Tiana Reid | ECONOMIES OF CARE

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The domestic is messy territory.

It can refer simply to the home (which we know is in fact not at all a simple place), domestic work (both paid and unpaid), domestic workers (often immigrants), the internal territory of a nation-state (as in Canadian politics), and much, much more. As a verb, to domesticate can mean to tame, to cultivate, to subdue and to stay at home. There are so many possible ways to approach the rich conceptual landscape of “domestic.” that figure who does housework that is not considered work, that worker who is not considered a worker, that subject of history who is an “outlaw” because she does not have the law’s protection. And black women, who limn Moten’s impossible domestic, are not often considered women even as they do the labour considered most feminized—caretaking, child-rearing, cooking and cleaning. What is often called “women’s work,” yes, even white women’s work, is time and time again, disparaged and dismissed so much so that
 


In other words, whichever signification you pick up on, like most things, the domestic is racialized and gendered. When examining the violent history of the United States, black women’s domestic labour—which spans the categories of enslaved, paid, and unpaid labour—prods at the category of housework. During the period of American slavery, the white home opened up the enslaved woman both to intense yet mundane physical drudgery and forms of sexual violence that would persist after the formal end of slavery. In this sense, the domestic offers a vexed terrain for engaging questions of enclosure, care, labour, immigration and the home.
Image
The position of the domestic, a racialized and gendered figure indexing the long history of black women’s labour, links the time of slavery to its afterlife. The domestic is a modality through which gendered forms of care become deemed work, labour or care, often depending on the discursive, political or intellectual argument. We might think of the Italian “Wages for Housework” movement that, beginning in the 1970s, attempted to advocate for the compensation of unpaid housework, or And yet, the figure of the domestic throws several discursive modes into crisis: the possibility of union organizing, social reproduction, entanglement of labour and care, ideals of femininity, the assumed hermeticism of the public and private, modes of intimacy formed on the job.
 


But the domestic is not mere metaphor or theoretical keyword. She is flesh and body. The domestic insists on its expansion, crucially signaling domestic work—and then domestic worker. We cannot think the domestic without thinking of domestic work without thinking of the domestic worker. The domestic worker walks the line between work and life and the personal and the political. And in that fleshy boundary pushing, domestic workers index both lived experience and political, economic and social struggle.
 
 


Domestic workers, of course, also have a legal definition. In Ontario, domestic workers are defined as those who work for pay in a home. According to the province’s Ministry of Labour, “They do things such as housekeeping, or provide care, supervision or personal assistance to children or people who are elderly, ill or disabled.” I provide the language of the state here in order to show how messiness attempts to be contained and regulated. Improved legislation is important but as literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has said, law is not justice.
 


(and countless more) have been campaigning for years to bring attention to the invisible labour of nannies, elderly caregivers and housekeepers. Through publishing articles, organizing protests, and spreading information, these organizations and campaigns not only make the intellectual, creative and manual labour of domestic workers visible but they also provide necessary resources to caregivers about their rights (about hours of work, overtime, minimum wage, vacations, injuries, discrimination, et cetera), which are nonetheless difficult to enforce. Some more traditional forms of labour organizing have long had difficulty seeing domestic workers as workers—or rather, as organizable workers—because of their lack of a conventional workplace. How to organize workers in disparate households?
Image
 


The history of domestic work in Canada is also an alternate history of both migrant work and women’s work. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1950s, domestics in Canada were largely made up of European migrants. In the 1950s, after the introduction of the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, Canada began admitting more Caribbean migrant women from colonized countries, that is to say, the British Caribbean. Under the terms of the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, “workers could apply for landed immigrant status after one year of live-in service. Caribbean governments coordinated their actions according to the Canadian regulations,” write Ping-Chun Hsiung and Katherine Nichol in a 2010 essay. “A caveat in the agreement stated that any women found unsuitable for work (i.e., pregnant) would be sent back to their home nation at the expense of the home government.” This shift made domestic work nearly synonymous with racialized women. And by the late twentieth and early 21st century, a large number of workers are now from the Philippines. In November 2014, Canada quietly ended its Live-In Caregiver Program, placing foreign caregivers under the purview of the government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, meaning that pathways to legal residency are ever more strained, emphasizing just how disposable racialized and feminized domestic work is.
 
