Its not about respect | Why you can’t call your maid ‘maid’

“Why don’t you refer to your maid as a maid”? This is a question I posed to my modest number of twitter followers this morning. I’m sure you can see that I asked a question already having formed the conclusion that the word was a no-no. Over the years I have noticed a trend: middle-class Africans (who form a notable part of my followers list) have large problems using the “m-word”–as one of the responders to the question termed it—to refer to their housekeepers.


The responses I got were very much expected. Many people cited the discomfort they felt about calling an older woman anything besides “aunty” and all of the vernacular versions of that word. And when it came to calling younger maids by that title it seemed it was easier for most of the people participating in the discussion to refer to their maid as “sister”. The reasons behind both practises mentioned in the hazy air of cultural appropriateness.

But I’m not buying it.

Yes, at the surface of many Africans’ inability to refer to their domestic servants as such is the sheen of cultural appropriateness delivered in years of elders entrenching within us, a fear of calling an adult by anything but a family title.

And yes, I understand that particularly with Africa’s harsh colonial past, specifically South Africa with her’s being so recent and fresh in the minds of her people, there is a discomfort when one considers the racial associations the word has in the minds of many people.

And, yes, it may in fact be very Botho (Ubuntu) to treat and refer to house-help as a family member.

But that’s not all this is about.

And I made this point by asking a few (mostly rhetoric) questions to the people that confessed to a fear of referring to their maid as such. I put the following questions to them:

“When you call your maid “aunty” or “sisi” do you fulfill those duties? Attend her family funerals? Contribute to weddings? Etc?

“So why do you have a maid if you can’t treat her like one? Why not call your cousin from the village if its about “family” then?”

and more…

But this wasn’t my point. Nor was it my concern. And I had no way of broaching the subject in the fiery bowels of twitter. So I’m putting my theory here.

I believe Africans are incapable of referring to their household help as such because they don’t think they deserve to have full-time cleaning staff. I think that this is a cultural hangover from colonial times when only Europeans had full time domestic staff and the African could only factor into that equation if s/he became that staff. That is, the only job that the African woman in colonial times was afforded was the job of housekeepers. Now, we have generations of African borne from the loins of maids and ‘house-girls’ incapable of removing themselves from that side of the equation. Incapable of uplifting their mentality from the roll of someone else’s servant to the roll of employee.

So what happens? They develop middle-class guilt, or post-colonial guilt. They feel sorry for the maids for having to stoop to the level of being the house-worker of a lowly African. I believe this entire process to be entirely subconscious of-course, and not necessarily applicable to all Africans.

But I think this theory should be examined. Because it is clear to me that it is not as though working for an African household (despite all the cushy nicknames and tip-toeing around responsibility) is not the dream job of most domestics. Why? Because just like what happens with family—they aren’t always compensated well. So, calling your domestic by a family title has little to negative effect on the quality of her job.

Essentially, this desire to treat her like family is less about her and more about yourself. How else could we explain the ill-treatment she receives?

Because this isn’t about that. It is about our inability to raise class associations with our ethnicity from industrial/working/domestic class to what many of us are: middle-class. Why not allow our identity to evolve with our new rights and privileges in “free Africa”? Why must we allow ourselves to leave our cultural identities in 18th century Africa when middle-class African was unimaginable? We must step away from the self-image that allows us to be more comfortable referring to a maid as a sister than a CEO as an uncle. We must allow our minds to grasp the concept being someone else’s employer and behaving accordingly.

Quite often the Africans treating their staff as family have problems negotiating the appropriate employer-employee relationship with their maids. No-body benefits from this practise. When work relations are muddled with family-names both parties end up feeling taken advantage of. If most Europeans could run households smoothly for years without removing the maid’s dignity from her job (because that’s what happens when you refuse to acknowledge that someone is a paid employee) by referring to her as ‘sisi’ and such, why can’t you?

