State Racism, Social Justice, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jordan Liz

Abstract:

COVID-19 has exposed the marginalization and discrimination experienced by various groups, including the elderly, the immunocompromised, and the poor, as well as women, racial minorities, and others. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s account of state racism and biopower, I examine the ways in which racial and ethnic minorities have been made more vulnerable by the current pandemic. Although the bulk of the article focuses on issues of race, it has important implications for broader thinking about other forms of marginalization and for thinking about ways of achieving social justice on multiple fronts.


1. Introduction

During one of his daily COVID-19 press briefings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo remarked, “Everyone is subject to this virus. It is the great equalizer. I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are. I don’t care how young, how old. This virus is the great equalizer.”(1) This discourse of equality and togetherness has been common throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. From scientists, politicians, and celebrities the rallying cry has been, “We are all in this together,” which serves as an essential reminder that not only does the virus pose a threat to everyone but that only together can we address it.(2) And, in one way, these remarks are entirely correct. The virus itself is not picking and choosing its hosts based on race, gender, class or any other demographic indicator. Moreover, since the start of the pandemic, everyone’s life has been impacted by its social, political, and economic effects. For these reasons, we must band together to stop the spread and “flatten the curve.” It is a nice, even uplifting, sentiment in these chaotic times.

However, discourses of equality have a way of being misleading. Since its beginning, the United States has proclaimed itself a nation that stands for liberty and justice for all. A land wherein all could freely pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, this “all” was never inclusive, certainly not of women and racial minorities. Unfortunately, this state of uneven inclusivity persists into the age of COVID-19. It is not the great equalizer. The outbreak has done much to expose the marginalization and discrimination experienced by various groups including the elderly, the immunocompromised, the poor, as well as women, racial minorities, and others.(3) In this article, I focus specifically on issues related to race and ethnicity. Since the outbreak’s inception, members of the media and politicians, including President Trump, have insisted on referring to COVID-19 as the “China Virus” and/or the “Wuhan Virus.” This, in turn, has led to increased discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans.(4) Moreover, racial disparities in access to COVID-19 treatment as well as deaths have been constant throughout this crisis (e.g., the death rate for Black Chicagoans is six times higher than for White Chicagoans).(5) To examine these issues further, I turn to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s account of state racism and biopower. Although the bulk of the article focuses on issues of race, it has important implications for broader thinking about other forms of marginalization and achieving social justice on multiple fronts.

2. Foucault on Biopower and State Racism

To begin, what is biopower? For Foucault, biopower refers to the power over life and death. Historically, this was exercised via the right of the sovereign “to take life or let live.”(6) The sovereign was the monarch, the aristocrats, or, more generally, the centralized political authority of the state. Under their own discretion, the sovereign could seize property, enslave others, and even kill as they chose; those who lived did so only at the whim of the sovereign. According to Foucault, sovereign power has been largely supplanted by biopower in the contemporary period.(7) Biopower operates via a series of policies and social norms designed to exercise control and regulation over individual bodies and populations. Instead of eliminating life, biopower is concerned with improving, maximizing, and optimizing it.(8) The modern techniques of biopower may include state-sponsored hygiene and health campaigns, social and cultural norms of cleanliness, as well as regulations on abortion rights and end-of-life care.(9) Even the current shelter-in-place orders, social distancing practices, and immigration restrictions fall within the domain of biopower. All of these are intended to maintain the strength and health of society and, in doing so, ensure its longevity.

But, how does the state decide what counts as “optimization?” And, if the purpose of the state is truly to “maximize” life, then why are so many groups currently facing greater hardships and higher rates of death because of the pandemic? For Foucault, “optimizing” life is more than just maximizing the life expectancy or minimizing the risk of disease; it is also concerned with which lives are able to survive. Biopower accomplishes this by making distinctions between a “superclass” (or “super race”) whose lives are viewed as improving the state, and a “subclass” (or “subrace”) who make it worse.(10) Such designations emerge within discourse. As Iara Lessa summarizes, for Foucault, discourse refers to “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of actions, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak.”(11) It is a way of systematically socially constructing categories of people. For example, historically, the discourse of sex and sexuality has stipulated that there are two sexes and that heterosexuality is the sexual norm. “Male” and “female,” then, are two categories formed by this discourse. These categories are reproduced and maintained by a whole network of practices including governmental documents requiring one to self-identity as either male or female; corporations distinguishing product lines as “masculine” or “feminine”; the media and politicians emphasizing the significance of the nuclear family and even the practice of intersex medical interventions performed on newborns with “ambiguous” or “atypical” genitalia.(12) 

