Child Care Has a Piper Chapman Problem: The Whitewashing of Our Child Care System

December 2, 2021

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We’ve done it again. We’ve Piper Chapman-ed another glaring issue in need of reform in America. This time, instead of mass incarceration, we’ve whitewashed the child care crisis.

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) fans are familiar with Piper, the white, childless protagonist of the series, and they may be trying to Beautiful Mind this connection right now, but stay with me here. 

First, we need to take a step back to review what happened to child care during the COVID-19 pandemic, for white, middle-class families. The frayed wires of childcare policy in the US were exposed as daycares shut down and classrooms logged onto laptops. It clarified child care as inaccessible and unaffordable. It affected the career paths of women caring for children under five, sometimes resulting in mothers getting knocked off their career paths altogether.

As unjust and difficult as it sounds, these obstacles have affected Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and working-class families for ages. Not to mention the immense wealth gap between Black and white families, the former averaging one tenth of the wealth of the latter.  They just came to the surface as problems when white folks had the same experiences.

This brings us back to the “OITNB  Effect.” Series creator Jenji Kohan admitted that she purposefully set up Piper as her alabaster “Trojan Horse” to trick TV execs into picking up a show about prison life. Now, we’ve been tricked in a different context into viewing an issue that disproportionately affects Black and brown people through a white lens. Suddenly, we needed to rescue white suburban working moms from child care scarcity, while their working class BIPOC peers were demonized for not finding adequate care as they tried their hardest to provide. We’ve put an attractive blonde wig on another systemic failure. 

But why? Why does it take a white woman in distress to call attention to historically Black and brown issues? It starts with our own narratives of deservingness. Before COVID, working class people were deemed “replaceable”—if not dispensable—cogs in the workforce. Yet, the pandemic ushered in a new type of framing, “essential workers,” folks whose labor was deemed necessary to survival even in the most extreme situations. Simultaneously, anti-lockdown protests emerged across the country by folks demanding not to get back to their offices, but demanding the ability to access other peoples’ (disproportionately BIPOC people’s) labor. They wanted haircuts. They wanted to sit in a restaurant. They wanted school back in session. They wanted daycare. These desires exposed the pernicious roots of our system, the “invisible” labor that supports many middle-class families and enables them to function, despite the glaring risks of returning to work during a pandemic.

When it comes to the demands on childcare workers in particular, Black and brown women have to return to work and risk their health and safety, or in many cases not return at all. According to the National Women’s Law Center, child care workers are two and a half times more likely to be either Black or Latinx. Since slavery, Black women have been the caretakers of white children as they were also reprimanded and villanized for caring for their own offspring.

Our American individualism has convinced us that we should be pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps even if those boots are poorly made or in some cases don’t exist at all. The pandemic has exposed us, collectively, as selfish individualists, as opposed to advocates for the collective good. Mothers, particularly mothers of color, have borne the brunt of this attitude, especially in the childcare sector. In a situation where child care is scarce or unaffordable for a family, it is often the mother who has to sacrifice their ambitions or a bring in a second income to take care of their children. One in three women have reported either leaving the workforce altogether or derailing their career because of the pandemic, and compared to fathers, mothers are 50% more likely to take a leave of absence from work. On top of that, in January there were 4.8% fewer Black women in the workforce, compared to 3.1% of white women.

Now, through early education’s own Piper, we are seeing that our current system is unsustainable. The childcare provisions included in the Build Back Better Act have already passed in the House, but getting it passed in the Senate either as is or with concessions will be a challenge. It won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a solid start. It can make care more affordable and accessible for so many families and create opportunities for child care centers to pay workers fairly. Quality early education is essential for young children during one of the most crucial periods of their development, we can’t leave them or their teachers behind. 

In the meantime, we must stop prioritizing white stories and being the judge and jury of who is “worthy” of child care. We can accept what other peer countries have: that raising children is a group effort. At Purpose, where I work, we are kicking off a unifying child care campaign in Illinois, led by these principles. And you too (yes, you!) can work toward shifting the narrative on child care in America. If you’re in Illinois, sign up to join our campaign, and if you’re not, see what your state can do to support child care workers. If you send your kids back to daycare, ask about if they are paying their workers fairly. Talk to your mom groups either in-person or online about the issue, centering the struggles of Black and brown women care workers, who are often also mothers. Complacency will hurt our collective future if we don’t take care of our children, our child care professionals, our educators, and our families, all who deserve affordable, accessible, quality early child care and education.

 

May Steinberg is a member of the Campaigns team at Purpose. She has built her career around social impact campaigns and storytelling, with a specialization in women’s rights. You can find her other work on her website.


May Steinberg Associate Campaign Manager, Purpose
Resource:
Exploring Racial Equity Impact