And what do some call her instead? “Helper” I cringe every time I hear an African woman refer to her housemaid her “helper”. I know most times its an attempt to be polite. But to me it rings of a woman that believes the myth that the African woman belongs at home and thus  views domestic help as somewhat of a professional assistant.

Maybe I’m over thinking it.

I don’t know, really.

All I do know is this definitely isn’t about respect.


8 thoughts on “Its not about respect | Why you can’t call your maid ‘maid’

  1. Interesting! Where I live, the middle class (the large majority in the nation) do not have maids. There are several reasons for this, e,g. that most people have both a decent income and time enough to do house work themselves (some pay for cleaning services, but that will be someone from a company coming in every other week to clean your house). But in addition to that, I think one other factor is what you call middle-class guilt. Most middle class here are descendants of peasants and tenant farmer families where the only work option for young unmarried girls where to become maids at the larger farms. Actually, my great-grandmother was a maid at such a farm. I would not be comfortable with having a maid or servant in my house, a feeling I believe is shared by most people where I live.

  2. Um, role is what I think you meant.
    I think that part of the problem is admitting that you have someone doing the work for you.
    I am white and learning to speak isiXhosa at the moment and I greet my one-a-week maid using “sisi”, as in “Molo sisi”. She is only a little older than me. Is that not appropriate? Would love your thoughts.

  3. I think there definitely is an element of middle class guilt. Which is where you are noting some of the hypocrisy. Perhaps with those feeling a little more fixed in their class privilege. I would say this isn’t the majority of middle class blacks. Many are the ‘firsts’ of their family and aren’t as comfortable with the idea of being ‘finally economically free’. Class for blacks is still a very precarious thing in this country. On the other hand, there are also people who aren’t decent people who take liberties/advantage across the board whether black or white.

    I think this is my main point of difference:
    “Quite often the Africans treating their staff as family have problems negotiating the appropriate employer-employee relationship with their maids. No-body benefits from this practise. When work relations are muddled with family-names both parties end up feeling taken advantage of.”

    I think this ignores the fact that the default, ‘maid’, is uncomfortable for this very reason. A power dynamic of both race and economic statuts during apartheid that made it so that maids could not possibly negotiate fairly for themselves. This is why the word is politically-charged and avoided, I believe by some black people. To use this default as some kind of template to aspire to where the women are treated as employees and afforded all rights and benefits makes no sense. Even today, this is a section of society which benefits from regulation purely because of the historical and present exploitation possible. Calling someone a ‘maid’ isn’t necessarily a shift towards dignity. Calling someone ‘sisi’ or ‘aunty’ or ‘mama’ is not necessarily a precursor for a departure from decency and fair wages.

    The cultural learning and upbringing that compels blacks to refer to each other in family titles is not inherently bad or unprogressive. We cannot be white people. And it shouldn’t be that we have to be in order to be good employers. The same ‘maids’ are blacks who came up in the same black culture. I don’t see how their dignity is eroded by it. It does not discriminate to only encompass them, nor is it meant to demean.

    My final point refers to economics. In a country like ours with a high unemployment rate, but also with free movement and demand supply dynamics, people make the choices possible in a capitalist society. If your ‘maid’ can get more money next door for the same amount of work or time, she will make the choice best for her and her circumstances, despite your calling her ‘sisi’. Same as if she were not performing her duties appropriately, you would not keep her on indefinately not getting what you want, there are limits. This does not cease to be an employer/employee relationship because we are culturally different to white people and share a different historical perspective.

    I’m also not comfortable with the idea that middle class blacks have to embrace a pure servant/master dichotomy in order to fully enter the privileges of being closer to European and progressive. I don’t think this is necessary and I don’t think this denotes an inferiority complex either.

    On the sexism of the word ‘helper’, I do disagree. I believe that every adult should be capable of doing what is needed to support themselves and the lifestyle they lead. But with the demands of modern living, this is not always possible and people need help keeping up with those demands. Calling someone a ‘helper’ seems appropriate and benign, really. This may just be because I live alone as an African woman.