 


My black grandmother moved from Jamaica to Canada in the 1970s. Her sons, one of them would become my dad, followed a few years after. Moten might say they were “sent.” “To be sent” is a figure of speech symbolic of how a letter is sent. But it also, when paired with an object, suggests an intense emotion, an ecstasy. As in: this song sent me. As in: she was sent from above. There is no destination for this sending, only the process and the practice of the sending. This particular diasporic sending, though, involved my grandmother cleaning homes for those with more money than her. She eventually became a nurse’s assistant, even though what she really wanted to become was a nurse. Though she was never a formal organizer, she does everything to ward off isolation.
 
Image
She masks her depression with endless domestic tasks. At my grandmother’s in Mississauga, Ontario, I am usually sitting around the kitchen table while she cooks or doing the dishes. When she cooks, she reveals secrets. One is that when she’s feeling unwell she’ll take a shower, get all dressed up, take the bus, and ride the entire subway line—back and forth. I marvel at our disparate reactions to being bound to the world, to living amongst others: she finds comfort and I get shook. My wonder congeals into a particular detail. “Grandma,” I ask, “but how do you even get in the shower when you’re not feeling good?” She says nothing, and smiles.


In other words, domestic work in Canada is also foreign labour. Domestic work sometimes feels foreign to those of us who are never done with it. An acknowledgement of who does most of the domestic work in this country shows us how the domestic can be even against its definition. That is to say, the domestic almost always contains its antonym: the foreign.
 


In it she argues that the domestic, by way of a constructed and gendered polarity with the foreign, has “a double meaning that not only links the familial household to the nation but also imagines both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.” While some scholars focus on the civilizing and harmonious role a stable home offers imperial domination and statecraft, we also know that racialized women’s labour becomes problematic. Poor women and non-white women (and the intersections of the two) have long worked both outside of the home in order to provide for their families and their own livelihoods and inside homes—homes their own and the homes of others. the attempt to contain the home’s relationship to the world is a way to quell resistance and the practice of freedom. Davis shows the forms of work that are less surveilled by the managers of capital; the home is where freedom is worked on. Under the transatlantic slave trade, the typical denigration of the domestic space is converted into something a little more complicated: a pseudo refuge, a flight in captivity, a makeshift runaway network, a laboratory for liberation.


In other words, freedom is practiced in the domestic. “her freedom struggle remains opaque, untranslatable into the lexicon of the political. She provides so much, yet rarely does she thrive. It seems that her role has been fixed and that her role is as a provider of care, which is the very mode of her exploitation and indifferent use by the world, a world blind to her gifts, her intellect, her talents.”


Domestic work acts as a hinge from slavery to nominal freedom, fostering a historical connection known as the afterlife of slavery, indentureship and servitude but also gestures to the importance of domestic work as providing funds and material support for internationalist revolutionary activity. The categories of labour, race and gender must be thought in the longue durée, a construction constantly sedimented over and over.
Image
 


The conditions of domestic work walk the line between work and life, personal and political, individual and collective, slavery and liberation, organized and unorganized labour, domestic and foreign. Because domestic workers are not easily categorizable, they constitute something like a bad example. And I mean that, for lack of a better word, in a good way. Instead of thinking of the bad example as an inherently negative characteristic or condition, I am thinking of it as a necessary tool as we continue to map out our political and ethical commitments. I am interested in what bad examples might disclose in performing the work of the example to a different end, one that is not grounded in the location of the black woman’s work as the preeminent site of criticism, futurity and civilization. There are many putative bad examples of the mother, say, the figure of the prostitute, the barren, the unproductive, the welfare queen, the teen mom, but I don’t only want to stick with these subaltern figures as a critique of discourses of pathology. I want to think about the conditions under which these examples are bad. They are “bad” because they taint the universal; they fail to fully generate a theoretical possibility. Perhaps the bad example, as a failed performance with a modest reach, is the example that exists only for itself, only for the sake of its exemplarity. The bad example refuses to get beyond itself.
 
The domestic is messy territory.

