On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. As of the writing of this entry, there are 85.1 million confirmed cases and just over 1.8 million deaths worldwide, with the United States leading in both categories. The economic implications have been equally catastrophic. The US unemployment numbers hover around 12.6 million, with a disproportionate number of women and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) workers shouldering the downturn. The budget deficit is at an all-time high, and the disruptions to the global supply chain have exacted irreparable damage to small businesses. These nearly unprecedented conditions have exacerbated the already intolerable gross inequities in housing, health care, education, and welfare suffered disproportionately by the Black, Indigenous, Latinx, queer, and disabled communities. The pandemic has laid bare how the valences of care—its allocation, apportionment, and distribution—have always been imbricated with systems of governance and power.
In one of his first pandemic press conferences, Donald Trump framed COVID-19 as a “foreign virus” spread by international travelers who “seeded” viral clusters in “America” while also vowing to close borders and complete “the wall” (B. Bennett 2020). The racist and xenophobic notion that Americans must be protected (cared for) against foreign contagions is endemic to its founding, whereby the valorization of freedom for white settlers was conditioned upon the dispossession of Black and Indigenous land and labor. Genocide and slavery set the conditions for who was perceived and constructed as a legitimate subject of care and who was conscripted into providing the labor of care (Stoler 2004; Nakano Glenn 2010; Stevenson 2014; Sharpe 2016; Raghuram 2019; Segrest 2020). In an effort to decenter this history from the discussion of care, I focus on those theories and practices that situate care as a means of anticolonial and antiracist struggle—which is to say, on the work of Indigenous, Black, disabled, and queer of color and transnational feminists. In so doing, I draw inspiration from Saidiya Hartman’s claim that “care is the antidote to violence” (Maclear 2018, 603).
This compendium of work emerged in tension with notions of care theorized by white liberal feminists who critiqued the sexist and masculinist notions of autonomy and independence prevalent in theories of justice but failed to problematize the racial and heteronormative assumptions of the white female subject (e.g., Gilligan 1982; Noddings 1984). In addition to its conceptual aporias, the lack of intersectional analysis erased the historic role of Black, Indigenous, and migrant women’s care labor in the service of white women’s children and households and how such dynamics of power continue to condition access to and quality of care (Nakano Glenn 1992, 2010). Materialist feminists and political scientists Joan Tronto and Bernice Fischer troubled the assumptions of liberal feminism, defining care more capaciously as “a species of activity that includes everything we do to maintain, contain, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” (Fisher and Tronto 1990, 126–36). While at times taken to task for being overly broad, Tronto and Fischer’s work is generally upheld for not only calling into question the white middle-class woman as the subject of care and the conflation of feminine, feminist, and mother within heteronormative theorizations of “woman” but also its materialist analyses of care work as a form of social reproduction.
Black feminists discuss how the feminist analytic of social reproduction is necessary but also grossly insufficient for mapping the intricacies of power, patriarchy, and personhood. More specifically, they developed cogent analyses of how their (care) labors were erased not only within white feminism but also by the male-dominated discourses of Marxist theorists (including the Black radical tradition). Hartman, for example, discusses how the category of labor itself “insufficiently accounts for slavery” and how the (presumed male) figure of the “black worker” fails to recognize the “value produced by and extracted from enslaved women”—and how both constructs erase Black women’s bodies as “the definitional sites of racial slavery” (2016, 168–69). On this point, she is worth quoting at length: “The captive female body… could be converted into cash, speculated and traded as a commodity, worked to death, taken, tortured, seeded, and propagated like any other crop, or murdered. The value produced by and extracted from enslaved women included productive labor—their labors as farm workers, cotton pickers, tobacco hands, and rice cultivators—and their reproductive capacities created ‘future increase’ for farms and plantations and human commodities for markets, yoking the prospect of racial slavery to their bodies. Even the unborn figured into the reproductive calculus of the institution” (169). Hartman’s analysis reveals how the structure of slavery and forced servitude not only confound the categories of social reproduction and domestic labor but also compound Black women’s oppression. She argues that the “afterlife of slavery” persists in multiple forms, including in the extractive and dispossessive relations of domestic labor that relegate Black women to the margins. Transnational feminist and geographer Parvati Raghuram similarly accounts for how care labor continues to be shaped by “racialized encounters” (2019, 618): (1) the ongoing racialization of care workers, (2) the mobility of care workers (i.e., migrants who move as domestic workers), (3) the extraction of care from racialized majority populations by elites, and (4) the globalization of the care industry all evidence the different valuations of care labor based on the racialization of care workers.
The work of social reproduction and/or feminists of color helped move analyses of care as an ethic, value, disposition, or virtue toward understandings of care as a labor practice and political theory. They extend analyses of state care systems that refract dominant arrangements of power and governance and thereby limit access to social benefits (e.g., welfare, Medicare, Medicaid) while continuing to extract the (care) labor of oppressed peoples. Scholars such as Eileen Boris, Jennifer Klein, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, for example, detail how the exclusions of major social programs such as the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Housing Act disproportionately impact poor and working-class women of color, denying not only the protections of state care but also the ability to care for their own. Disability justice advocates (e.g., Patty Berne, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Mia Mingus) experience similar exclusions, working across communities to create spaces of care through the development of intricate care webs and systems of mutual aid.
