The uproar about stereotyping the Asian woman in the Kids Interrupt the News video reveals something troubling about our view of caring.
I admit it. I assumed the Asian woman removing the kids from the live BBC interview was the nanny.
Actually, the first time I saw the video that took the internet by storm over the weekend, I assumed she was the mother. I was laughing so hard, I didn’t notice she was Asian. It was only after I was given the context that Professor Robert Kelly was discussing the political crisis in South Korea on the news that evening, that I noticed the ethnicity of woman evacuating the kids from the home office.
When I clicked this link in the Guardian: BBC interview hijacked by children prompts social media debate, and was confronted with this subhead, “Widespread assumption that Asian woman in video that went viral was a nanny – not the mother – leads to accusations of racism”, I felt a little chastened. The woman is Professor Kelly’s wife Jung-a Kim.
It is always good to have ones biases and assumptions challenged, especially if you are a well-off white male who is seldom on the sharp end of negative stereotype. But, stereotyping is an inescapable part of the human condition. Our brains are hardwired to categorize things, and we make thousands of judgement calls based on these mental silos every day.
There are strong evolutionary forces at play here. If you see a slithery animal out of the corner of your eye, you are going to recoil. It’s an almost automatic response. Once you are in a safe zone, you can then assess if the snake has a rattle at the end of its tail or the right combination of red, black and yellow bands before deciding what to do next.
We do that with other people. Strangers, people not like us. Think of aliens, the ultimate outsiders; they are almost always portrayed as a threat. It is like we are almost hardwired to assume the worst. Which is useful, as long as you are aware that can lead to some undesirable outcomes. So, I am not going to beat myself up about putting this woman into a mental box. Hopefully, I will learn something about myself, and my experience of the world, by standing back and assessing the box I put her in.
But there is another problem here. This kerfuffle exposes a real problem with our attitude to caring?
As a stay-at-home Dad I have some experience of being at odds with the assumptions people make. Every time I meet a total stranger, inevitably they ask, “Where do you work?”
“Um, I don’t technically work in that sense.”
It is uncomfortable at times. Even though the material impact on my privileged white guy life is not great, I do struggle with being a carer. How do I define myself without a real job? Do I chat with the men or the moms at a cocktail party? There is not even a convenient word for what I do with my days. Microsoft Word just inserted a big red squiggly line under the word “carer”. Caregiver is more acceptable to the software. Its a British versus American English thing, but either way, the word doesn’t capture the distinction between a nanny and a stay-at-home parent, which is at issue here.
Why is that distinction even important? Whether a mother or a nanny, the woman in the scene is still looking after the kids. From my perspective the real problem is the assumption that calling someone a nanny is a bad thing. For this stereotype to be a negative, being a nanny has to be an undervalued. And if being a nanny is bad, what does that make the person who does the same thing as a nanny, but doesn’t get paid? Am I sucker or a dupe?
Imagine the person who collected the kids in the video was a middle-aged man. I suspect many people might have assumed that he was Professor Kelly’s gay partner. I would have thought that pretty cool. Others would have condemned him to a hellish afterlife.
Now, visualize this all-male scene occurring on TV in 1957. My grandfather would likely have thought the man was Professor Kelly’s cousin visiting from home. The idea that a gay man would live out of the closet was an anathema to people in his generation. Indeed, to even suggest he might have been gay, would have sullied the good professor’s reputation.
Stereotypes change as social attitudes change. The judgement’s we make about people we type as “gay” have changed rapidly in my lifetime. In many places gay is no longer a slur. As we get to know gay men, at work or play or as part of our families, we realize they are just like us. When that happens basis of the negative judgments about gay people is eroded.
Gays have an advantage in that respect. Now they are liberated from the closet they are everywhere. Asian women are not so ubiquitous. If people’s primary experience of Asian women is as home help on a TV sitcom or Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or something sexual, then we shouldn’t be surprised that stereotypes of the servile nanny or the driven mother exist. (Vera Chok delves into this topic.)
But everyone has a parent. Being brought up is universal human experience. The idea of not being loved or cared for as a child is horrible. So why is it that we still fall into the trap of assuming that calling someone a nanny is bad? Why is it easier to tell a stranger I am a blogger, rather than describe myself as a stay-at-home parent?
Could it be we don’t value caring enough?