It can refer simply to the home (which we know is in fact not at all a simple place), domestic work (both paid and unpaid), domestic workers (often immigrants), the internal territory of a nation-state (as in Canadian politics), and much, much more. As a verb, to domesticate can mean to tame, to cultivate, to subdue and to stay at home. There are so many possible ways to approach the rich conceptual landscape of “domestic.” that figure who does housework that is not considered work, that worker who is not considered a worker, that subject of history who is an “outlaw” because she does not have the law’s protection. And black women, who limn Moten’s impossible domestic, are not often considered women even as they do the labour considered most feminized—caretaking, child-rearing, cooking and cleaning. What is often called “women’s work,” yes, even white women’s work, is time and time again, disparaged and dismissed so much so that
 


In other words, whichever signification you pick up on, like most things, the domestic is racialized and gendered. When examining the violent history of the United States, black women’s domestic labour—which spans the categories of enslaved, paid, and unpaid labour—prods at the category of housework. During the period of American slavery, the white home opened up the enslaved woman both to intense yet mundane physical drudgery and forms of sexual violence that would persist after the formal end of slavery. In this sense, the domestic offers a vexed terrain for engaging questions of enclosure, care, labour, immigration and the home.
 
Image
 
 
The position of the domestic, a racialized and gendered figure indexing the long history of black women’s labour, links the time of slavery to its afterlife. The domestic is a modality through which gendered forms of care become deemed work, labour or care, often depending on the discursive, political or intellectual argument. We might think of the Italian “Wages for Housework” movement that, beginning in the 1970s, attempted to advocate for the compensation of unpaid housework, or And yet, the figure of the domestic throws several discursive modes into crisis: the possibility of union organizing, social reproduction, entanglement of labour and care, ideals of femininity, the assumed hermeticism of the public and private, modes of intimacy formed on the job.
 


But the domestic is not mere metaphor or theoretical keyword. She is flesh and body. The domestic insists on its expansion, crucially signaling domestic work—and then domestic worker. We cannot think the domestic without thinking of domestic work without thinking of the domestic worker. The domestic worker walks the line between work and life and the personal and the political. And in that fleshy boundary pushing, domestic workers index both lived experience and political, economic and social struggle.
 
 


Domestic workers, of course, also have a legal definition. In Ontario, domestic workers are defined as those who work for pay in a home. According to the province’s Ministry of Labour, “They do things such as housekeeping, or provide care, supervision or personal assistance to children or people who are elderly, ill or disabled.” I provide the language of the state here in order to show how messiness attempts to be contained and regulated. Improved legislation is important but as literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has said, law is not justice.
 
 
Image
 


(and countless more) have been campaigning for years to bring attention to the invisible labour of nannies, elderly caregivers and housekeepers. Through publishing articles, organizing protests, and spreading information, these organizations and campaigns not only make the intellectual, creative and manual labour of domestic workers visible but they also provide necessary resources to caregivers about their rights (about hours of work, overtime, minimum wage, vacations, injuries, discrimination, et cetera), which are nonetheless difficult to enforce. Some more traditional forms of labour organizing have long had difficulty seeing domestic workers as workers—or rather, as organizable workers—because of their lack of a conventional workplace. How to organize workers in disparate households?
 
 


The history of domestic work in Canada is also an alternate history of both migrant work and women’s work. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1950s, domestics in Canada were largely made up of European migrants. In the 1950s, after the introduction of the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, Canada began admitting more Caribbean migrant women from colonized countries, that is to say, the British Caribbean. Under the terms of the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, “workers could apply for landed immigrant status after one year of live-in service. Caribbean governments coordinated their actions according to the Canadian regulations,” write Ping-Chun Hsiung and Katherine Nichol in a 2010 essay. “A caveat in the agreement stated that any women found unsuitable for work (i.e., pregnant) would be sent back to their home nation at the expense of the home government.” This shift made domestic work nearly synonymous with racialized women. And by the late twentieth and early 21st century, a large number of workers are now from the Philippines. In November 2014, Canada quietly ended its Live-In Caregiver Program, placing foreign caregivers under the purview of the government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, meaning that pathways to legal residency are ever more strained, emphasizing just how disposable racialized and feminized domestic work is.
 
