Maid in Public: Nafissatou Diallo Speaks

By now, anyone who’s been following the case knows that Nafissatou Diallo’s exclusive interviews with Newsweek and the US television network, ABC, have changed the manner in which ‘the maid from Guinea’ has been portrayed by news agencies and reporters. Newsweek and ABC must be giddy that they got the exclusives – but giving up her anonymity, or controlling her ‘story’ was hardly ever in her hands. French news already published Diallo’s identity with in a week, after prodding out information about her from such reliable sources as a New York City taxi driver who had a regular run by Sofitel; the New York Post; (a tabloid run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps) claimed that she made money on the side through prostitution (Diallo’s lawyers are now suing the Post for defamation, while the newspaper stands by its story).

DSK’s lawyers, who used their agency and access to The New York Times et al to slander Diallo a few weeks ago have yet again used their public platform, The New York Post, to release the following statement yesterday: “Ms. Diallo is the first accuser in history to conduct a media campaign to persuade a prosecutor to pursue charges against a person from whom she wants money.”

That’s a silly claim – not only because both defendants’ and prosecutors’ sides have appealed to ‘the public’ as long as there have been legal cases conducted in public, and a fourth estate to disseminate information regarding cases generating public interest. DSK’s lawyers already did so, with incredible aggression that showed their dedication to their client, and illustrated the power accessible at the fee scale a man like DSK is able to pay. That Diallo now appeals to the public, using a different set of emotional appeals from those employed by DSK’s defense, is hardly novel.

Basically, the two interviews with Diallo cover what I wrote in a previous post (see “DSK, the maid from Guinea and ‘agency’), exploring the manner in which ‘the maid from Guinea’ was being caricatured as a ‘global player’ with agency deployable on the same scale as the ‘Global Player’: there, part of my argument was that immigration status/money in the bank/trying to get more public assistance (and whatever hustles all that involved) have little to do with a case of rape. If her credibility is questioned based on those issues, then, so, too, must DSK’s personal/public financial dealings. (At least, his sexual dealings are supposedly being ‘investigated’ as the prosecution builds a case about DSK’s behaviour in that actually relevant department).

Here’s what should be obvious: if one’s credibility is dependent on past dealings, and if matters otherwise unconnected to the particular experience of violence being addressed comes up in a present case of rape, then none of us would stand a chance if raped. And as feminists have clarified many years prior, rape is a violent crime that is about a display of power and a desire to make that power manifest to self/Other, rather than some nebulous thing at the nexus of ‘flirtation’ gone wrong, mismatched communication, and differences of opinion about what to do with those pesky bits of body parts linked to sex and desire.

Need further support for the revolutionary idea that immigration and applications for public assistance are unrelated to a charge of rape? Peter Ward, the president of the labor union that represents Diallo (New York Hotel Trades Council local 6, of UNITE-HERE: the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees – Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees International Union) writes, in the Union’s public statement regarding the case,

“…news reports have accused this member of lying in an immigration matter and on a housing application and her tax forms, which, if true, makes her one of probably millions of people who have done the same things.”

Ward adds, “Just as Mr. Strauss-Kahn has great resources at his disposal to support him, our member has a right to know there are people on her side, including her friends and co-workers, and her Union.” Ward clarifies that “Unless and until there is strong reason for this Union to do otherwise, she is entitled to our support.”

It may, in fact, be wise, now, for Diallo to be in public, and to do public interviews: the fabulosities published about her capitalised on her anonymity, lack of a ‘face’ and therefore, lack of/minimised agency. As we see her, her body/face/voice/narrative offers the possibility (and I’m being careful with wording here on purpose) of ‘agency’. Americans love a personal confession/testimony – whether it’s on Oprah, or in a memoir – and tend to give the ‘confessor’ some level of sympathy (which translates to a degree of ‘power’ within a limited community). This addiction to public outings of personal details comes from the nation’s history of sometimes-coerced public confessions within the Protestant Christian tradition. In tapping into that national obsession with the personal, her handlers may be finally giving Diallo some good advice.