    Otherwise, dope topic! I have been ruminating on some of this for quite some time.

  4. I’ll tell you one thing. Some people are assholes. Some people will take liberties whether black or white with anyone they view as of a lower station in life. And their motivations are difficult to determine from the outside, but aren’t the point of this post.

    I think though, that the concept of a black middle class in SA that views other blacks as of a lower station is still far-fetched. Poverty in SA is black. Class for blacks is still precarious. Few are generationally ‘economically free’ or have so much money now that they’re vitually safe against most circumstances. Most are ‘firsts’ in their families. Viscerally speaking it is not yet natural to refer to someone as a servant. Also, with unemplyment as it is in this country, we recognise that it’s a line of work many do not choose, but is a means to make an income. Therefore, these women aren’t foreign entities invading our homes, we are intimately acquainted with their stories, they are familiar and our own.

    Coupled with that, our cultural upbringing as blacks that compels us to refer to other black people with familial titles for respect is not the problem. This respect extends to all black people not just ‘maids’. In turn, they too came up in the same black culture with the same values. I fail to see how that translates to them feeling less dignity as a result. If anything, the word ‘maid’ can be seen to be politically-charged because of it’s historical connotations for black women who were both racially and economically disadvantaged and exploited. The title of ‘maid’ did not protect them from this. Nor does it do so in the present day.

    It’s also worth noting that, these women make choices within a capitalist society like all those negotiating within it. A kind word or familial title will not prevent your ‘maid’ from taking a better offer from another employer. She has her own urgent needs. And you will not pay her for not doing her job. At the end of the day, it is about doing a job and paying wages. I don’t think removing their agency is helpful.

    I don’t see black culture as unprogressive in this instance. Calling your employee ‘sisi’ instead of ‘maid’ does not reflect on whether they are paid fairly or treated decently. They are not mutually exclusive. And I think, our discomfort with the servant/master dynamic is reflective of our context. I don’t think ‘transcending’ it means we are progressing as a people more comfortable within our new ‘class’. I think the contradictions are quite obvious, when we consider the need I often hear espoused for self-determination and a push to our own ideals and values that suddenly our choice of word means we are backward and obviously expolitative or suffering from an inferiority complex.

    Also, as a black African woman living alone, I may not always be able to keep up with the demands of my career and my domestic responsibilities (which I feel are naturally up to me as an adult). If I have someone come in, I don’t believe this is because I am a woman. I believe it’s because it is my place and I need help. Therefore the word ‘helper’ seems benign.

    Great discussion and thoughts. I have been ruminating over some of this for some time.

  5. Pardon me for asking, I’m not South African, so perhaps I’m missing something culturally; why can’t/don’t people call their maids by their names if they’re close in age? Why sister/sisi her? Why constantly refer to her as “my helper” or “my domestic?” What’s wrong with the name her mother gave her? The latter comes off as elitist, especially when they’re complaining about something the woman did wrong.

  6. I found this very interesting. In Zimbabwe the term “sisi” is not uncommon, but from as far back as I can remember, we have only had 1 sisi. The rest if elderly and mothers, we called by their first child’s name, as most people would address them. If my young or my age, we called her by her name. But when neither the two, we had to call them aunty. And we have always believed its out of respect. Its very arguable, but the concept with the help is to treat them as anything but the help, though keeping in mind they are just that-the help. We never had our maids wear uniforms, its thought of “bougie” and looking down on them. Only those in the expensive neighborhoods did so, never the middle class families. I’m sure to discuss this with my mother and entire family and hear why this has always been so.
    Love your work Siyanda.
    If you don’t mind I would like to share this as a feature post for my blog.

  7. Hi,
    Very Interesting …..
    The cultural learning and upbringing that compels blacks to refer to each other in family titles is not inherently bad or unprogressive. We cannot be white people. And it shouldn’t be that we have to be in order to be good employers.

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