 


My black grandmother moved from Jamaica to Canada in the 1970s. Her sons, one of them would become my dad, followed a few years after. Moten might say they were “sent.” “To be sent” is a figure of speech symbolic of how a letter is sent. But it also, when paired with an object, suggests an intense emotion, an ecstasy. As in: this song sent me. As in: she was sent from above. There is no destination for this sending, only the process and the practice of the sending. This particular diasporic sending, though, involved my grandmother cleaning homes for those with more money than her. She eventually became a nurse’s assistant, even though what she really wanted to become was a nurse. Though she was never a formal organizer, she does everything to ward off isolation.
 
 
Image
 
 
She masks her depression with endless domestic tasks. At my grandmother’s in Mississauga, Ontario, I am usually sitting around the kitchen table while she cooks or doing the dishes. When she cooks, she reveals secrets. One is that when she’s feeling unwell she’ll take a shower, get all dressed up, take the bus, and ride the entire subway line—back and forth. I marvel at our disparate reactions to being bound to the world, to living amongst others: she finds comfort and I get shook. My wonder congeals into a particular detail. “Grandma,” I ask, “but how do you even get in the shower when you’re not feeling good?” She says nothing, and smiles.


In other words, domestic work in Canada is also foreign labour. Domestic work sometimes feels foreign to those of us who are never done with it. An acknowledgement of who does most of the domestic work in this country shows us how the domestic can be even against its definition. That is to say, the domestic almost always contains its antonym: the foreign.
 


In it she argues that the domestic, by way of a constructed and gendered polarity with the foreign, has “a double meaning that not only links the familial household to the nation but also imagines both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.” While some scholars focus on the civilizing and harmonious role a stable home offers imperial domination and statecraft, we also know that racialized women’s labour becomes problematic. Poor women and non-white women (and the intersections of the two) have long worked both outside of the home in order to provide for their families and their own livelihoods and inside homes—homes their own and the homes of others. the attempt to contain the home’s relationship to the world is a way to quell resistance and the practice of freedom. Davis shows the forms of work that are less surveilled by the managers of capital; the home is where freedom is worked on. Under the transatlantic slave trade, the typical denigration of the domestic space is converted into something a little more complicated: a pseudo refuge, a flight in captivity, a makeshift runaway network, a laboratory for liberation.
 
Image
 


In other words, freedom is practiced in the domestic. “her freedom struggle remains opaque, untranslatable into the lexicon of the political. She provides so much, yet rarely does she thrive. It seems that her role has been fixed and that her role is as a provider of care, which is the very mode of her exploitation and indifferent use by the world, a world blind to her gifts, her intellect, her talents.”


Domestic work acts as a hinge from slavery to nominal freedom, fostering a historical connection known as the afterlife of slavery, indentureship and servitude but also gestures to the importance of domestic work as providing funds and material support for internationalist revolutionary activity. The categories of labour, race and gender must be thought in the longue durée, a construction constantly sedimented over and over.
 
 


The conditions of domestic work walk the line between work and life, personal and political, individual and collective, slavery and liberation, organized and unorganized labour, domestic and foreign. Because domestic workers are not easily categorizable, they constitute something like a bad example. And I mean that, for lack of a better word, in a good way. Instead of thinking of the bad example as an inherently negative characteristic or condition, I am thinking of it as a necessary tool as we continue to map out our political and ethical commitments. I am interested in what bad examples might disclose in performing the work of the example to a different end, one that is not grounded in the location of the black woman’s work as the preeminent site of criticism, futurity and civilization. There are many putative bad examples of the mother, say, the figure of the prostitute, the barren, the unproductive, the welfare queen, the teen mom, but I don’t only want to stick with these subaltern figures as a critique of discourses of pathology. I want to think about the conditions under which these examples are bad. They are “bad” because they taint the universal; they fail to fully generate a theoretical possibility. Perhaps the bad example, as a failed performance with a modest reach, is the example that exists only for itself, only for the sake of its exemplarity. The bad example refuses to get beyond itself.
 
The domestic is messy territory.

