Did you all catch that powerful photo essay in O: The Oprah Magazine that flipped the optics of racial hierarchies among White, Black, Asian, and Latina women? Well, I recently found myself in a similar situation. I never thought I’d ever be at a tea where a team of all White women served a room of Black women.
Last Saturday, my daughter and I got gussied up to attend a mother-daughter tea at a church. I drink tea, but I’d never been to an actual pinkie-in-the-air tea party that didn’t involve dolls. I was shook. Bean had been invited to take part in the program, otherwise, I might have passed on this event. She was so excited I couldn’t deny her. We went shopping for some tea-appropriate attire to help ease my nervousness. I bought my first church lady hat–I am not a hat wearer. Ohh, the sacrifices we make for our children!
When we arrived at the tea party, I found there was nothing to fret about. The women dressed in what they had. Some wore less fancy dresses, or pants, or suits, and others wore frocks with spectacular hats. Bean looked quite adorable in her rose trapeze dress and matching feather fascinator. She twirled and pranced in her new shoes with “high heels,” as she proudly called them to everyone who would listen.
The church hosting the event is a predominantly Black church, so it did not strike me as odd to see a fellowship hall full of women in various shades of brown. It was rather affirming. The little girls wore their hair in an array of Black-girl styles: the press-and-curl, a twistout, Afro puffs, chunky braids with bows, and cornrows. Bean and I fit right in. I breathed easy. No one was judging me for my gauche appearance. I was among family.
When Miss Millie is “the help.”
I didn’t notice anything amiss at first. The coordinator for the event had hired a local catering company to make the tea party fare. She’d had them cater and staff a tea party she’d hosted at her own home, so I felt reassured about how the food might taste. I noticed some women in nondescript clothing and aprons dart in and out of the kitchen. Stout teapots lined a high, narrow table close to a nearby wall.
A middle-aged White woman stepped onto the stage we faced. She clasped her hands, perhaps a bit nervously, and quickly went over the tea and food on the menu. For some reason, I took her to be the owner, even though there was one more older-looking White woman on staff. Still, nothing made me think twice about the setup. I occupied myself with making sure Bean did not break the very real China teacups and saucers.I pretended a White woman served me every day of my life. Click To Tweet
Women in aprons bustled around us placing the teapots on our tables. “It’s hot,” they warned. They served us courses of traditional tea foods: lavender or chocolate chip scones, cucumber sandwiches, fresh fruit, chicken salad, greens with a lemon-poppyseed dressing, pumpernickel and strawberry cream cheese sandwiches, and chocolate cupcakes with salted caramel icing. It was all delicious.
I sat at a table with a woman and her two daughters. We were having fun mimicking fancy lady manners in Britamerican accents. The Jersey girl in her slipped out whenever her five-year-old tried to lick the spoon from the sugar bowl. Suddenly, she leaned forward, her eyes alarmed.
“Did you notice all of the women serving us are…” she whispered, tapping the palm of her hand, “and we’re Black?” I hadn’t. I scanned the room briefly. Sure enough, the sea of brown faces was interrupted by pale ones walking to and fro. I counted about five total: two older White women and three young ones.
My eyes widened and I let my hand flutter gently to my chest. “Oh, my,” I said in Britamerican.
White servers, Black ladies…
My friends asked me how it felt. I wanted to tell them that a surge of ancestral revenge tingled at my fingertips, that I let a napkin drop onto the floor and pointedly waited for Miss Millie to pick it up for me. In reality, none of that happened. All the Black women at the tables were polite to the catering staff. The whole thing went off a lot more ordinarily than you might have expected. But I know why.I did the most revolutionary thing I could: I ignored the White women until I needed them. Click To Tweet
Even though all of us Black women might never have been served by White women in such a dedicated fashion, the power dynamic wasn’t the same. Historically, Black women domestic workers knew their livelihoods depended on catering to White women’s every capricious whim. The White women serving us tea and cakes didn’t tiptoe around us in fear. They walked like they owned a business. Like they owned themselves.
At the same time, the scene still tickled me. I asked for another pot of tea and a White woman close to my age smiled and nodded briskly. Our table requested the non-caffeinated tea and received still more smiling and nodding. They did not hover at our elbows awaiting our next order. Rather, the staff milled about the entrance to the kitchen across the room. They watched our plates and offered to remove the half-eaten scones when we abandoned them. I caught them in my periphery busying themselves steeping more tea. But mostly, I forgot they were there.
And here’s the real tea.
I did get one takeaway from the experience: what it must feel like to remove White women from the center of a female space. To know they they were not the only “ladies,” soft and delicate, worthy of being spoken to in dulcet tones, in the room. To not have to gingerly navigate around them for fear they will call some authority to their aid.
How odd it seemed to me that for once, a group of White women had to render themselves almost invisible. I couldn’t help but think of all my Black foremothers, the maids and “help” whose wellbeing hinged on their ability to neither be seen nor heard.
So I did the most revolutionary thing I could think of: I ignored the White women until I needed them. And then I spoke to them like I was the lady. I pretended a White woman served me every day of my life. Like it was completely normal. Bean was completely oblivious to the racial dynamics around the room. However, I did chuckle at the disdainful curl of her lip when she declined to eat those cucumber sandwiches. I didn’t need to drop any napkins. Her being a free, expressive little Black girl in the presence of White women was catharsis enough for a lifetime.