Thinking Care

Anti-racist spaces are messy sites of emotions. Emotions play a crucial role in political action. We can’t deny that we have strong emotional relationships with what we do and with whom we work. And yet, emotions are often not considered, at all, in anti-racist organizing. Emotions are usually relegated to the sphere of the private, or personal. However, they form, as Sara Ahmed points out, an important aspect of political life. Moral emotions, such as ‘care’, ‘compassion’, and ‘love’, especially give texture to politics, ideas of belonging, and ‘allyship’. So, why do anti-racist activists neglect the role that emotions play in organizing and building community?

I have been thinking about the kind of work that moral emotions do, specifically ‘care’, within White anti-racist activist spaces. ‘Caring’, which is considered a sign of moral outrage against injustice, performs important work. ‘Care’, as a moral ideal, pulls activists together, and is important to the formation and mobilization of social movements. White anti-racist activists, for instance, care because a situation is unfair, or because they believe discrimination is behaviour that should not belong in a ‘civilized’ country. Statements such as “I care about refugees,” “we should change Zwarte Piet, because it hurts Black people,” or narcissistic statements like “they are just like us,” are all indicative of a caring concern. Care is made politically significant whenever we call on society at large to care. Yet, despite the political role of care and its ability to gather and mobilize, ‘care’ within activism remains curiously unexamined.

My main concern is not what compels White activists to ‘care about’, or ‘feel toward’, Black people, rather I’m interested in what ‘caring about’ does. The ‘what’ that caring does, to riff of Sara Ahmed, puts certain bodies within reach, just as it extends other bodies into space. We could say that caring about orients certain bodies toward other bodies. Ahmed tells us that orientations are not casual—orientations matter. ‘Caring about’ fosters emotional attachments not only with broad political concepts such as ‘equality’, but also with objects of care.

Many initiatives in White anti-racist spaces are done on behalf of or in the name of racially oppressed people, and focus almost exclusively on giving ‘care’ and/or supporting. Because supportive practices of ‘care’ are considered good practice, and seen as furthering an anti-racist politics, they escape scrutiny. The question rarely, if ever, seems to rise whether the support offered is necessary, needed, wanted, or appreciated. We would be amiss to place acts of ‘support’ by (well-meaning) White people outside the political context of White supremacy. Historically, White people have imagined themselves as having a ‘moral duty’ to ‘help’ racialized people, without acknowledging the violence that such ‘care’ might entail. Practices of ‘care’ that fix racialized people as the objects of ‘care’ are “what allows whiteness to be done.”

Through the sentimental depiction of Black suffering, we all have been conditioned to relate to the emotionally-charged sensory stereotypes of Blacks in a distinct manner. Black ‘humanity’ has consequently become synonymous with, and often understood through, help and charity within popular imagination. This affective relation remains largely untroubled in anti-racist organizing. Black people are often reduced to their pain, and Black suffering is routinely instrumentalized as a means to ‘raise awareness’. Within this framework, “I care” isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. Julie Ellison warns us that “emotion makes racial distinctions.” My aim is to make visible the anti-Black dynamics in the intimate politics of care.

Care is a curious word. Its original meaning was “to be anxious, to grieve.” This sense is still very much present in the Dutch word for care, zorg—which also translates as burden. Care is often accompanied by an anxious worry. Consider the Dutch phrase for ‘to worry’, zorgen maken, which translates literally as ‘to make cares or burdens’. We might say that the act of caring has anxiety in it. There is a tension between the idealistic dedication that care announces and the anxiousness that care implies. Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher define care as “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.” Similarly, Karen Struening defines care “as a social practice that is essential to the maintenance and reproduction of society.” In both definitions, care is conceived of as a means to improve on, or reproduce—rather than undo—civil society.

We could say, based on the cited definitions, that practices of ‘care’ are modes of social organization: they (re)produce, maintain, and repair civic relations. White anti-racism is often conceptualized as a practice of care. Meaning, within White anti-racism the aim is often to repair society, if not the ‘world’, that is to make it so that everyone shares equally in the material, and cultural spoils. However, the notion of care as repair or redistribution introduces a number of problems. Redistribution does not necessarily challenge “the ‘value’ at the heart of capitalist production.” Lindon Barrett has taught us that value requires negativity and excess, which “invariably form the ground of possibilities for value.” What does a notion of care as repair mean for people who have been constructed as ‘deprived’, a problem? Do practices of ‘care’ always look at how people and spaces have ended up being ‘in need of care’?

