This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.
Contrary to the popular saying, we are not all in the same boat. If we are learning one thing from the current health crisis, it is that we can no longer continue to collectively ignore systemic inequalities.
The COVID-19 crisis has changed everything, and we’re all shocked by levels of death and disease never before seen in our lives, notes African-American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in her podcast Intersectionality Matters.
Indeed, this pandemic and the responses it has engendered have accentuated the structural violence that our societies have inherited from slavery and colonialism.
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Sexual and racial division of labour
Let us recall some facts. In Canada, white women earn 67 per cent of the salary of white men, while racialized women make 59 per cent of that salary, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Black and racialized women face a gender- and race-based wage gap as a result of a gendered and racialized labour market.
This reality is a global phenomenon where Black and racialized people provide cheap labour for the capitalist system.
To explain this reality, many have tried to put into words the overrepresentation of Black and racialized women in the care professions, more specifically in long-term care homes and other care services. Employment counselling centres, which have a large immigrant clientele, maintain that immigrant women’s careers are influenced by various factors, such as immigration status and the traditional social roles occupied by women.
We argue that this situation must be analyzed systemically. Black and racialized women, even when born in Quebec, face systemic barriers to employment that are also linked to various forms of discrimination, based on gender, race, class, and citizenship. Because of this discrimination, they find themselves overrepresented in “traditionally female” jobs, often devalued, underpaid, and very precarious.
However, in government speeches and in media coverage about the impacts of COVID-19, this reality is made invisible. Some of the people called heroines today for taking care of our elders include Haitian women who were “unwanted” when crossing Roxham Road during the 2017 migrant crisis.
Black women, stereotypes and care work
In the case of Black women, job insecurity and the wage gap go hand in hand with racist and sexist stereotypes imposed on them in their relationship to caregiving. These stereotypes, which date back to the time of slavery, essentialize them in terms of their work skills and even being Black.
Recall the stereotype of the Black “mammy,” still very present in the collective North American imagination, which served to romanticize relations between slave and master. This stereotype represents the Black woman as a maternal figure, a loyal and devoted domestic worker who can tolerate anything and never gets tired. The image of the Black caregiver whose self-worth is tied to caring for others is undoubtedly an extension of the figure (fantasy?) of the famous Black mammy.
In this regard, the head of an employment counselling centre in Montreal said, in reference to Haitian women caregivers, “Culturally, they value themselves by taking care of others.” This argument serves to absolve society and the dominant group of their responsibility for maintaining the power structures that perpetuate racism, discrimination and sexism experienced by Black women. It amounts to saying, “If they do these precarious jobs, it is because they like it.” Here we see the mechanism by which victims bear the brunt of the violence they suffer. Black communities are among the poorest in Quebec and Canada, and if Black women largely occupy the dangerous and precarious jobs of caregiving, it is more by constraint than by choice.
The words of African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston resonate more than ever: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
We are collectively responsible for denouncing the discriminatory mechanisms that confine Black and racialized women to precarious jobs. Let us resist any cultural reading that fails to call into question structural inequalities. We must interrogate the dominant discourses, and be attentive to the sexual and racial division of labour and the way it affects workers, who should not have to take care of our elders at any price.