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For Colored Girls Who Were Mistaken for the Nanny By a Public Who Didn’t Know Enough

By Lori L. Tharps

Robert Kelly, Jung-a Kim, and their children
Robert Kelly, Jung-a Kim, and their children. Photo credit: YouTube

By now you’ve probably seen the video. The one of White American South Korean expert Robert Kelly being interrupted by his two children while he was in the middle of a live interview on the BBC. The video immediately went viral because it was just so funny seeing not one, but two kids photo bomb dad’s very important and very serious television appearance, followed by a harried woman literally swooping in to save the day by hauling the kids out of the room and slamming the door behind her. Oh, it was funny indeed. And Kelly’s four-year-old daughter, whom we now know is named Marion, became an instant Internet star.

In true twenty-first-century fashion, the video has also spawned a slew of copy cat versions of the BBC interview where people have made commentary on everything from our current commander in chief and his toddler-like behavior, to the challenges of working from home with kids under foot. But the conversations I’ve been following in the wake of this video are those surrounding the identity of the woman in the video.

Initially, it was assumed and even printed in some national publications that the Asian woman who burst into the room and hustled those kids out of the room was the nanny. Some online commenters suggested she was the “hero” of the video, while others insinuated that the poor nanny was surely going to lose her job after that major error. But the thing is, the woman in the video isn’t the nanny. Ms. Jung-a Kim is Kelly’s wife.

Same Family Different ColorsLate last year, Beacon Press published my fourth book, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in American’s Diverse Families. In the book, I examine the effects of skin color differences on family dynamics in African American, Latino, Asian American, and Interracial families. One of the key concepts I try to unpack in this book is the notion that in American society, families are supposed to match. And when they don’t match, all kinds of problems can occur, both inside and outside of the home. One common problem for families that don’t match, as witnessed by this video, is that the public literally cannot see the familial bond. They see nannies instead of mothers or kidnappers instead of fathers.

As the Black mother of three Mixed-Race children, two of whom do not look particularly Black or even Black-ish, I am often mistaken for the nanny. When my pale husband is out alone with our eldest child, who apparently sucked up all the melanin before his younger siblings could get their fair share, he is often asked which country he adopted his son from. These are mild disturbances in our daily lives, but this lack of recognition of how we are related can also pose real challenges as parents and as people who want to have their family unit recognized by a visually-oriented public who still can’t see past color.

Some people might think all of the think pieces about mommy vs nanny are excessive and pointless. So, some people thought the Asian woman was the nanny. It was an honest mistake. After all, statistics show interracial marriages, while on the rise, are still the exception, not the rule. The video quality wasn’t the best and it wasn’t obvious at first glance that Kelly’s children were Mixed. There are so many reasons why a person might not have assumed that Ms. Kim was Kelly’s wife and none of them have to indicate that racism was a motive. But for the colored girl who marries a White man and gets mistaken for the nanny, that all too common assumption always feels like an insult. Not good enough to be the White man’s wife. Not white enough to be the light child’s mother. And just not enough to be seen for who we are.

Clearly, this issue shouldn’t be argued on the basis of this one particular video. It was merely fifty seconds of reality TV-style entertainment, but it is an excellent opportunity to check our biases and assumptions, no matter who we are. Personally, I know many people of color, woke-as-hell activists included, who assumed Kim was the nanny. The point is we all have a particular lens with which we see the world and process information. That is not an excuse to keep making those assumptions; on the contrary, it is a wake-up call that we all bring baggage to the table. And when it comes to the family unit, most of us still probably assume families should match.

Real progress will be made when, collectively, we learn to look beyond skin color to see how families are connected; when we all learn a little bit more about how genetics work; and when a woman of color is seen caring for light-skinned children, she can be more than hired help.*

*(Note: The author is in no way implying that being a nanny or caregiver is inherently a bad thing or that someone should be ashamed to be a nanny. It is the assumption that a woman of color could only be domestic help rather than a child’s parent that is at issue. )

*(Note 2:  The author is also aware that White women who have Mixed-Race children can also be mistaken for the nanny.)


About the Author 

Lori L. TharpsLori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Glamour and Essence magazines. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriTharps and visit her website.