As to how Diallo’s avoidance of her immigration status and public assistance applications will fly with Regular Joe America, who largely believe that they stand on their own two feet, with no assistance from government, I don’t know. (These are erroneous views of self-sufficiency fuelled by old-school Westerns and more recent Tea Party mythologies. Americans receive subsidies on many things, including petrol, their university educations, corn, sugar, meat, and get some of the lowest-cost food supplies due to big corporate supported illegal immigrant labour on farms, meat packing plants, restaurants, and hotels). But there’s a huge population in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Harlem, or in any large city in the US, and rural areas throughout the country in which immigrants work under subpar standards, that will respond with an eyeroll: that’s what you have to do to make it in America.

And why does DSK not do a similar public confessional?  Perhaps because a confessional is a request to be allowed to re-enter the community of grace – in fact, it is almost a demand to be given grace: in the Christian belief system, all one has to do is ask God for re-entry (with a true and penitent heart, of course) and one shall receive. But of course, one must feel ‘fallen’ or out of ‘grace’ in order to supplicate (with all the implications of ‘supplication’: on knees, bereft of agency, having given up power to a Higher Authority and all that).

Perhaps DSK will appeal to the public, later, for damage control, if his team feels that their ability to control the narrative is shifting away from them. But persons in power typically do not have to put themselves in such a bended-knee supplication position to the hoi polloi. Why should one ask for ‘re-entry’ if one inherently believes in one’s intrinsic right to be above the community of believers? There’s no need to sway that group’s mind, since it has no control over one’s position to begin with.



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. Apropos the popularity in America of the neoliberal conceptualization of citizenship as self-care (through honest hard work, of course):

    There is an "African" proverb that says: we stand tall because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.

    And then there is an African immigrant proverb that says: Americans work hard…on the backs of other people (Nafissatou Diallo and all other immigrants).

  2. Again, this is not to say that she, or any immigrant/poor/Other has no 'agency' whatever, but to point out what should be obvious: we may all be agents, but we don't all get to express, or deploy our will (or 'agency') in an equal manner. The more power and access, the greater one's ability to express one's agency, and greater the avenues for deploying one's agency.

    1. Neelika,
      You are right: there is agency and then there is agency. I read that and immediately knew what you meant.

      You are my voice of reason on this one. I am far too partial on this whole DSK cluster___. I have really appreciated your analysis. My own critique would not be nearly as balanced or clear-eyed. Crude, outdated Marxism (class politics) would have been detected in my words…so would have been a slight anti-Americanism.

      The struggle continues!

  3. Neelika, I like your account of why it is important now for Nafissatou Diallo is right to 'go public’. This is valuable insight.
    However, I am still uncomfortable with the idea that some people have more or less agency. It is like being more or less pregnant, or more or less dead. One either has agency or one IS dead. It only appears to be a continuum of ‘more or less’ according to the kinds of stories we tell, or ‘they’ tell, or she tells.

    So long as the analysis stays at the level of the individual, or the person, that is, at the lower end of the ‘levels of analysis’ scale, then it is possible to argue that she has limited or no agency.

    A structural account, which is what I advocate, and which this case reveals to us so clearly, would claim that it is the social relations that augment or amplify agency for some, and not for others. It would also claim that so long as someone acts with intention, and that this intention is interpretable, and meaningful, then that person has agency.
    I guess I am just a Weberian at heart. Our differences of interpretation come from different theoretical perspectives, and different commitments to ideas of agency and structure. I am an anthropologist, you are a Literature person (not sure how to represent this as an ‘-ist’ or an ‘-ology’. :-)

    There is no question that Diallo is a victim. But the fact that she has done reasonably well in the global economy of meaning through deploying her stories of victimhood implies that she is acting for herself, is motivated to do so and that we can interpret her action in reasonable ways. This, for Max Weber at least, means she has ‘agency’. Will it work? We don’t know yet, but the probabilities are not on her side.

    For me it is not an issue that she ‘lied’ to the immigration authorities in the US in search of assylum. She had to do that, and the system is set up to require a ‘lie’ in most cases. What is most interesting–clearly for you too–is that she has a story, and that her story is powerful.

    It may not be powerful enough, but the fact is, her story is her power. I should think this would be something we could agree on.

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