My uneasiness with having someone clean up after me is something I think about often.
Like many millennial women (and Gen Zers with a love of what’s probably considered nostalgia these days), I adore Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It stars my friend in my head, Blake Lively. I connect personally to Lena Kaligaris (played by Alexis Bledel), the introverted one who emerged out of her shell because of big love on international waters. But there’s a scene that doesn’t get quoted often in hashtags or on Tumblr fan pages (RIP).
America Ferrera’s character, Carmen Lowell, navigates her parents’ divorce and tries to find her place in her father’s new family, in which her skin tone, her body, and even her choice to speak Spanish sticks out like a sore thumb. Ferrera is consistently brilliant and delivered monologues around the bridal shop owner’s shamey “we’ll just have to find more fabric” comment when fitting Carmen for a bridesmaid dress. Or when she tells her father how hard the divorce had been on her, his “before family” not being his “forever” one. But for me, the scene in which she demands to clean her own sheets, as her father’s new wife insists she had their “cleaning lady” handle, made the skin on my arms stand up. I had been there as a teen, and as an adult, it’s a daily thought.
Whenever I enter a new workplace, I always notice the cleaning staff. Are the ones cleaning up in a well-to-do establishment filled with college grads brown like me? Are they immigrants, like my great grandmother? Does the staff greet them? Not with the pitying smile and forced “Hiiii” that feels so dismissive. The kind that assumes that the person receiving the greeting can’t speak English. The assumption that this is the only job they could have, and people visibly and verbally pity them for having to do it.
Am I one of the few brown people on the floor, not cleaning up after everyone?
It’s one of the biggest reasons I can not bring myself to have a cleaning person. Or a woman so condescendingly referred to as a “cleaning lady.” If we are so avidly feminist and hyper aware of the gender standards, why aren’t we even referring to this person as a woman, first and foremost? It makes me aware that not all feminism is designed with all women in mind, in the way my mother warned me growing up.
I’ve been taught my entire life to clean up after myself. Do I need the extra set of hands? Probably? I’m busy most nights, and my fluffy roommate makes her share of a mess. But being raised the way I was, I know I’d absolutely give my place a thorough cleaning so that no one would have to scrub too hard or sweat too much. I would hate to put myself in the dynamic where a brown woman who looked like me, looked me in my eyes, waiting for that pitying hello. It will never happen.
I do realize that cleaning is a role that is an important one for many. It’s an income supporting so many families. After all, my great-grandmother scrubbed floors for wealthy White women, who would select her out of a line in New York City every morning. And there was absolutely no shame in the work that helped put my grandaunt through nursing school, at a time where Black RNs were pretty much nonexistent. There’s no shame in the fact that my Abuela cleaned JFK airport to help earn money to care for her four sons. It is a job for strong and noble people, who deserve more than the dismissals they receive daily.
I do worry that maybe I am taking a job from someone. But my mess is not one I want to see a brown person ever cleaning up. If there’s anything I can do, it would be to make sure that whenever I encounter a person cleaning anywhere, that I treat them with the validation they deserve.
The people with the most incredible experiences and stories of a lifetime may be the ones you politely nod at and overlook.