Too Close for Comfort? 'Race'and the Management of Proximity, Guilt and Other Anxieties in Paid Domestic Labour

by Esther Bott
University of Nottingham

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 27 Oct 2004     Accepted: 23 Sep 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


This paper examines relations between migrant domestic workers and their employers in London, and how employers use ideas about 'race' and racial difference to manage the difficulties and tensions involved in sharing their houses with employees. Using findings from preliminary interviews with employers (the initial phase of data gathering in a wider ongoing project), it looks at how employers might structure proximity/distance relations; levels of intimacy; social hierarchy and guilt management around a conceptual framework that hinges on notions of 'difference' and Otherness.

Keywords: Migrant Domestic Work, Racism, Employers' Anxieties, Proximity


1.1 Central to an analysis of paid domestic labour is the relationship of the domestic worker to her employers, especially in terms of her figurative position within the family and household, whose varying 'needs' she fulfils. This relationship is hinged upon the management of proximity within the household, which is itself predicated on the construction of social boundaries and social distance (Simmel 1997; Bauman, 1993). Paid domestic employment relations pose special complications for the management of social relations of distance and boundary for a number of different reasons, including the ambiguous status of the worker (familial/professional) and the raced/classed identity differentiation between employers and employees (Hansen, 1989; Radcliffe, 1990; England & Stiell, 1997). The household, as a setting for personal and professional boundary organisation in paid domestic employment, presents further ambiguities. Bridget Anderson has characterised domestic workers as being caught between the imagined 'public' and 'private' spheres (2000). Further, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 does not apply to private households, so it is not illegal to racially discriminate when employing private household staff. The household then becomes a living/working site for which there is no existing or traditional legal/conceptual map by which to manage either employer-worker relations or 'living together' (intimacy) relations.[1] The normative frameworks that do exist for each imagined realm (public and private) cannot fully fit because of the crossover, and many contemporary domestic employers feel uncomfortable with the traditional concept of 'servant'.

1.2 Amongst a growing literature on paid domestic work, studies that concentrate on employers' emotional management of sharing their homes with a domestic worker point to the existence of difficulties and tensions (from the employer's viewpoint) associated with a number of issues. These include: guilt (Rollins, 1985; Tronto, 2002; Meagher, 2002); hierarchy and class/racialised/ethnic identity (Anderson, 2000; England & Stiell, 1997; Radcliffe, 1990); mothering and care (Meagher, 2002; Hochschild, 2001; Tronto, 2002), all of which somehow have to be managed by employers. This paper, as a tentative analysis of a work-in-progress (part of a wider ongoing ESRC funded research project), sets out to discuss the ways in which employers can use the idea of racial difference to manage problems of intimacy/proximity, social hierarchy and guilt in their relationships with employees. Based on empirical data from interviews with employers of migrant domestic workers living in west London, a pattern of how employers seem to be using 'race' to manage their dilemmas will be explored.


2.1 This initial phase of data gathering has consisted of ten taped in-depth interviews with employers in Holland Park. Approximately one hundred homes in three different streets in the Holland Park/Notting Hill area were contacted by an initial letter, which briefly outlined the research aims and explained that a researcher would be calling at a later date asking for participation in the study. The houses were then revisited over a period of several weeks until ten occupants had agreed to be interviewed. Some interviews were conducted immediately and some were by appointment at a later date. Interviews lasted usually between 60 to 90 minutes. All interviewees were female and married. All but two had children. See appendix 1 for sample details.

The Management of Proximity

3.1 This section looks at how houses and domesticity are nowadays organised, using the Victorian model of domesticity for comparison. The aim is to show how, because of significant changes to the organisation of domesticity, it has become increasingly tricky for employers to manage the actual presence of a domestic worker for two main reasons: first, because 'dirty work' is now carried out much more in the midst of family life rather than in separate designated areas; and second, because of the fear that workers' physical presence might therefore steal into social presence, presenting intimacy dilemmas for employers.