Now, for Foucault, discourse does not emerge randomly—it is always intimately tied to power.(13) As he writes in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, “the mechanisms of power are addressed to the body, to life, to what causes it to proliferate, to what reinforces the species, its stamina, its ability to dominate, or its capacity for being used. Through the themes of health, progeny, race, the future of the species, the vitality of the social body, power spoke of sexuality and to sexuality.”(14) Within biopower, the two-sex model and heterosexuality are seen as mechanisms by which to “optimize” and “maximize” the population—they become the norm or “superclass” against which all bodies are judged. As such, those falling outside the norm are not simply statistical outliers but rather are considered an existential threat to the normal population. Within this discourse, they are “abnormals” or “denigrates” that threaten the longevity of the nation. Part of the task of optimization, then, is to mitigate the threat these “abnormal” populations pose, whether abroad or domestically. But, how can a state designed to promote life ever justify killing? For Foucault it achieves this in two ways: One, it can either justify violence by designating a population as a threat to the state (e.g., police violence during the War on Drugs or military action during the War on Terror). Or, two, it can decide to “disallow [life] to the point of death.”(15) For Foucault, most residents and citizens nowadays are not killed by state executions. Rather, they die because the state fails to protect their lives, whether by failing to provide medical coverage or safe neighborhoods, or even by designating a group as a threat or menace to society. All these actions increase the group’s likelihood of dying.

Biopower kills via a system of exclusion and vulnerability. To establish these systems, Foucault argues, the state must become racist. As Chloë Taylor explains, “biopower is almost necessarily racist, since racism, broadly constructed, is an ‘indispensable precondition’ that grants the state the power to kill. Under such conditions, eradicating sub-groups of that population is perceived as a justifiable form of managing and protecting a people.”(16) Importantly, this is not exclusively an ethnic racism, but a “state racism” or “racism against the abnormal.”(17) This involves labelling groups as inferior and dangerous, whether due to their race/ethnicity, sexuality, sex/gender, class, etc. On this construal, the stereotyping of Black people as “criminals,” of Hispanics as “illegal immigrants,” of Muslims as “terrorists,” and of Asians as “COVID-19 carriers” is racist. So too are the comments made by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick regarding letting some people, mostly the elderly, die for the sake of “reopening” the country.(18) In each case, labelling like this amounts to willingly designating a specific population as less desirable (or undesirable) in order to the protect the state. As such, whereas sovereign power was the right to “take life and let live,” the objective of the state now is to “to make live or let die.”(19)

3. COVID-19 and State Racism

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to both expose existing practices of state racism, as well as institute new forms. With regards to racial and ethnic minorities, perhaps the clearest example is the increase of anti-Asian racism. Between March and May 2020, the New York City Commission on Human Rights reported a ninety-two percent increase in incidences of anti-Asian discrimination, compared to the same three-month period the year prior.(20) Similarly, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council collected approximately 1,700 reports of racist incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders between mid-March and early May.(21) Such high rates of anti-Asian racism have been largely credited to the constant and deliberate mislabeling of COVID-19 as the “China Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus.” This anti-Asian discourse has served to promote the false view that all Chinese and Chinese American people are likely carriers of the novel coronavirus.(22) Moreover, it has been criticized as reactivating a similar anti-Asian discourse from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During that period, public health experts and politicians depicted Asian immigrations as “filthy” and “disease ridden” carriers of a whole host of infectious diseases, including smallpox, leprosy, malaria, and bubonic plague.(23) In both instances, Asian and Asian American identities are represented in discourse as a menace to public health—as populations whose very presence endanger the health and safety of the state. They are reconstructed as threats that must be expelled.

