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Housekeepers and Cutcliffe

“Duke is a progressive, equality-driven institution.”

Phrases like those paint an optimistic image of Duke. Duke has its social problems, but it usually isn’t long before they are addressed in some sort of campus dialogue or another. With programs like the Me Too Monologues, You’re Not Alone and Common Ground, most marginalized groups have some degree of a platform. So you can imagine my surprise at a recent RA team building activity, when the question “are housekeepers discriminated against?” was asked, and everyone instantly responded “yes.”

I could definitely understand the answer, but I would not have jumped to that conclusion so quickly. And with the help of the team, here are some of the reasons we came up with.

Most housekeepers are members of minority ethnic groups that have historically been marginalized. I cannot speak for all of Duke’s campus, but in my four years at Duke, I have only seen two housekeepers who were not African American or Hispanic. When those minorities make up a significant portion of the employees working at the Duke minimum wage of $12 an hour, that probably contributes to our association of those minorities with their socioeconomic status.

But ethnicity and socioeconomic status aren’t likely the sole reason for this discrimination at Duke. The Duke community at least is described with pride for its inclusivity, and I don’t think our student body is that shallow. We kept thinking. What about the nature of being a housekeeper?

I’ve seen people often leave trash around a common room, thinking that the housekeeper will clean up after them the next morning. I almost universally observe a complete absence of worry about vomit or clogged toilets—it’ll all be someone else’s responsibility soon. It isn’t uncommon for RAs to send emails to their hall urging residents not to make a large mess over a three day weekend. No, that’s not to help the housekeeper. It’s so the residents don’t have to live with the mess for an extra day… until the housekeeper comes in and cleans it.

Housekeeping is supposed to consist of basic cleaning tasks, yet when a huge mess is made, we still expect them to clean it up. This creates a dangerous hierarchy of power that leads to their exploitation and disrespect. Duke needs to manage expectations for housekeeping and create student accountability for messes.

So why should the average Duke student care? After all, we are very busy people who would gladly pay someone else to clean up our messes. And by the nature of the institution we attend, we probably think we have more glamorous lives in our futures. But this relationship is also problematic and adds to the dangerous hierarchy that leads to disrespect.

Besides the obvious reasons of respect and integrity, there are strong reasons to respect housekeepers. Though we may be ambitious, we are still young and naïve. A 50-year-old housekeeper has much more wisdom than a 20-year-old college student, no matter what the student is studying. The professors and doctors I respect the most know they can learn something from anyone and to treat any person as their equal. Doing so keeps them humbled and grounded, which is a vital component of their lives. No matter how ambitious their resumes, they measure their character by how they treat those of a lesser status.

So let’s talk about what we can do. For one, each quad has a resident cleaning closet. If you make a mess that can be cleaned up, use those supplies and clean them. Housekeepers almost always take a lunch break around noon. You can catch them in the kitchens heating up their food. If you aren’t bothering them, introduce yourself and thank them for their hard work. Apparently, housekeepers aren’t even allowed to be in the common room with a student. Break that rule. Get to know your housekeeper. Lastly, housekeeping appreciation week is March 23-27th. It’s not for another month, but mark that down in your calendar. Work with your house council, or do something special for your housekeeper on your own.

Upon reflection, I realized the most important value from housekeepers is that they are actually all unique people who take pride in their work. Many of them are proud to work for Duke, making the facilities we live in desirable. Good, clean facilities are just as important in a top ten university as the professors, students and ideas. We should respect them just as they respect themselves as an integral part of the university.

At this point though, you’re probably wondering what Coach Cutcliffe has to do with any of this. Well, when Cutcliffe first came to interview at Duke, he drove through the night and arrived at Duke very early. Here is an account of his visit.

“I got on this campus about 3 o’clock in the morning. I went in and out of buildings, talked to some of the housekeeping people. They were more like me than anybody I met, to be honest with you. My kind of people. I just liked their pride in being a Duke employee. I asked them about that, about what was good about working for Duke.”

If the most popular man at Duke not named Coach K could see the values and dedication of the housekeepers, then perhaps we can reflect on our attitudes as well. Instead of disrespecting a group of people we tend to think are below us, let us value them, as Coach Cutcliffe has, for their unique contribution and pride for their work.

James Tian is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Monday.

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