Both Tronto/Fisher’s and Struening’s definition do not seem to trouble the very structures of the world and civil society, which reproduce, maintain, and fix Blackness as the negation—the outside of the world and civil society. Blackness serves as the medium “through which Whiteness, the sign of humanity, intelligence, and civilization, achieves coherence.” Both Tronto/Fisher and Struening elaborate an ethics of care that takes as its point of departure a universalized humanity. Here, Sylvia Wynter’s critique of liberal humanism might prove instructive in highlighting the limitations of such a point of departure. Wynter’s argument is that,

“liberal humanism is fundamentally inadequate at comprehending the humanity of late modernity’s structurally marginalized, genetically dysselected, and ‘narratively condemned’ populations.” [x]

A liberal humanist project “presumes the Black’s capacity for inhabiting rationality and evolved/modern human subjectivity, while ignoring how the white liberal humanist racial schema preemptively (and permanently) posits the Black as the ‘non-evolved’ and ‘dysselected’ figure of history.” Anti-Blackness has shaped, and continues to shape, profoundly the development of an ethics of care. To think an ethics of care and living within an anti-Black world forces us to raise questions concerning the foundation on which an ethics of care itself is narrated.

There is little evidence of such a structural rethinking within contemporary discourses on care. Uma Nayaran notes that much of the discourse on an ethics of care concentrate on the implications of interpersonal care relationships, rather than “the roles [care] has historically played in justifying relationships of power and domination between groups of people, such as colonizers and colonized.” Nayaran’s critique is a call to examine the practices of ‘care’ that developed under colonialism. She warns us that “care discourse can sometimes function ideologically, to justify or conceal relationships of power and domination.” Power works through intimacies and an ethics of care by way of the distribution and circulation of empathy, compassion, and even love. One poignant example is the fantasy that re-imagined Dutch imperialism as an ‘ethical’ obligation to ‘care’ for Indonesians. Interestingly, a sense of ‘ethical’ obligation was only felt toward Indonesia. What does it mean to offer ‘care’, or ‘feel toward’, in a context of colonial domination?

The Dutch ‘ethical policy’ and its practices of ‘care’ were motivated by a moral imperative and grounded in benevolence and compassion that allowed for a re-inscription of White supremacy. Both Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant have drawn attention to the opaque aspects of compassion. Ahmed notes that “compassion towards the other’s suffering might sustain the violence of appropriation, even when it seems to enable a different kind of proximity to others.” Similarly, Berlant remarks that “compassion is a term denoting privilege: the sufferer is over there. You, the compassionate one, have a resource that would alleviate someone else’s suffering.” Both care and compassion establish a spatial relation between a care-giving, compassionate subject and an object of care and compassion.

What the Dutch ‘ethical policy’ illustrates is that it is perfectly possible for Whites to act in racially oppressive, violent ways “while thinking of themselves as acting morally,” because the racial polity is premised on “a racialized moral psychology.” To return to Sylvia Wynter’s words, “[t]he ethics of being just and kind were the ethics born out of this relation.” The Dutch ‘ethical policy’ teaches us that care and compassion—being just and kind—might both be forms of (colonial) violence. Questions that should animate our thinking as political subjects are: How do we practice care, that does not fix marginalized people as objects of care, within a system of violence and unequal power relationships? How do we care for a life that isn’t recognized as a life worth living, or a life that is foreclosed statistically? How does a contemporary ethics of care stand in relation to historical forms of care, such as ‘colonial care’ or the ‘care’ extended to the enslaved? Is it ethical to be Human when “legacies of colonialism and slavery delimit black people as nonhuman” and leave us open to gratuitous violence?