In sum, the work of QTBIPOC and/or disabled theorists (e.g., Hazel Carby, Grace Chang, Saidiya Hartman, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Lee Boggs, Audre Lorde, Chandra Mohanty, Premilla Nadasen, Hortense Spillers) critiques notions of care that (1) presume the white middle-class woman as subject; (2) deny the historic and ongoing labors of service and servitude provided by Black, Indigenous, and migrant women in white women’s homes; (3) fail to address the heteronormative constructions of “women” and “home”; and (4) theorize the domestic sphere as discrete from the public domain. By contrast, these scholars engage care as a practice and politics aimed at resisting the gendered, biopolitical regimes of settler colonialism and racial capitalism in ways that are often deemed as threatening. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, for example, blurs the lines between care as a practice, as a queer embodiment, and as a politics of writing: “She who refuses to reproduce property reveals a dangerous desire for something different. She who refuses to reproduce properly bears the mark of the alternative, the mark of the criminal, the mark of the terrorist. She who refuses to reproduce property must be busy teaching us something new. She who refuses to reproduce the status quo threatens to produce a radically different world” (2010, 13–14). Indigenous feminists (e.g., Joanne Barker, Jodi Byrd, Jennifer Denetdale, Mishuana Goeman, Rebecca Jane Hall, Audra Simpson, and Melanie Yazzie) further complicate analyses of care through an anticolonial politics of gender and sexuality grounded in Indigenous relations to land, sovereignty, and self-determination. While they also leverage critiques of social reproduction (an analytic limited to the dialectics of capitalist production and reproduction), they do so through the erasures of noncapitalist or subsistence modes of being that are fundamental to Indigenous lifeways.
In particular, since the dispossession of Indigenous peoples was/is predicated on the theft of land as relation, not as property (an understanding that is often missed in analyses of social reproduction, even antiracist ones), Indigenous feminists call attention to how the event of land theft is tied to a broader settler logic and structure that thieves relationality as a mode of kinship and care. The Indigenous political project is, therefore, about registering the import of women’s labor not to capitalist (re)production but rather to nurture and sustain lifeways that refuse productivist logics altogether, particularly as the ongoing violences of capitalist accumulation are continually made manifest on the bodies of Indigenous women.
Mohawk feminist Audra Simpson, for instance, details how Indigenous dispossession is enfleshed, fundamentally “born by the living, the dead, and the disappeared corporealities of Native women” (2016, 16). She shows that this is because Indigenous women have been historically “rendered less valuable” because they represent “land, reproduction, Indigenous kinship and governance” (16) and seen as inherently dangerous because their very existence threatens the heteropatriarchal norms of property, personhood, and the heteronormative family. Thus, in ways that are related to but different from the subjugation of Black women, Indigenous women represent the gendered afterlife of settler invasion, whereby their ongoing care for land and communities is structured as threatening.
Today, one in three Indigenous women is a victim of rape, and the lands, waters, and other-than-human relations of Indigenous peoples are incessantly violated. These violences are coconstitutive; the same settler logic perceives Indigenous women and land as nothing more than “matter to be extracted from, used, sullied, taken from, over and over again… in a great march to accumulate surplus” (A. Simpson 2016, 15). Thus, the nineteenth-century imperative to “kill the Indian and save the man”—set in motion by General Richard H. Pratt, first superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School (Pratt 1973, 260)—manifested in ways that explicitly targeted Indigenous women as well as the expansive relations of making kin: child abduction, religious conversion, dissolution of land into property, imposed citizenship, enforced attendance at boarding and residential schools, forbidding the use of Indigenous languages, issuing of individual land titles, and coercion into heteronormative marriage and monogamy. In other words, “saving the man” was not simply sexist but a deeply misogynist project. Nevertheless, white women played a critical role in this campaign, serving as missionaries, boarding school teachers, domestic overseers, and child abductors, acting as the saviors and caretakers of the settler state (see M. Jacobs 1999, 2009).
As the global pandemic continues to unfold, questions of care—who is “worthy” of care, who can access care, and whose labor will be conscripted and extracted to care for others—reveal the ongoing salience of the foundational exclusions. Given this history, contemporary antiracist, anticolonial, Black, Indigenous, and other feminist and queer scholars continue to organize around the revaluing of care as a politics of refusal, one that rejects the exploitative relations of racial capitalism and settler colonialism and asserts, instead, care as a praxis of relationality and kinship critical to the development of just and liberatory futures (e.g., Vora quoted in Boris and Parreñas 2010; Yazzie 2018).
The assertion of care as a praxis extends beyond theorizing about violence and exploitation and engages the purposeful building of coalitions and networks of human and other-than-human kinship. Whether through the “care webs” articulated by queer disability justice activists or the kinship networks of Indigenous water protectors, care remains a central organizing node across social movements. The operating assumption is that modes of care that sustain and reproduce constellations of solidarity and connection fundamentally threaten racial capitalist, settler colonial logics of violence and disconnection.