'Race' and the invisible servant

3.2 Anne McClintock (1995) has discussed the significance of the layout and architecture of houses in relation to domestic service relationships in Victorian times. In her analysis of the Victorian imperative to conceal the performance of domestic work in order to communicate a status of leisure to one's society, McClintock presents the notion of the 'Invisible Servant' who was concealed and strictly confined to her quarters, forced to perform the filthiest duties secretly, often during the night. McClintock notes that if servants 'had to appear before their "betters" to answer the master's bell or open the front door...they were obliged to change instantly from dirty work clothes into fresh, clean white ones' (p163). Houses were designed such that all signs of domestic work, including all cleaning paraphernalia, could be hidden out of sight. Thus, labour was made inconspicuous and the servant (or at least her 'dirty side') was rendered invisible. (pp160-165).

3.3 The management of visibility has since undergone changes in tune with alterations in both the social imperatives connected to domestic employment and contemporary living arrangements. The homes visited during this stage of these studies have been typically Victorian and Georgian five-storey terraced town houses. Since McClintock's Victorian times, these grand houses have been transformed to meet the needs of the contemporary middle-class family, with every room on all floors being used as actual living space. Basements have had their day as sculleries where maids would work unseen amidst the pots and pans. They nowadays serve as bright reception rooms that are entered by steps which lead past box-hedged borders and sunken lighting. They offer kitchen/dining space as well as large comfortable sofas, coffee tables with magazines scattered upon them, children's play areas, access via French doors to the patio and so on. They are large, bustling, inviting places; very often the hub of the house. Ground and first floors offer further reception rooms, dining rooms, maybe an office, playroom or TV room. Remaining floors are used for bedrooms and bathrooms and often the attic will have been converted into an office or library. Each room has a specific purpose for the family and there are very few areas designated for domestic work only. Domestic workers perform their tasks around the family, in the kitchen/diner whilst children play and employers read and socialise. It is normal for live-in domestic workers to sleep in a bedroom on the same floor as other family members, sometimes the room will have en suite bathroom facilities but often workers will share a bathroom with the children. Because homeowners now want to maximise living space and open up each room to comfort and particular functions, areas designated for domestic chores have become almost non-existent. Several interviewees expressed anxieties about sharing their living space with a domestic worker. For example:

I thought it was all a bit strange to have someone living in your house with you at first it was uncomfortable, not that I didn't like the person, she was very nice and in fact we've been with the same person for six years now, she's worked for us. But it was just the concept of having somebody living in your house who wasn't related and getting used to that I suppose... (Interviewee 4)

3.4 It is clearly neither practical nor fashionable to confine domestic work to certain rooms nowadays and thus labour has become more visible. The domestic worker is immersed in day-today family life during her long working hours. Domestic workers and their labour have been brought into the visual field of onlookers, spectators and employers.

3.5 These changes, together with the loss of the Victorian social urge to conceal, mean that domestic work is being displayed more openly. The housekeepers, nannies and cleaners of Holland Park appear to be, in Veblen's (1994) terms, competitively accumulated and conspicuously consumed. But domestic workers are at once conspicuous yet confined to a state of invisibility, not in McClintock's sense of physical concealment but rather in their subjective anonymity. It struck me that during interviews with women employers, household workers are normally referred to as 'she' or 'they' and seldom by name. Personal identities of workers are often constructed around how well they perform certain tasks: 'We had this one girl a few years ago, I remember her, she was an awful cook' or 'We had someone in a few hours every day, she used to like doing the ironing'. The identity of the domestic worker is reified into her task(s).

3.6 The disappearance of specific work areas, together with the ebbing of the social norm to conceal domestic work, has left employers caught between feeling infringed upon by their domestic worker on the one hand, and their 'requirement' of her on the other. Difficult contradictions arise regarding conflicting demands for areas where work can be conducted and areas that should remain 'clean' (unpolluted by the act of cleaning); between proximity to, and distance from, dirt and domestic work(ers); between visibility and invisibility of domestic work and workers. Can employing a migrant and the associated forces of 'race' and racism help employers to manage these tensions?

