*This post is in no way meant to reflect negatively on my host family but is simply an account of my unique experiences as a Black au pair. I believe that I chose the best family in the world and would choose them a million times over if I could. Being an au pair is an amazing experience and I would recommend it to anyone.*
Being a Black woman is a fact that I think about as often as I think about breathing. I surprised myself when I didn’t take a moment to think about how I could be treated as a Black au pair for a white family.
I want to preface the first section by stating that I have never had insecurities about being Black. I am, however, several shades darker than my younger sister so I have always dealt with colorism. As a child I often heard phrases such as:
“You better stay out of the sun, you don’t want to get any darker.”
“It’s not like you need to get any darker.”
“Your sister is so pretty. How come she’s light skinneded (sic) and you’re not?”
Despite the implied negative appeal of having dark skin, no one ever explicitly said that anything was wrong with my skin color. Therefore, I never worried about it.
When I first arrived in Spain, I even spent a few days at a Spanish beach city, Valencia, trying to get darker and even out my skin tone.
I was happy to have achieved the dark skin tone that I wanted but my unsafe sun practices left me with an atrocious sunburn and comments about my skin that made me think about my Blackness more than usual. (SN: If there are Black people that haven’t gotten the memo, PLEASE wear sunblock, we can burn!) The darkness of skin made the contrast between my family and I more stark. I began to think about how I may be viewed within the context of our family and by the children that are under my care.
Here are some of the things that I have struggled with as a Black woman taking care of white kids.
1. Skin Color
There is an interview with Tracee Ellis Ross, an actress, where she talks about being asked why she, as a mixed race woman, identifies as Black. She responded by saying that ‘if [she] thought [that she] could try being a white woman for a day and say that, maybe [she] would’.
Being Black is something that I often think about on a macro level but not in my daily interactions. I don’t think about how the conversations that I am having may be affected by my race until the conversation gets interrupted for someone to say
“But you’re Black?!”
I do not find the phrase inherently offensive since it usually stems from curiosity. However, the act of stopping a conversation to explain why I experience the same things that everyone else does, can be slightly dehumanizing.
I heard that sentence about a dozen times over the few weeks that I was suffering my carelessness in Valencia. The sunburn on my chest and back were so bad that I could only wear sweatshirts because my skin was so raw that it hurt to be touched. The peeling that followed was more annoying than anything but people looked at my shedding arms, chest, and back as if I were a unicorn; all while saying ‘but you’re Black!’
That comment does not bother me nearly as much as the one that served as the motivation for this post.
I was standing in line with the children when the 6 year old began to rub my arm. He said
“This is disgusting!”
He continued to rub my arm as I looked at him in confusion, thinking that he was talking about my arm hair. When I asked him to clarify, he replied
“This! Your peel.”
I had just corrected the boys a few days before on the difference between the words ‘skin’ and ‘peel’ (since they could both be used to describe fruit) so I knew where this was going. I would have thought about what he meant all day if I didn’t get explicit clarification so I corrected him by simply asking
He sighed in exasperation like I had taken too long to decipher his meaning and then continued to say
“Yes. It’s the color of poop and it’s disgusting.”
Is there anyway to appropriately respond to that when the words are coming from a 6 year old?
2. Hyper Visibility
In Alcalá de Henares, a suburb of Madrid, I don’t see many other Black people. It’s usually me, my dark skin, and my big hair representing the Black population in Alcalá.
The weird thing about being one of a few is that people are automatically drawn to you. People are constantly looking at me. When I have the children, I overcompensate by speaking to them directly to redirect strangers’ attention. I have not been to a country where ease dropping is polite so this usually works. I also make sure to grab one of their hands or brush their hair back. I want to make sure that the closeness of our relationship is illustrated but it’s also important for me to make sure that people know that I belong here, too.
Asian tourists have asked for a photo with me and because I feel more uncomfortable saying no, I pretend that I haven’t noticed them taking photos of me without my permission anyway. This is part of the paradox of hyper visibility. People don’t see me as a real person but instead as a spectacle. Adults will speak to the children before they will acknowledge my presence and that is usually because the kids turn to me for the answer. Parents have stepped in front of me at the boys’ school like I am not also waiting for a child to come out.
I am constantly aware of how I might appear to other people since I know that even when it looks like they’re not, they’re always watching.
The first time the size of my nose was brought up, I was introducing the kids to snapchat filters. We were messing around with the faceswap feature when the 6 year old exclaimed that I have a big nose.
I took the comment at face value because, compared to his, my nose is big. I asked my friends if they thought the comment was innocent, and with all of them in agreement, I decided to chalk it up to a friendly observation.
A few months later, my nose became topic of conversation again. He came into my room and poked my nose while he said
“You have Squidward’s nose. You are Squidward because your nose is huge.’
When I disagreed, he told me to look in the mirror and actually pulled me into the bathroom to show me. I explained to him that my nose is proportional to my face and I did not appreciate his comments. Unfortunately, I was brushed off and left the conversation feeling disheartened.
Unexpectedly, I found myself asking the kids for validation when it came to my hair. After comments were made in Spanish, I was not sure how they felt about it, or me. It was disconcerting to ask an 8 year old whether he liked my hair or not and then have my self esteem be completely predicated on his answer.
Whether his answer was positive or not, the way that I feel about my hair would not have changed. I love that it’s big and versatile but knowing that he disliked an integral part of who I am would have affected how I feel in this family.
He proclaimed his love of my hair because it’s ‘so big and fluffy’. It does get a little annoying when my afro is perfect and he pats it down when he sees me. Still, I would rather him touch it because he is fascinated rather than worrying about the opposite.
Being Black in Spain
Other than small microaggressions, like having my change put on the counter rather than in my hand, I have no complaints about the way that I am treated.
I don’t mind the questions that my presence warrants either. I find the opportunity to talk to people about race to be an educational one for all participants involved. Curious questions that are framed correctly and asked with good intent are always great and sometimes appreciated.
“Can you make your hair like this?” While pointing to their straight, blonde hair.
“How do you change your hair everyday?”
I have had an amazing experience au pairing in Spain. I love it so much and I am already sad to leave my family in a little under a month. These small things have given me a different perspective on au pairing than I believe that my white counterparts may have but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Tell me in the comments if you have had any situations like these and how you handled them.