It can refer simply to the home (which we know is in fact not at all a simple place), domestic work (both paid and unpaid), domestic workers (often immigrants), the internal territory of a nation-state (as in Canadian politics), and much, much more. As a verb, to domesticate can mean to tame, to cultivate, to subdue and to stay at home. There are so many possible ways to approach the rich conceptual landscape of “domestic.” that figure who does housework that is not considered work, that worker who is not considered a worker, that subject of history who is an “outlaw” because she does not have the law’s protection. And black women, who limn Moten’s impossible domestic, are not often considered women even as they do the labour considered most feminized—caretaking, child-rearing, cooking and cleaning. What is often called “women’s work,” yes, even white women’s work, is time and time again, disparaged and dismissed so much so that


In other words, whichever signification you pick up on, like most things, the domestic is racialized and gendered. When examining the violent history of the United States, black women’s domestic labour—which spans the categories of enslaved, paid, and unpaid labour—prods at the category of housework. During the period of American slavery, the white home opened up the enslaved woman both to intense yet mundane physical drudgery and forms of sexual violence that would persist after the formal end of slavery. In this sense, the domestic offers a vexed terrain for engaging questions of enclosure, care, labour, immigration and the home.
Image
The position of the domestic, a racialized and gendered figure indexing the long history of black women’s labour, links the time of slavery to its afterlife. The domestic is a modality through which gendered forms of care become deemed work, labour or care, often depending on the discursive, political or intellectual argument. We might think of the Italian “Wages for Housework” movement that, beginning in the 1970s, attempted to advocate for the compensation of unpaid housework, or And yet, the figure of the domestic throws several discursive modes into crisis: the possibility of union organizing, social reproduction, entanglement of labour and care, ideals of femininity, the assumed hermeticism of the public and private, modes of intimacy formed on the job.


But the domestic is not mere metaphor or theoretical keyword. She is flesh and body. The domestic insists on its expansion, crucially signaling domestic work—and then domestic worker. We cannot think the domestic without thinking of domestic work without thinking of the domestic worker. The domestic worker walks the line between work and life and the personal and the political. And in that fleshy boundary pushing, domestic workers index both lived experience and political, economic and social struggle.


Domestic workers, of course, also have a legal definition. In Ontario, domestic workers are defined as those who work for pay in a home. According to the province’s Ministry of Labour, “They do things such as housekeeping, or provide care, supervision or personal assistance to children or people who are elderly, ill or disabled.” I provide the language of the state here in order to show how messiness attempts to be contained and regulated. Improved legislation is important but as literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has said, law is not justice.
Image


(and countless more) have been campaigning for years to bring attention to the invisible labour of nannies, elderly caregivers and housekeepers. Through publishing articles, organizing protests, and spreading information, these organizations and campaigns not only make the intellectual, creative and manual labour of domestic workers visible but they also provide necessary resources to caregivers about their rights (about hours of work, overtime, minimum wage, vacations, injuries, discrimination, et cetera), which are nonetheless difficult to enforce. Some more traditional forms of labour organizing have long had difficulty seeing domestic workers as workers—or rather, as organizable workers—because of their lack of a conventional workplace. How to organize workers in disparate households?


The history of domestic work in Canada is also an alternate history of both migrant work and women’s work. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1950s, domestics in Canada were largely made up of European migrants. In the 1950s, after the introduction of the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, Canada began admitting more Caribbean migrant women from colonized countries, that is to say, the British Caribbean. Under the terms of the Caribbean Domestic Scheme, “workers could apply for landed immigrant status after one year of live-in service. Caribbean governments coordinated their actions according to the Canadian regulations,” write Ping-Chun Hsiung and Katherine Nichol in a 2010 essay. “A caveat in the agreement stated that any women found unsuitable for work (i.e., pregnant) would be sent back to their home nation at the expense of the home government.” This shift made domestic work nearly synonymous with racialized women. And by the late twentieth and early 21st century, a large number of workers are now from the Philippines. In November 2014, Canada quietly ended its Live-In Caregiver Program, placing foreign caregivers under the purview of the government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, meaning that pathways to legal residency are ever more strained, emphasizing just how disposable racialized and feminized domestic work is.