Despite this, its defenders have alleged that the phrase is meant to hold the Chinese government accountable for not alerting the global community about the virus sooner.(24) Legislation has even been proposed, such as the Stop COVID Act, which would allow US-Americans to sue the Chinese government for damages incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.(25) This discourse has been further exacerbated by the political rhetoric of China as a hostile, communist country. In this way, the country of China has been designated as a threat to the health and survival of the United States. Such designations have also been applied to the Chinese people. As Senator Tom Cotton claimed in a Fox News interview, the United States is currently training China’s “brightest minds,” only to have them return to China and further their scientific and technological progress. In response, he argued that, “We need to take a very hard look at the visas that we give the Chinese nationals to come to the United States to study, especially in the post-graduate level in advanced scientific and technological fields.”(26) Here, the Chinese people are rendered potential enemies who take educational opportunities away from U.S. citizens; and then, return to China to “compete” with and “defeat” the United States. In this way, they weaken the state, and so they must be excluded—under biopower, China and its people are now threats. Citizenship, however, is an unobservable characteristic; so, Chinese Americans, and Asian-Americans more broadly, become entangled in this anti-China discourse. Although Asians are often portrayed as “model minorities,” as Emily Lee argues, within the United States, they are considered “forever foreigners.”(27) That is, while the achievements of Asian Americans might be praised by politicians and the media, Asian Americans are viewed as never truly assimilating into US-American culture.(28) They remain Asian first and US-American second. As a racialized Other, their protection is always highly contingent.

Unsurprisingly, other racial groups have likewise experienced COVID-19-related racism. On behalf of the Association of Black Cardiologists, Norrisa Haynes, Lisa Cooper, and Michelle Albert find that, in the United States, there are higher rates of hospitalization, death, and positive cases of COVID-19 among Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.(29) Moreover, according to the CDC, because Black and Brown communities tend to be more densely populated, it is more difficult for them to practice social distancing. Such communities also tend to be farther away from grocery stores and medical facilities, thereby making it more difficult to seek medical care and/or purchase enough food to remain at home for long periods of time.(30) Additionally, the CDC notes that essential workers are disproportionately nonwhite: Hispanics constitute approximately fifty-three percent of agricultural workers; and Blacks compromise thirty percent of licensed practical and vocational nurses.(31) In each of these cases, the vulnerability of communities of color is the byproduct of a series of legal precedents and social practices, most notably discrimination in healthcare and employment, as well as the legacy of residential segregation. All of these factors have created a system wherein Black and Brown people experience higher rates of unemployment, mass incarceration, chronic medical issues, and homelessness, as well as less access to housing in safe neighborhoods and reliable healthcare.(32) Over time, these conditions are normalized via a series of discourses. For example, the discourse of the “ghetto” normalizes the poverty and violence of predominately Black and Brown populations.(33) The discourse of the “lazy,” “rude” and “criminal” minority normalizes incarceration and high unemployment rates.(34) Even medical discourses that purport Black people are more tolerant of pain serve to normalize the lower quality of healthcare provided to them.(35) Those discourses and others like them serve to make these networks of marginalization into expected outcomes (e.g., we expect more violence in the “ghetto” because it is the “ghetto”). In doing so, we not only ignore the causes for those outcomes but create conditions wherein communities of color are constantly and disproportionately exposed to harm and even death.

4. State Racism and Social Justice

To these issues, Foucault’s account of state racism offers an important insight—namely, that, at its core, the issue is vulnerability. While it may manifest itself differently among the various nonwhite racial groups, marginalization of other populations is tied to their designation as a subrace population. Moreover, while the focus of this article has been ethnic racism, Foucault’s account is broader. Ageism against the elderly, ableism against the immunocompromised, and sexism against women are all acts of state racism. As such, state racism can serve as a fulcrum for social justice initiatives based around what Myisha Cherry refers to as “vulnerable solidarity.” As she writes, “Vulnerable solidarity is solidarity that is formed based on the vulnerability that we all face as citizens to be targeted and/or affected by state racism and state violence.”(36) While the threat is actualized in the case of the subrace, its possibility extends to everyone. After all, the subrace is not a biologically or historically permanent population, it shifts depending on who the state designates as dangerous. During the late nineteenth century, Asians were considered “disease ridden.” Then, between the 1940s and 60s, the Asian and Asian American identity was reconstructed around the “myth of model minority” that proved the “American Dream” was achievable by all.(37) Their former stigma was largely erased. Now, those stigmas have resurfaced and with them a new wave of anti-Asian racism. Importantly, the only difference here is the discourse surrounding them. As Foucault argues, changes in discourse change how bodies and subjectivities are constructed and therefore how they are perceived and understood by others.(38) The case of Asian Americans and COVID-19 illustrates not only how devastating shifts in discourse can be under biopower but the ease with which they can occur.

