Nanny-gate and prejudice — I chose “mum” but that’s not okay either.

The one true Nanny — image via Grannies Kitchen on Flickr

By now we’ve all seen the video of Professor Robert Kelly gamely attempting to keep a straight face and stay focused as his adorable children video-bomb his live interview with the BBC. In case you haven’t, here it is, via The Guardian.

I was surprised to discover, upon getting online this morning, that for once social media was taking a break from Donald Trump, and instead exploring the entrenched stereotyping and prejudice that is rife in our society.

Predictably, there was plenty of outrage directed at people who assumed that the woman in the clip was Professor Kelly’s nanny. I read several articles and countless comments both overtly and implicitly filled with disdain for those who made that assumption. Bigotry against Asians, was the call.

So I had to go back and watch the video again. For two reasons.

First, it had never crossed my mind that the woman in the video would be anyone other than the child’s mother and the professor’s wife.

Second, I had no idea what ethnicity the mother was. Partly because that’s not the first thing I notice, and mostly because I was too busy being astonished at her remarkable athletic prowess.

Here’s the thing though. I didn’t think “mum” because I’m a saintly human being without flaws or prejudices. I thought “mum” because doing so was a direct consequence of my worldview, which in turn is a consequence of context which has been set for me throughout my life.

Understanding that is instructive, because the natural corollary is that those who saw “Asian” and then assumed “hired help” are not necessarily bad people. Rather, as in my own case, their perceptions are a product of the context in which they are functioning.

I’ll expound by pointing out the norms that are enshrined in my worldview that are the basis for the biases and prejudices that led me to instinctively assume “mum” and “wife.

Nannies aren’t a thing in my world. We don’t have a nanny for our kids, and neither does the overwhelming majority of our social circle. I didn’t have a nanny growing up. I can think of maybe one person whom I see with any regularity at all who employs a nanny. They’re simply not in my consideration scope.

As a brown man in Silicon Valley, I routinely see the eye-rolls and instinctive judgment calls when people learn that my wife stopped working outside the home when we had our kids. That’s a whole different discussion, but guess what? What do you imagine my internal gut reaction might be to hearing that other people employ a nanny to look after their children? That’s right — when it doesn’t conform to our natural perspectives, we all shudder. Right or wrong doesn’t come into the picture.

Inter-racial relationships and marriages are common in my world. I’m in one. So is my brother. And so are a disproportionately large number of my friends all around the world. When I see a white person, I don’t expect their spouse or partner to be white as well.

Much as I’d like to think otherwise, this doesn’t put me on a higher plane than others. I love that I inherently celebrate and embrace diversity. I firmly believe that it’s the right way forward. However, it shouldn’t mean that homogeneity is a fundamentally bad thing. Yet when I look at a private school classroom full of only Asian or Indian children, my first reaction is to consider all the negatives of that environment.

Children come with a married mother and father in my world. It might surprise some people who know me to hear this. I consider my thinking to be much more progressive than that. The truth though, is that once again, there’s a natural instinct, which for me is a traditional nuclear mum+dad+2-kids.

Put all that together, and it’s clear that when I watched the video, “mum and wife” was always going to be my presumption.

Looking at it after the fact, it becomes clear that it was also possible that Professor Kelly was an unmarried gay father of two, and the lady in the video was hired help. I wonder how many of those who are happily going after the “nanny” crowd ever considered that possibility? Every single one of us made assumptions, conditioned by our life experiences, when we watched that video.

My point is ultimately simple, and it is that these things are not simple. Our reactions, and how we perceive things, are determined by context. That context is not just formed in the moment, but is constructed over time.

The huge lesson in that, is that when we look to tackle the entrenched racism, misogyny, and other issues in our society, there are two things that we must do.

The first, is to look at ourselves. When we can see how our context is influencing our own thinking, warts and all, we can move outward.

The second then, is to recognize that in order to change things, we have to look at how we can transform the prevailing context for people. Only then can worldviews be altered. To that end, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes, from Alexander von Humboldt.

“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.”