Racialised identities & social hierarchies

3.7 In the same way that employers often objectify employees' individual identities into the task they particularly 'enjoy' or 'excel' in, identities can also become racially objectified, so that individual workers are described through their 'national' identities. So workers tend to be referred to as 'the Filipino' or 'the Indian one we had a few years back', instead of by name, for example.[2] Certain racialised groups are constructed as being better suited to domestic work, or certain types of domestic work. The construction and reproduction of racialised hierarchies have been identified within domestic employment, which manifest as very definite preferences and demand for certain racialised groups to perform specific types of domestic work (Anderson, 2000; Bakan and Stasiulis, 1995; Cohen, 1987; England & Stiell, 1997). Bridget Anderson has examined the racialisation of domestic work and how its emergent hierarchies privilege the 'lighter skinned' Other in terms of demand, working conditions and pay. The domestic hierarchies, she notes, place 'Filipinos generally at the top and black Africans at the bottom', whilst caring duties (for children, the elderly, the disabled) are ideally reserved, if possible, for white workers (153-155). The Filipina, in fulfilling very delicate racial/racist interests to find an acceptable, co-habitable Other, is thus often constructed as the ideal domestic worker. Indeed, Geraldine Pratt's research in Canada lead her to discuss processes whereby domestic work is 'inscribed' on Filipina bodies to such an extent that in some circles, women from the Philippines were automatically assumed to be domestic workers (1998). Filipinas are often assumed to be the 'experts' in that field. These processes also help the Filipina domestic worker remain invisible: if who we see scrubbing floors is who we believe is meant to see scrubbing floors, the visual and ideological impact of that scene is, to some degree, lost.

3.8 Filipina women are also typically preferred for housekeeping jobs because they are perceived as having 'national' qualities such as enthusiasm, diligence, and so on. Filipina domestic workers are preferred because basic racist discourse also tells employers that their 'national' character will mean that they are going to behave in a quiet and contained way, helping them become less visible:

Filipinos are very hard workers, and she's very quiet, very sort of placid girl, she just seems to dissolve into the background, she seems to disappear... (Interviewee 1)
But individual employers will also refer to their own personal histories of domestic employment patterns and continuing family tradition when seeking an employee:
Ours were nearly always South American, depending on whatever the political situation, like after the Guatemalan earthquake, it was Guatemalans. Before that it had been Bolivians, and sort of the nature of it is that once you get hooked into one nationality, once they finish they sort of refer you on so you get hooked into that nationality.
...Yes, here it's the same. For me, I've just always been more comfortable with Spanish people, because it's what I grew up with so I like South Americans.
... (Interviewee 5)

3.9 The notion that employers get 'hooked' into a pattern of employing domestic workers of a certain ethnic or racial identity suggests that 'race' and nationality are important to the management of anxieties about 'cultural' (e.g. language), and 'racial' (e.g. skin colour) differences; in other words, 'abjection' and fear of 'difference' can be, to some extent, contained by way of 'sticking to what you know'. Thus employers can invent justifications for discriminating against groups they find too alien:

There's just no chemistry in an interview and I'm talking specifically about black Africans ... it's just I find there's an inscrutable... there that I can't fathom, that I just can't get through and maybe again it's too much of the distance... (Interviewee 5)

3.10 But whilst the 'Filipino is best' phenomenon exists in London W11, it is not to say that it is a universal phenomenon. The disappearing trick can work for other groups of migrants and not just Filipinas (interviewee 5 with Hispanics, for example). It is 'difference' and Otherness that allow employers the comfort of an unbridgeable social distance from workers. But location is important too as the social construction of distance through 'race' in London W11 may be different from that in, for example, the southern states of the USA, or even in other parts of London, or even across classes in the same city or country (presumably the royal family can manage to feel a comfortable difference from their predominantly white staff).

3.11 The household is heavily laden with employer/employee proximity and position struggles. These conflicts cannot be negotiated through the normal channels of regular (public) employment because of the hinterland (neither fully public nor entirely private) character of the household as an employment site. But what Charles Mills (1997) refers to as the 'Racial Contract' provides a conceptual framework by which to operate. If household 'space' is 'ready-raced', and each 'race' is neatly placed (into domestic work or particular types of domestic work) then burdens of racialised negotiations are significantly eased.

3.12 Racialised difference ensures a 'safe' distance between employer and employee and provides incentives for some women to employ migrants rather than local white women:

Well an English girl might want to talk to you and that would be awful! I say that as a joke but I really don't particularly want to talk to people. I want them to get on with the work and I'll spend ten minutes talking to them every day but I don't want to stand there whilst they're doing the ironing, listening to what they've got to say. No thank you. (Interviewee 6)
...they're [migrant domestic workers] foreign and they're illegal and they're scared and timid, and so they're not going to take up space. They're going to be very, very small, and that is generally easier to live with than someone who feels that this is their home. They're in really bad situations...they're terrified. (Interviewee 5)

3.13 Since the majority of (live-in) domestic labour is now performed by migrant workers (Anderson, 2000) 'the invisible servant' is hidden, not in the 'labyrinthine back passages' of houses (McClintock, 1995:163), but rather in the 'back of the mind'; visually apparent but safely 'racially' unconnected; conspicuous yet socially dead; in a 'liminal' state of personhood comparable to what Orlando Patterson, in his analysis of the slave identity, termed the 'resident alien' (1982:46).

