White Children, Black Sitters: Photographer Explores Race In Home Childcare

January 17, 2014  |  

When I first moved to New York from Indianapolis, there were a whole lot of things I found to be different from where I grew up. The pace was different. The whole subway thing was different. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of food options constantly available to me. And among these differences, I also noticed that there were a lot of black women serving as caregivers for white children. A lot of them. And from what I could tell when they spoke to the children, most of them were and still are West Indian.

(And…as an aside though we frequently refer to child givers as nannies, I’ve read that West Indian women won’t refer to themselves as such because in Trinidad the word is slang for vagina.) 

Anyway, I was very curious about this West Indian sitter/white child thing. It was so prevalent that it had to be “a thing.” What was it about really? Why did white folks want black women caring for their children? Did it harken back to the days of slavery? How did they find these women? Did these women enjoy their jobs–taking care of other folks’ kids– or did they do it because they had to? And if these women had children of their own, who was taking care of them? I really wanted to write about it. But as a newbie with a full-time internship, I didn’t have the time to devote to reporting this story, especially since I probably wouldn’t have been compensated for it.

So I was glad to learn from The Culturea subsidy of the black women’s site, ForHarriet, that photographer Ellen Jacob created and developed a series called Substitutes. Substitutes explores this very subject of black and minority caregivers watching, and in many cases raising, white children all across New York City.

Jacob spent four years searching the streets for subjects who were willing to speak to her. And not surprisingly, but still disturbingly, she found that many of the women, aged 23-60, were immigrants living on a minimum wage income with no sick pay, holidays or health benefits. And they had their own families to take care of when they got home.

Jacob said: “Mothers talk about how much they love these women and they’re part of the family yet when it comes to money they tend to be much more tight.”

Damn shame…especially since these sitters are entrusted with the lives of these children everyday. But Jacob also said that she was surprised to see the lengths some families went through to ensure that the women who had helped raise their children were able to find employment once their child had grown up.

Below the story on The Culture, a white man, based on his avatar left this almost chilling comment:

I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, my Nanny taught me to read and to write, she protected me and gave me what my mother didn’t. Love. Affection..a sense of self worth.
My childhood was richer for her.
My very character was formed from her qualities.
What she gave me she couldn’t give her own children.

To this day she is in my dreams and the loss I feel not knowing her still or having her presence near is far greater than the loss of my own mother. Sometimes I cry for her.

I cry also for the lack of respect and value that my parents showed.

Ellen Jacob’s photography series is on view at SohoPhoto in New York City through February 1

Check out more of Jacob’s pictures on the following pages.

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