My black grandmother moved from Jamaica to Canada in the 1970s. Her sons, one of them would become my dad, followed a few years after. Moten might say they were “sent.” “To be sent” is a figure of speech symbolic of how a letter is sent. But it also, when paired with an object, suggests an intense emotion, an ecstasy. As in: this song sent me. As in: she was sent from above. There is no destination for this sending, only the process and the practice of the sending. This particular diasporic sending, though, involved my grandmother cleaning homes for those with more money than her. She eventually became a nurse’s assistant, even though what she really wanted to become was a nurse. Though she was never a formal organizer, she does everything to ward off isolation.
Image
She masks her depression with endless domestic tasks. At my grandmother’s in Mississauga, Ontario, I am usually sitting around the kitchen table while she cooks or doing the dishes. When she cooks, she reveals secrets. One is that when she’s feeling unwell she’ll take a shower, get all dressed up, take the bus, and ride the entire subway line—back and forth. I marvel at our disparate reactions to being bound to the world, to living amongst others: she finds comfort and I get shook. My wonder congeals into a particular detail. “Grandma,” I ask, “but how do you even get in the shower when you’re not feeling good?” She says nothing, and smiles.


In other words, domestic work in Canada is also foreign labour. Domestic work sometimes feels foreign to those of us who are never done with it. An acknowledgement of who does most of the domestic work in this country shows us how the domestic can be even against its definition. That is to say, the domestic almost always contains its antonym: the foreign.


In it she argues that the domestic, by way of a constructed and gendered polarity with the foreign, has “a double meaning that not only links the familial household to the nation but also imagines both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.” While some scholars focus on the civilizing and harmonious role a stable home offers imperial domination and statecraft, we also know that racialized women’s labour becomes problematic. Poor women and non-white women (and the intersections of the two) have long worked both outside of the home in order to provide for their families and their own livelihoods and inside homes—homes their own and the homes of others. the attempt to contain the home’s relationship to the world is a way to quell resistance and the practice of freedom. Davis shows the forms of work that are less surveilled by the managers of capital; the home is where freedom is worked on. Under the transatlantic slave trade, the typical denigration of the domestic space is converted into something a little more complicated: a pseudo refuge, a flight in captivity, a makeshift runaway network, a laboratory for liberation.
Image


In other words, freedom is practiced in the domestic. “her freedom struggle remains opaque, untranslatable into the lexicon of the political. She provides so much, yet rarely does she thrive. It seems that her role has been fixed and that her role is as a provider of care, which is the very mode of her exploitation and indifferent use by the world, a world blind to her gifts, her intellect, her talents.”


Domestic work acts as a hinge from slavery to nominal freedom, fostering a historical connection known as the afterlife of slavery, indentureship and servitude but also gestures to the importance of domestic work as providing funds and material support for internationalist revolutionary activity. The categories of labour, race and gender must be thought in the longue durée, a construction constantly sedimented over and over.


The conditions of domestic work walk the line between work and life, personal and political, individual and collective, slavery and liberation, organized and unorganized labour, domestic and foreign. Because domestic workers are not easily categorizable, they constitute something like a bad example. And I mean that, for lack of a better word, in a good way. Instead of thinking of the bad example as an inherently negative characteristic or condition, I am thinking of it as a necessary tool as we continue to map out our political and ethical commitments. I am interested in what bad examples might disclose in performing the work of the example to a different end, one that is not grounded in the location of the black woman’s work as the preeminent site of criticism, futurity and civilization. There are many putative bad examples of the mother, say, the figure of the prostitute, the barren, the unproductive, the welfare queen, the teen mom, but I don’t only want to stick with these subaltern figures as a critique of discourses of pathology. I want to think about the conditions under which these examples are bad. They are “bad” because they taint the universal; they fail to fully generate a theoretical possibility. Perhaps the bad example, as a failed performance with a modest reach, is the example that exists only for itself, only for the sake of its exemplarity. The bad example refuses to get beyond itself.


TIANA REID | writer, editor at The New Inquiry, and PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. | tianareid.com


TIANA REID | writer, editor at The New Inquiry, and PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. | tianareid.com
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