To emphasize, under biopower, any population can be designated as a threat, including White people, such as those deemed “race traitors” for defending the rights of Black people or, currently, those White US-Americans being denied a stimulus check because they are married to an undocumented immigrant.(39) In the latter case, their exclusion is a byproduct of the current anti-immigration, nationalist discourse popularized and disseminated by conservative politicians and media. Reflecting on this is significant because it highlights how discourses targeting one specific group may have negative effects on others. Because the boundaries between normality and abnormality are fluid under biopower, concentrating solely on protecting the rights of one’s own group is insufficient. The lines separating one group from one another—the categories and identities that privilege some while marginalizing others—are all merely the byproducts of discourse. All of us may become subject to state racism. Because of this, we all have a vested interest in collectively resisting it.

For Foucault, while it is impossible to completely eradicate power relations, resistance is always possible. As he put it, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”(40) In other words, power and resistance go hand-in-hand.(41) This entails examining sites of vulnerability because in them we can understand how power operates and impacts marginalized populations within our society. The present pandemic offers many examples that highlight the differences between the state’s response towards Whites and nonwhites. For instance, many have noted that the “reopen” protests, which have been predominately attended by Whites, have met far less police presence and violence than protests consisting of mostly people of color. As Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib put it, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff.”(42) The irony of the racial divide of the “reopen” protests is that many people of color do not have the luxury of sheltering-in-place. As Kailee Scale, the managing director of Black Lives Matter Global Network, put it, Black people “are the essential workers that keep the country going; we are the mail carriers, delivery personnel, transportation providers, and hospital workers. We cannot just #stayhome.”(43) Within the current regime of biopower, state protections for (most) Whites and state racism for people of color go hand-in-hand.

But, what does Foucauldian resistance look like? At its core, the goal of such resistance is twofold: first, minimizing the hardships being experienced by nonwhite and other marginalized groups; and second, to ultimately change the discourse and power relations that makes these groups vulnerable to state racism. Such resistance can take multiple forms. For example, in May 2020, the NAACP launched its #WeAreDoneDying campaign to expose the systems of vulnerability and abuse rampant across US-American society and in particular its healthcare system.(44) Likewise, openly advocating for more protections and medical resources being provided to nonwhite communities, as well as highlighting the essential role people of color play in our society, are useful forms of resistance. Moreover, self-directed responses that emphasize care are crucial. As Camara Phyllis Jones, a former president of the American Public Health Association, argues, within communities of color “we need to create loose care networks” by strategizing with family, church, and community members.(45) Given their designation as members of a “subrace” population, racial minorities can hardly rely on state protections. As such, collective action will be needed to ensure that their limited resources work to meet the needs of their communities.

Importantly, not only do such initiatives provide immediate support, but they also serve to prevent the racial disparities of COVID-19 from being normalized and rationalized under colorblind discourses. For example, when asked about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community in Louisiana, Senator Bill Cassidy explained that the “fundamental reason” was the high rate of diabetes within the population.(46) When asked about the impact of systematic racism, he replied that, “Well, you know, that’s rhetoric, and it may be. But as a physician, I’m looking at science.”(47) He went on to argue that the best way of tackling the problem, “no matter your race,” was to address the problems of obesity, hypertension, and diabetes.(48) Others have attempted to normalize the racial disparities of COVID-19 as a failure of personal responsibility. Lovely Warren, the mayor of Rochester, NY, and the second vice president of the African American Mayors Association, noted that she didn’t “think our [the Black] community is taking it [COVID-19] as seriously as it should.”(49) Similarly, Representative Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, TX, explained that, “I just want people to take this seriously, particularly in the African American community where we already have disproportionate underlying issues such as heart disease and diabetes. You couple that with a lackadaisical approach to social distancing and it can be deadly, as we’re seeing around the country. We need for our community to take this seriously.”(50) Notably, the effects of state racism are either undermined or ignored entirely. As Ibram X. Kendi, the Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, writes, “To explain the disparities in the morality rate, too many politicians and commentators are noting that black people have more underlying medical conditions but, crucially, they’re not explaining why. Or they blame the choices made by Black people, or poverty, or obesity—but not racism.”(51) The erasure of the effects of state racism, along with the normalization of racial disparities under discourses of health and personal responsibility, serve to maintain the vulnerability of people of color under biopower. To achieve social justice, such normalizations must be resisted.