Let’s consider another way in which ‘care’ has been articulated. In 2011, professor Henk den Heijer, a historian, drew, ‘after extensive archival research’, the conclusion that “[i]t was logical from a commercial point of view to treat slaves well.” He states,

“They were considered to be valuable. A good trader tried to get his slaves to the other side of the ocean in good condition to sell for a good price. Slavery is still morally objectionable, but that does not mean they were abused.”

The fact that the West India Company had fixed ‘standards of care’ for enslaved Africans did not and does not mitigate the conditions under which the enslaved were held. Whatever exercise of ‘care’ the enslaved received was synchronous with regimes of subjection. The question should be really what does ‘caring about’ do within the context of enslavement. Under a regime of terror, coercion and control became closely associated with a form of ‘care’ that was often inadequate, unreliable, and moreover deadly. Saidiya Hartman tells us that “the barbarism of slavery did not express itself singularly in the constitution of the slave as object but also in the forms of subjectivity and circumscribed humanity imputed to the enslaved.” Hartman further notes,

“Even when the entreaty made in the name of the public good acted minimally on the behalf of the enslaved, it did so, not surprisingly, by granting these limited entitlements in a manner that ‘recognized’ black humanity in accordance with minimal standards of existence. This truncated construction of the slave as person rather than lessening the constraints of chattel status enhanced them by making personhood coterminous with injury.”

Laws intended to ‘minimize’ cruelty “allowed masters to hide behind the law and ensured that their posture of care would remain a humane fiction.” The ‘care’ that master-enslavers extended to the enslaved emphasizes and enhances the fungibility of Black life; such a form of ‘care’ is not unsimilar to the care one might extend to a car, or a book, that one values.

Christina Sharpe’s theorization of ‘monstrous intimacies’ is instructive in helping “to think through the configurations of relations that arise out of domination and that continue to structure relations across race, sex, ethnicity, and nation,” and describe the relations of care that “intensif[y] the brutal exercise of power upon the captive body.” Sharpe defines monstrous intimacies as “a set of known and unknown performances and inhabited horrors, desires and positions produced, reproduced, circulated and transmitted, that are breathed in the air and often unacknowledged to be monstrous.”

Practices of care within intimacies that are monstrous did not and do not, as Christina Sharpe tells us, “confirm or confer humanity on the black suffering body.” Sharpe draws our attention to the fact that anti-Black violence structures the intimacies that emerge between White anti-racist activists and Black people, who engage in a ‘collective’ struggle against racism. Her theorization helps us trace how the Black body has been used to articulate White subjectivities and agency as coterminous with freedom.

Thinking Black freedom demands a critical engagement with what ‘care’ might look like in a world in which Black life is valued. To imagine revolutionary practices of care that foster and ensure the flourishing of Black life means to abandon, refuse, and destroy the ‘world’. Could we imagine practices of care that do not centre on repair, but on initiating “an epistemological break with the hegemonic common sense of both civil society and the left”? What Sylvia Wynter teaches us is that any such politics of care must begin with a critique of the Human, since the category ‘Human’ has been defined in contradistinction to Black life. An ethics of care that seek to repair civil society without taking into account “how the category of ‘human’ itself remains fundamentally unethical with respect to black people” only extends that originary violence against Black lives and allows it to be rewritten as ‘care’.

One thought on “Thinking Care

  1. Thank you for this excellent, insightful article. Is there not a parallel to be made between your analysis and the criticism of care voiced by people with disabilities – e.g., that ‘care’ can be an infantilizing, even dehumanizing practice that denies people their autonomy and agency? Is the basic problem with care as such, however, or with the liberal humanist version of it you so rightly criticize? Is care necessarily a trojan horse for such ‘well-meaning’ paternalistic, prejudiced and prejudicial, ideologies? Or is it possible to practice forms of care that break down domination and hierarchy, that transform and emancipate all of the people involved? Your criticism of the notion of care as ‘repair’ is very true. Can we think about repair in a more emancipatory way? If we think of oppression and exploitation in all of their forms as the ways in which our world is broken, then couldn’t care as mending require fighting to rid the world of oppression and exploitation, rather than trying to ‘fix’ the oppressed and exploited? And who is to do the ‘mending,’ if not the latter? And in doing so, won’t they teach everyone about care in a deeper way? Thank you again for this thought-provoking piece. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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