"I don't want to hire a black person to clean my house."
I glanced around the Thai restaurant where my friend and I were having dinner, hoping that no one had heard her. Now, this was not an oh-my-god-my-friend-is-a-racist moment. Although her skin is white and her upbringing privileged, she has devoted her academic life as a historian to understanding black-white relations. She's written eloquent paeans to the Black Panthers and eagerly purged her speech of all racially offensive imagery, from black sheep to dark horses.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because I don't want to engage in that paradigm. My father hired a black housekeeper, my grandfather had a black maid, and I'm not going to be party to that tradition."
On leave from her first year of teaching at a prestigious East Coast university, my friend was eager to tell me how exciting her new life was -- and how indescribably filthy her new apartment had become. After years of rooming together in graduate school, I scarcely needed the sordid details. Midpoint through a treatise on hairballs and mold, I interrupted.
"I'll buy you some Ajax if you promise to use it."
"Then hire someone."
"I couldn't find anyone."
Her university is located in an economically troubled town plagued by unemployment. "How hard can it be?"
And that's when, with a wistful sigh, she informed me of her historically-minded hiring practices. As I scanned the roomful of white faces, I imagined an African-American housekeeper overhearing our conversation, after having spent a day making fruitless applications at domestic service agencies.
"But what if the person really needed the job?" I asked.
"Sheila, hiring a black person to clean your house isn't going to solve the real problem. Sometimes helping the individual hurts the overall cause. I'm holding out for more structural change."
Structural change. The phrase brought back sweet memories of my college days when I read "Das Kapital" and didn't have to work. Now in the wake of the Republican Revolution, the idea of imminent progressive upheaval seemed, well, even more theoretical. But what did I know? She was the one who made a living developing these ideas. Maybe it was I who failed to comprehend how hiring someone and paying them well could hurt them.
"So, the more radical position," I said slowly, "is that you don't hire a black person because they are black?"
"Well, ideally I'd be doing political organizing, too, but I just don't have time."
"But since you're not helping the masses, maybe you could help just one individual and get rid of those darned dust bunnies," I suggested brightly.
"You're employing the assumptions of mainstream capitalism -- like Bush's notion of a thousand points of light. But your approach is essentially reactionary and will never effect any radical
"If you paid double the hourly equivalent of what you make as a professor, you could give the person time and money to do other things," I said. "Or, you could hire someone to teach you how to clean your own toilet. Wouldn't that be radical?"
"The wage isn't the point." She glanced around the restaurant peevishly. She seemed embarrassed by my ignorance. "In my 30s I'll pay them well; in my 40s, I'll complain about school tuition for my kids, and pay less; by the time I'm 50, I'll be just like my Dad."
"But you would feel okay about doing that to a white person?"
"Actually, I don't know if anyone should have to clean up my dirt," she demurred.
It didn't bother her back when it was her roommate doing it for free, I thought.
Then, as if she read my mind, she said, "I did try to hire a graduate student. I asked around the department, but for some reason, no one seemed interested."
"What if the only graduate student interested happened to be black?"
"I don't know," she exhaled a mixture of remorse and resolve. "I don't think I could."
Though I was fascinated by the political ramifications of our conversation, I really just wanted to get her apartment clean. I imagined the rotting tea bags in the sink, the trail of underwear down the hall.
"You must be able to find someone -- a regular, professional housekeeper."
She shook her head. "I called my landlady and said I was looking for a housekeeper but that I didn't want to hire an African-American."
"What did she say?"
My friend turned the color of the little hot peppers strewn across her plate.
"She said, 'I completely understand. I wouldn't want them in my house either.'"
I choked on a noodle. "You see the company you're in? Blacks aren't getting hired all over the country for all sorts of pernicious reasons and now, with you, they're not getting hired for progressive reasons."
"I know, but I'm interested in taking a more radical position..."
"But you're not politically active."
"Well, that would be ideal."
"What if you were politically active -- helping to overturn white hegemony or whatever -- and you hired a black person? Then you would be helping society and an individual. Wouldn't that be more ideal?"
"That would be okay, I guess. But in the meantime, I don't have time to do political work or clean my house and so I'll just have to live with a dirty house."
"That's your political position."
As we paid the check and left, I couldn't help but think that clean consciences can be found in the dirtiest places.
Is there any justification for this kind of racial hyper-sensitivity? Or is it white liberal guilt at its most absurd? Join the conversation in "Issues" in Table Talk.