An 'Inferior Class'? Fear & Taboo

4.1 This section will focus on the moral dilemmas faced by employers when they pay an(O)ther to carry out the work they would rather avoid doing themselves, and how they construct themselves as altruistic in order to avoid sanction, again with reference to the significance of 'race' to the negotiation of emotions.


4.2 Joan C. Tronto (2002) discusses the tensions surrounding domestic work relations with regard to the worker's position and status in the familial setting, noting that the domestic worker, as 'not really one of the family' occupies a 'netherworld' space and that employers have 'considerable control over the quality of the worker's life' (38). An awareness of that power and the potential for abuse it might carry can lead to guilt anxieties, which must be somehow dealt with (39-40). In addition, Tronto points to the moral burdens associated with exposing one's children to the domestic service environment, arguing that '...when we recall race/ethnicity usually mark and distinguish the employers and workers, children cared for by domestic servants...are immersed in a racist culture' (Ibid).

4.3 'Race' itself is pivotal in subjective relations insofar as it is the principal medium for managing the difficult or taboo morality of hiring someone to perform the tasks that employers find tedious and unpleasant, thus creating an 'inferior' class of servants (Gorz, 1994; Meagher, 2002). One way in which employers feel they can negotiate this problem is by constructing the employment exchange as an act of altruism, extended to the poor, needy and brown Other. One white British American woman talked at length about her family's history of 'helping' scores of Latin American disaster refugees:

...Also a lot of people that end up in our house, they have a lot of really wild problems, especially in Guatemala, with the earthquake. One of them got married in my home, we had the wedding in our house, so it's personal and I just remember it being very happy 'cause they all, you know like at Christmas time, you'd have like the whole crew of cousins, these are like the Bolivians, there's like a dozen of them all, all girls and my Mother got them all jobs in various places. (Interviewee 5)

4.4 One extremely wealthy British woman spoke of her experiences as an employer in India, Nepal and Hong Kong and explained that much of her time is now consumed in caring for the welfare of men and women she has sponsored to work for her in the UK:

[In India] We moved into a house where there were incumbent staff. I know a lot of Americans would have found the whole situation very awkward but actually I quickly realised that we were supporting a whole group of people and their families, everybody from the lady who came every week to give us a massage, who we paid 200 rupees or whatever, which was about 5 for two or three hours, which was you know, that was good money for her...
[Later, in Nepal] ...So, again, when we went into that house, they had actually taken their previous chap with them and we were told we should, you know, hire his cousin who was an ex-Ghurkha who was just a wonderful man. We brought him over from Nepal on a three-year contract after having spoken to him on the phone and seen his army discharge record. And he wanted to come over here too, the situation in Nepal is awful, which is one of the reasons we were very keen to help. We then helped him to bring his children over and finally all three of them are here now, in state school. (Interviewee 3)

4.5 Constructing herself as altruistic and emotionally connected to her employees helps interviewee 3 to manage guilt anxieties. The raced/classed difference manifest in the Third World/ First World dichotomy (a dichotomy of need/provide) helps to generate a positive moral profile of the domestic employer in answer to important questions surrounding the morality of domestic service. This discourse on 'helping' allows the employer to present herself as a positive force, a kind and good woman, someone who will not abuse the 'resident alien' or create an 'inferior class', but rather extend a familial, maternal hand. 'Charity' helps with the tensions created by the lack of a formal conceptual map.

