When $800 strollers hit the market a few years ago, it looked as if baby status symbols had reached a new odd, capitalist apex. Now, according to a growing number of parents and experts, the primo credentials trade in a different kind of capital: nannies.
In American cities that draw domestic workers from around the world, the nanny pool is incredibly diverse, with women from the Philippines, Jamaica and the West Indies, Nepal, Russia, Poland and more. In some families, the ethnic background of a nanny carries a certain cachet — and entrenched stereotypes.
“Generally speaking, what is the difference between someone from the Philippines, Tibet and the Caribbean in terms of child-raising mentality, patience, education ...?,” wondered a recent poster on the popular parenting site UrbanBaby.com.
Such posts — and parents — are not alone in voicing their wishes to hire nannies with the “right” socio-ethnic background for their children. For the past several years, Tibetan nannies have been all the rage in New York City. On message boards and playgrounds, some parents claimed Tibetan nannies were “very balanced and Zen” and aided in children’s “spiritual development,” whereas in areas such as Dallas, for example, Latino nannies have been more in demand for their Spanish-speaking abilities.
At the Diki Daycare Center in Astoria, N.Y., demand for Tibetan nannies became so great that the preschool began offering a Tibetan nanny referral service.
“Tibetan women are well known for being caring and loving nannies,” reads the promotional literature. “They are recognized for becoming ‘one of the family’ and offer the same compassion and quality of care for their charges as they do their own children.” Furthermore, it says, “Cleanliness, organization & dedication to education are values of Tibetan culture.”
In fact, Tibetan nannies have become so popular that they may have become victims of their own success as they’ve been able to request and get escalating salaries — much to the annoyance of some employers.
“Our nanny has priced herself out of our range and I will let her go because she guilted us into paying through the nose,” recently wrote an outraged New Yorker on the message boards of UrbanBaby.com.
The downturn in the economy may also be compelling some parents to shift their focus to their own financial futures rather than the “Free Tibet” movement by seeking nannies who offer more practical perks — free language instructions.
“The trends that I see are more toward education, cultural enrichment,” says Clifford Greenhouse, the president of the Pavillion Agency, a nanny and housekeepers employment agency. “[Parents] are getting realistic as to the important things in life.”
To that end, he says, the top requests are for nannies who are native speakers of “world languages,” such as Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Spanish because, Greenhouse says, parents want their children to have an educational leg up, and a free language lesson thrown in with child care seems to fit the bill.
Illegal to discriminate on basis of ethnic background
Licensed employment agencies are prohibited by law to discriminate on the basis of ethnic background, though if there is a legitimate cultural or educational reason behind a request for a nanny with a particular background, owners of such firms will generally entertain them.
But for those with less than legitimate requests for nannies with particular ethnic backgrounds, there is a massive array of unlicensed Internet outfits willing to help: MyRussianNanny.com, TibetanNannies.com, Nanny-Agency.com (which provides a “List of all available nannies by country and nationality”).
But doesn’t all this smack of plain, old-fashioned racism? It certainly does to many nannies.
“They talk about how everybody hires the Filipina nannies because you can get them to do anything or that families will look for a British nanny who has the right accent,” says Tasha Blaine, a former nanny and Sacramento, Calif.-based author of the recently-published book “Just Like Family: Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work For, and the Children They Love.”
Blaine discovered this first-hand while working as a nanny — not just from fellow caregivers, but also from prospective employers. In one interview, a mother advised Blaine to warn families in advance of meeting that she was Caucasian, with a degree from a prestigious college. “She said, ‘I’m not sure that people would feel comfortable asking someone like you to make their beds or do the laundry,’” she says.
What is even more troubling, points out Blaine, is the blatant racial profiling conducted by prospective employers, largely the mothers of nannies’ charges.
“Women who would never feel comfortable making such sweeping generalizations about anyone’s racial background in other areas of their lives, like work, somehow feel free to do it when they’re talking about hiring nannies,” she says. “People are more upfront when they’re talking about their homes and their kids because you don’t have to worry about H.R. coming to you, there’s no policing.”
It's a situation that both nannies and the families who hire them are all too aware. No nannies of the most sought-after ethnicities were willing to talk on record for fear of jeopardizing their employment, and parents didn't want to come forward parout of concern they'd come across as discriminatory.
It is offensive, to be sure, but according to Joan Friedman, owner of A Choice Nanny, a licensed nanny agency with locations in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington D.C., many of these racial requests are born either of ignorance or simple follow-the-pack behavior.
Furthermore, you probably won’t get the right fit anyway. “It’s more than inappropriate, it’s limiting,” she argues.
People, not stereotypes
Friedman always makes this clear to prospective clients before allowing them to sign on by first reminding them that such requests are illegal, and second, by insisting that they evaluate candidates on the basis of their experience, references and education.
The bottom line, she says, is that race just doesn’t matter. “I can tell you, that in 18 years of doing this, I’ve never had a racial stereotype confirmed in the aggregate.”
And, clearly, not all parents countenance their peers’ objectionable queries. To the UrbanBaby.com poster who wanted to know about differences between nannies from the Philippines, Caribbean, and Tibetans came the barbed response: “Philippines and Caribbean … are in the ocean, whereas Tibet is land-locked I believe.” It was the first of many.
Susan Gregory Thomas is a New York-based writer and the author of "Buy Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds."