Universities claim to re-shape the social, scientific, and economic contours of society for the better. Has the ongoing exploitation of precariously employed female and racialized academic staff during the pandemic revealed that universities are reinforcing the very social and economic norms they should be challenging?

Tiny virus, big questions

The impacts of COVID-19 will reverberate for years and likely decades to come. The threads of inquiry, not to mention the personal, political, and ethical lessons this tiny virus has revealed, are innumerable. Everywhere you turn, opinions, critiques, coping strategies, mutual aid practices, educational initiatives, love, rage, fear, dreams, and apocalyptic forecasts overwhelm. This may be a tiny virus, but it raises some very big questions.

In these days of pandemic, what has preoccupied me, both emotionally and intellectually, is a reckoning with the privilege of being securely employed amidst the widespread devastation in the labour market, especially for segments of the labour force that are not white-collar but sustain the white-collar way of life. I have also been thinking about, and frankly disturbed by, the systems that drive employers, including postsecondary institutions, to push remote work with little regard for the family care responsibilities many workers and academics have faced due to schools and child-care centres being closed.

Let me start with my family as an example. We are a racialized immigrant academic couple (one of us still working on completing their PhD) juggling teaching and research responsibilities while taking care of a six-year-old, and we do so without an extended family care network. Being first generation immigrants, our access to social, cultural, and financial resources is, at best, tenuous. For us, advancement in the academic world has always seemed to meet resistance and indifference alongside a relentless feeling of isolation. As such, the celebratory uptake of working from home, which seems to ignore existing inequities as well as mounting emotional and affective care demands, has increased the feelings of anxiety, isolation, and precarity in my family.

Even considering our so-called privileges, the contradictions I embody—a faculty member in one of the largest universities in Canada who remains invisible in its equity responses to the pandemic—have reinforced the material social experience of only being conditionally welcome to this nation and its institutions of legitimation. This experience is not unique to me, but is shared by many trying to survive in a system that overworks, undervalues, and largely ignores us in favour of the mythical norm in academia, which New School professor emerita Elizabeth Ellsworth has described as the “young, white, Christian, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, thin, rational man” (see The Equity Myth, 2017 for compelling scholarship on this).

Reckoning with privilege

On its own, using the concept of privilege to demonstrate inequality is flawed and limited. As an educator, I have seen its use backfire too often when individual students, especially young white students, intersperse their laundry list of privileges with “but I am” stories of marginalization that entirely miss the point about structures of white supremacy. It is also deeply disturbing that life under late capitalism skews society’s values to the point where basic human rights, such as decent income and benefits, become privileges for which we should be grateful. This skewed perspective drives the fear of being left behind, creates divisions, and causes us to lose sight of the ongoing crises wrought by the system that is capitalism, which has patriarchal and colonial devastations baked into its core. After all, there are communities that include those who are racialized, Indigenous, Black, and poor; who have disabilities and underlying chronic conditions; and who lack access to housing that live in perpetual crises. Those who find themselves at the intersections of more than one of these communities have their troubles compounded and their privileges complicated.

On its own, using the concept of privilege to demonstrate inequality is flawed and limited.

With millions of Canadians seeking financial assistance and thousands of older Canadians dying in poorly funded nursing homes, the deep structural inequities of our society have become evident—especially as many of Canada’s richest continue to accumulate more wealth. As poet and philosopher Bayo Akomolafe writes with incisive precision, is this so-called war against the virus better not won?

If this is indeed a war, do we really want to win it? What if winning is the worst possible outcome we could imagine? Do we want to come out on top, stamp out this viral enemy, and restore agency to the cold ossified tentacles of the familiar? Are we sure this disruption is not what we want, what we’ve cried for in unvoiced ways? Should we not treat this opening as our grand marronage, our fugitive departure from exhausted cottonfields?

In such a world, corrupted by the disproportionate power of racist patriarchal capital, privilege as a strategy of critique runs the risk of launching us into a rather circumscribed pursuit of individualized ethics of care, conscience, and responsibility.

Care work and capitalism

The flaws of this system become glaringly obvious when the care services that allow this model to function disappear and yet it remains relentlessly focused on increasing growth/production. Demanding to do but hard to show, this invisibility of care work has been a key challenge for feminist political economists. Erica Michelle Lagalisse, a postdoctoral research fellow at the London School of Economics, sums up the core difficulty: “Perhaps it is only because ‘care’ is implicitly presumed to be not work—but rather an act of love—that one need put the word ‘work’ after it to suggest its productive and strenuous aspect.” Similarly, feminist scholar Nancy Fraser attests, everyday child and elder care work comprise “both affective and material labour, and [are] often performed without pay.” As anti-racist feminists (Himani Bannerji, Rhacel Parrenas, Makeda Silvera to name a few) have importantly pointed out, this work is often disproportionately carried by women, especially those who are racialized and immigrant working class.

The invisibility of care work has been a key challenge for feminist political economists.

In its own way, the pandemic has illuminated and clarified the politics of separating economic production from social reproduction (see Federici on this)—a foundational source of modern capital’s monstrous profits—and, at the same time, reinforced race, gender, and class hierarchies. You may say there is nothing new or even remotely shocking with this analysis. This economic model’s sociopathic relationship with care work is constitutive of the functions of modern liberal democracies. As Fraser writes:

… on the one hand, social reproduction is a condition of possibility for sustained capital accumulation; on the other, capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies.

In other words, while capitalist societies want to benefit from the birthing, the showering, the cooking for, and the caretaking of the home, they do not want to pay for the “fruits of that activity.” Considering the deeply profitable yet invisible entanglements of economic and reproductive labour, it is then crucial that the work from home narrative—widely promoted by postsecondary administrations and celebrated in institutional media—is held up against the light and examined for the work it is doing for academic industries. Because postsecondary institutions—entities that regularly claim to be re-shaping the social, scientific, and economic contours of society—are no exceptions to the logic of accumulation.

False narratives in the academy

It is well known that academia is hierarchized, particularly along gendered and racialized lines. These institutions have historically benefitted from the labour of women—and other equity seeking groups—while employing them in precarious, low-paid work, including as contract faculty, cleaners, and front-line service workers.

In the wake of the pandemic, a number of institutional narratives and practices have further calcified these hierarchies and fractures. For example, university work from home and remote teaching guidelines have in no way reflected government updates about day care/school closures or the complexities of home schooling that parents continue to shoulder. Although gestures of care and well-being are embedded in institutional missives, our workload remains unchanged even while the emotional and physical demands of family care have increased significantly.

What better reminders that there is no “we” in academia, when concerns about care work are framed as private burdens, considered as opportunities for new training, followed with invitations to share our concerns over and over at meetings without any tangible response, or met with veiled and explicit reminders of how lucky and privileged we are to still have jobs. Then there are the narratives of faculty resilience—many circulating in various academic magazines and blogs showcasing tips on scheduling, tools and gadgets, and encouraging readers to find ways to embrace and prosper in the new normal. Our institutions join in, pressuring us to maintain our productivity by publishing research, writing grants, planning and attending webinars, and finishing books.

Concerns about care work are framed as private burdens.

While many faculty are able to practice physical distancing, work from home, and continue to be paid; many others have not enjoyed the same privilege. This has often manifested in typical gendered and racialized outcomes.

For colleagues on short-term contracts—who will bear a very disproportionate share of these challenges due to their precarious institutional status, lack of access to health insurance benefits, and lack of control over course and curriculum planning—the anxiety and precarity is acute. They are expected to maintain resilience between contracts and return for more. The stubborn disavowal of the complexities of working from home in the face of all of this reveals that our postsecondary institutions thoroughly embody the patriarchal racist relations of capital.

What of resilience?

What do these institutional narratives of working from home and faculty resilience assume? Who do they silence and make invisible, and at what cost? While we are socialized to think of resilience as that innate human ability to hold lives together and continue to perform in the face of challenge, I suggest that resilience during COVID-19 requires an acknowledgement that not all of us will emerge from this crisis stronger, and that many will actually be challenged to the breaking point. Not because of the pandemic, but because of the rigid neoliberal systems that stood by and demanded more, while providing little in the way of compassion or support.

Not all of us will emerge from this crisis stronger.

Resilience requires condemning how I am, and people like me are, typically called on when our institutions need to validate themselves as critical, ethical, and diverse; yet, we are routinely sidelined when we critique the academy’s structured precarities, including its systemic disregard of and silence on how the gendered and racialized manual work of caregiving continues to sustain a largely white male intellectual industry.

Finally, resilience is re-asserting that the collective I want to belong to is not the liberal “we are in this together”—an amorphous whole with no accountability to the myriad intersections within—but a granular, intersecting, conflicting, life-sustaining, human collective that repeatedly tends to absorb the brunt of damage during catastrophes.

Pandemic pedagogy

The pandemic, as Arundhati Roy writes, “is the wreckage of a train careening down the track for years.” We knew it was coming and we know it will stay with us—especially because the state will be eager to declare victory over the virus and “re-open” the economy in a rush to return to the normal that was systemically broken to begin with.

I do not have a fever dream of the end of capitalism, but, as an educator, I am looking forward to going back to the classroom and working with my students to understand the big lessons from the tiny virus. COVID-19 has placed the deep inequities structuring our societies up on a mega social canvas, on our morning news and social media feeds, reminding us daily of who and what we value as society. New Orleans-based writer Tunde Wey compellingly writes that we’re “in a moment that feels different but evokes sameness…” That is, elite, white-collar members of society continue to matter more than everyone else, indeed an increasingly minuscule number of them determine whether and how the rest should live. What better forum to examine and critique the shallowness of liberal equality and freedom talk of our societies that the pandemic has unravelled than the classroom?

How do we make sure not to forget the lessons we have learned? How do my students—emerging social workers—deploy sharper political economic critiques as they take up jobs in long-term care homes, homeless shelters, food banks, school boards, and settlement organizations (all sites of racialized and gendered care work)? How do we draw on these lessons to determine where our collective emotional, ethical, critical, and intellectual energies should be devoted going forward?

As much as they kill, pandemics also teach life. I remain hungry for pandemic pedagogy.

However, while we are on this journey of remote teaching and learning in an era that, ironically, demands us to, as Adrienne Maree Brown states, “deepen our relationships to hold each other through this, [and] claim power for our communities,” we should place the questions of equity in care work at the centre of our experiences and narratives of working from home. Care work is, inevitably, a raced, gendered, and classed experience both outside and inside academia. Just as the adulations, honking, and pot banging for frontline health care workers do not suffice—they need to be paid for and supported in what they do—academics with young kids and other care demands need tangible support. And yes, some of us—racialized, Black, Indigenous, female—need it more than others. Our academic institutions should come up with adequately sophisticated analyses of these experiences. The onus should not be on us to keep re-telling the challenges we face working from home, but for our institutions of higher learning, to listen, learn, and act to support us.

Soma Chatterjee is an associate professor in the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University.
This article was initially published online in June 2020 and was republished in the Spring 2021 print issue.