose modest homes butt up against trailer parks in neighborhoods where Wal-Mart is the fancy store. They are the children of Mexicans, whose hardworking parents toil under America’s harsh anti-immigration (read: anti-Mexican) glare, but still insist that their children press on, do their best and succeed—prove wrong everyone lined up against their country and culture and language. They are the children of Ghanaians and Jamaicans and Nigerians and Trinidadians who live in grand houses in expensive neighborhoods, paid for with the salaries afforded doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs who found success here in the United States when there was none to be had in their own countries. They are the children of African American single moms struggling to make ends meet, and black parents who, too, are Yale and Harvard alums with impressive titles and homes and bank accounts.
They are the children of families who parented in all kinds of ways—with too much discipline and not enough, with hugging and with slapping, with encouragement and ridicule, with Helicopter Parent-styled attention and hands-off, Free Range Kids-styled parenting.
None of these kids are better than the other. None of them worse. They’re just students who, because of their circumstances or despite it, managed to get what they think they need to be the people they think they want to become. And honestly, I don’t think that’s somehow superior to, say, the kids who skip college altogether and become plumbers and electricians and hairdressers and store clerks and nannies.
No matter their mama’s parenting styles, each of them is simply, beautifully, perfectly human.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.