“Be the Help” Campaign & Black Disappearance among the Multiracial Left
Tamara K. Nopper
February 28, 2012
One day a friend and I were talking about “Black disappearance” as a phenomenon. She spoke of it in regards to the new film about Joyce Carol Vincent, a Black woman whose dead body was “discovered” decomposing on the couch in her London apartment nearly three years after she went missing. We also discussed the numerous cases of missing Black women and how, despite being one of the most policed and surveillance groups—by the state and the public—Black people can disappear quite easily from public view, with the same state apparatus putting little effort into finding missing or dead Black people.
I want to speak here of another form of Black disappearance, that which operates in multiracial progressive politics. This may seem an odd topic, since African Americans clearly care about and participate in progressive politics, with some becoming famous activists or pundits in the process. But there are particular ways Black disappearance happens in progressive politics, and the “Be the Help” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its supporters, built around the widely debated film The Help exemplifies this well.
The NDWA is an organization of domestic workers comprised primarily of immigrant women of color. Following the historic victory of Domestic Workers United (DWU) in getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in its home state of New York, NDWA co-founder and director Ai-Jen Poo (who had worked with DWU and other domestic workers organizations in New York City that morphed into DWU) and her constituency set their sights on getting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in California and putting a national spotlight on domestic work.
In the process, NDWA initiated the “Be the Help” campaign, which played on the popularity—as well as controversy—of The Help as well as Kathryn Stockett’s novel upon which it is based to bring attention to the 2.5 million women who currently work as domestics. Marketing the immigrant women of color workers as the “modern day help,” the “Be the Help” campaign brought together a motley crew of supporters, including one of the film studios that produced The Help, Hollywood actors and actresses (including Oscar nominee and winner Octavia Spencer), and domestic employers. Unusual in that a labor campaign collaborated with the employer—in this case Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association—the “Be the Help” campaign also relied on supportive writers, publishers, and commentators in progressive media. For example, during Oscar weekend, the “Be the Help” campaign was spotlighted on Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show on MSNBC. It was also the subject of an article by Applied Research Center president and executive director and Colorlines magazine publisher Rinku Sen, posted on the publications’ website and widely circulated on social media. An article championing the campaign, written by Ilyse Hogue, a columnist for the Nation, appeared on that publication’s website the Monday immediately following the Oscars.
That the film depicted the story of African American women domestic workers in the legalized Jim Crow era in the south and had been roundly critiqued by numerous African Americans, including historians, Civil Rights activists, cultural critics, actors, filmmakers, and many Black people whose concerns might not reach a public stage seemed to go unnoticed by the NDWA and its allies.
Or did it? Was it a case of not noticing Black people’s concerns about The Help’s homage to the racist and sexist archetypal Mammy figure—which as one writer points out, is not, in racial politics, to be confused with the domestic worker—or was it a case of Black disappearance?
There is a lot to suggest it was the latter.
The Wages of Non-Blackness: Contemporary Immigrant Rights and Discourses of Character, Productivity, and Value
I have an article in the latest issue of InTensions, “(De) Fatalizing the Present and Creating Radical Alternatives,” guest edited by Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian. The special issue also features new articles by Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson, III, as well as others. The full article can be accessed for free here.
Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the psychological wage of whiteness, this article explores how contemporary rhetoric promoted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States valorizes non-white immigrant workers in relationship to African Americans. Specifically, I examine moralized claims regarding immigrants’ character, productivity, and value as well as their contributions to the U.S. and global economy. I emphasize how this discourse echoes and draws upon managerial and capitalist perspectives of labor as well as anti-Black rhetoric regarding African Americans as lacking a work ethic, militant, xenophobic, and costly to society. Finally, I briefly consider whether the wage of non-Blackness differs from the wage of whiteness as well as the possibility of an ethical immigrant rights discourse.
Black unemployment in the multiracial small business industry
Tamara K. Nopper
January 13, 2011
A while back, my colleague, an African American college professor, and I were discussing Black unemployment in conversation with one of my areas of research, immigrant and minority-owned business. She recounted a recent visit to a Dunkin’ Donuts in which she was pleasantly surprised to encounter a middle-aged African American man working at the store. As she described, she pointed to this man as she thanked the manager of the store, a South Asian American, “for hiring him.” When I asked what the manager’s reaction was, she told me he beamed instantly in response as if he was paid the highest compliment. She also mentioned that the African American worker later whispered to her the same reply as expressed by his manager—“thank you.”
This story may seem odd for several reasons. For one, it is difficult to imagine a white person walking into a business and thanking a manager (of any race) for hiring a fellow white person. Second, when conversations about race and employment are discussed, a job working at Dunkin’ Donuts is not generally treated as the ideal opportunity by policy makers and advocates. But let’s consider the significance of this story in relation to several issues: the crisis of Black unemployment, the increasing reliance on small business as a source of employment, and the growing number of non-Black people of color and immigrants in positions to hire employees in small firms.
By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard people claim that Asian immigrants do well because they migrate with the human capital to succeed, I’d be able to…do many things.
A common sociological explanation for economic inequality between Asian immigrants and “native born minorities,” the importation thesis posits that the “development” of third world countries and policy dictates for skilled and educated labor have resulted in imported success. In other words, immigrants come in with more human capital and thus are able to effectively compete against and sometimes economically surpass other racial groups.
Whereas biological and cultural explanations focus on ethnic group characteristics as facilitators of success or failure, the importation thesis is preoccupied with the selectivity of immigration policy that has diversified the types of migrants the U.S. recruits and receives. Emphasizing the landmark 1965 Immigration Act, which set in motion the increased immigration of ethnicities previously restricted from entry or naturalization, scholars have refocused our attention on the state’s role in shaping contemporary economic inequality between racial groups.
Nevertheless, there are limitations to this approach.
To read the rest, go here.