Caring for 'others'

4.6 'Race' and nationality seem also to allow some women to transgress norms about age and dirty work. Whilst an employer might consider it improper to pay someone who is older than herself but belongs to the same racial or ethnic group to perform work they find unpleasant and laborious, the sense of impropriety seems to diminish when racial borders are crossed. For example, one interviewee, who had until recently been living in Hong Kong, returned to Britain with her Filipina domestic worker who is employed as a full-time, live-in housekeeper. The employer frequently expressed feelings of guilt and at having full-time help, particularly because the worker is considerably older than herself, but clearly finds relief from shame in the fact that her employee is 'foreign'. She tries to explain why she finds it easier to live with migrant, rather than non-migrant, domestic workers:

...Perhaps because of the guilt factor. I know that sounds really weird, it's a bit difficult to explain; if I had someone like my Mum living with me, who was my helper I would perhaps feel that it was wrong almost, do you know what I mean? Probably no-one else has said this, I don't know, I suppose if you're living in a community where everybody has helpers from other places it, maybe seems more acceptable, but in terms of living together, because they do tend to understand fundamentally that their role is quite clearly defined and they are happy to stay within the confines of that role so they don't want to be coming and sitting and watching TV with you... just because they don't want to. They're out of the family because they're from a different community. With an English woman, it's a cultural thing, it's because they're from outside of your culture, it's easier. It doesn't mean that you would treat them badly or any worse but it just means the relationship and actually probably the bond would be stronger between you and a migrant than it would be between you and a non-migrant, for me. It's almost like they're more childlike in their relationship with you; you're more like a parent, whereas, say, an older white woman or an English or Irish or European of the same age as my helper, I would perhaps feel that they were more the parent and I was more the child in terms of defining your relationship and that is probably borne of culture and you kind of feeling responsible for kind of almost caring for them. (Interviewee 4)

4.7 So racial difference is not only creating distance within the relationship by way of the two parties belonging to two separate communities who both know and understand their relative positions, but it also alters the 'nurture' dynamics of service. The interviewee has constructed the relationship around the idea that if her employee had been a 47-year-old white British woman then she would signify 'mother', but because she is in fact a 47- year-old Filipina, she instead signifies 'child'. Because there are culturally embedded moral issues surrounding inferioritising one's elders, especially one's own mother, the employer uses racialised difference as a way of demarcating and separating her employee's identity from her own, in effect removing the worker from an equation where she requires the special respect usually afforded to older people.


5.1 These research notes have offered some preliminary analyses of the first ten interviews of an ongoing project. The paper has explored how 'race' and (perceived) racial difference help some women to manage the tensions and anxieties involved in sharing their homes with a household worker. Because of the way contemporary homes and domesticity are organized, the management of intimacy, proximity to domestic work and workers and the fear of confronting the employee as a real social presence is assisted by racial difference. Taboos surrounding inferioritisation, moral burdens and guilt anxieties involved in hiring a domestic worker are seemingly mitigated to some extent by the idea of racial difference.

Appendix 1: Sample details

145White-BritishMotherMarried + 2 children
340White-BritishMotherMarried + 3 children
437White-BritishMotherMarried + 2 children
539White - USHousewifeMarried + 3 children
658White-BritishProp developer/Piano teacherMarried
Housewife (ex-editor)Married + 3 children
840White-BritishPT ArchitectMarried + 2 children
941IndianMotherMarried + 2 children
1048SpanishHousewifeMarried + 1 child

DegreeHighNox1 (FT, LO, HK, Filipina)
+ Specialisation
MiddleNoPrev: FT, LO, HK
DegreeHighYesx2 (1 FT, LO, HK + 1 FT handyman)
DegreeHighYesx1 (FT, LI, HK, Filipina)
DegreeHighNox2 (1 FT, LI, Nanny, White S African + 1 PT, LO,
Cleaner, S.American)
+ Specialisation
MiddleNox1 (PT, LO, HK, Filipina)
DegreeMiddle-highYesX1 (PT, LO, HK, Brazilian)
+ Specialisation
HighNox1 (PT, LO, HK, Wh Brit)
DegreeHighYesx1 (FT, LI, HK, Indian) plus others 'as needed'
FEMiddleNox1 (PT, LO, HK, Wh Brit)


1 The ambiguity of the domestic worker's position is heightened and complicated by at least two other important factors, the relevance of which these research notes do not have the capacity to discuss. The first has to do with whether she is employed on a live-in or live-out basis. Live-in arrangements clearly pose greater proximity, intimacy, visibility and privacy dilemmas for employers, but are often favoured because of the flexibility they offer, often at a cost to the worker. The second factor is the worker's migration status, which is important in terms of power dynamics related to citizenship (or lack of). See Anderson (2000) for thorough discussions on both.

2 This only ever occurred during interviews with white British employers.


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