Ultimately, Foucault’s account pushes us to establish broad coalitions spanning across different forms of marginalization and oppression from sexism to xenophobia to ethnic racism to ableism to homophobia, among many others. Additionally, it calls upon those in the super class (or super race) to recognize the fragility of their own privilege and their own potential vulnerability to state racism. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Foucault’s account is the recognition that everyone is susceptible to state violence and racism. COVID-19 provides us ample evidence of how quickly social status and privilege can shift with changes in discourse. As such, despite the hardship, COVID-19 may serve as an important moment for social justice and change.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Janet Jones and Myisha Cherry for their careful reading and extremely helpful comments and suggestions. The paper greatly benefited from their valuable insights. I would also like to thank Kurt Milberger, Taylor Mills, and Christopher Long as well as the rest of the editorial team at the Public Philosophy Journal for their timely coordination of the formative peer review process.

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Contributor Information

Jordan Liz is an assistant professor of Philosophy at San José State University, where he specializes in the philosophy of race, philosophy of medicine and biomedical ethics.

Footnotes

  1.  Dan Gardner, “Hate Him or Love Him: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Can Teach Us A Lot about How to Speak During a Pandemic,” CNBC, April 6, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/what-new-york-governor-andrew-cuomo-teaches-us-about-how-to-speak-lead-in-coronavirus-pandemic.html.
  2.  António Guterres, “We are all in this Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery,” United Nations, April 23, 2020, https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/we-are-all-together-human-rights-and-covid-19-response-and.
  3.  Martha Henriques, “Why COVID-19 is Different for Men and Women,” BBC, April 12, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200409-why-covid-19-is-different-for-men-and-women; Maryellen Stewart, “Most People Dying from COVID-19 are Old. Don’t Treat Them Just as Statistics,” Vox, April 22, 2020, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2020/4/22/21228680/coronavirus-covid-19-deaths-old-elderly-people.
  4.  Lauren Aratani, “‘Coughing While Asian’: Living in Fear as Racism Feeds Off Coronavirus Panic,” The Guardian, March 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-us-asian-americans-racism.
  5.  Flynn Meagan, “‘Those Numbers Take Your Breath Away’: Covid-19 is Hitting Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods Much Harder Than Others, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/chicago-racial-disparity-coronavirus/.
  6.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990).
  7.  Importantly, for Foucault, power never disappears. Whereas exercises of sovereign power may be less frequent nowadays, it still remains an active form of power. For example, sovereign power is still present in capital punishment.
  8.  Chloë Taylor, “Biopower” in Foucault: Key Concepts, ed. Dianna Taylor (London, UK: Routledge, 2014).
  9.  Ladelle McWhorter, Racial and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009).
  10.  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003).
  11.  Iara Lessa, “Discursive Struggles within Social Welfare: Restaging Teen Motherhood,” The British Journal of Social Work 36, no. 2 (2006): 283-98, 285.
  12.  Anne-Fausto Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
  13.  As Foucault explains in “Two Lectures, “In a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize, and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated, nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation, and functioning of a discourse. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association” (93).
  14.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990), 147.
  15.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990). 138.
  16.  Chloë Taylor, “Biopower” in Foucault: Key Concepts, ed. Dianna Taylor (London: Routledge, 2014), 50.
  17.  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 255; Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2003), 316.
  18.  Felicia Sonmez, “Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Comes Under Fire for Saying Seniors Should ‘Take a Chance’ on their Lives for Sake of Grandchildren During Coronavirus Crisis,” Washington Post, March 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/texas-lt-gov-dan-patrick-comes-under-fire-for-saying-seniors-should-take-a-chance-on-their-own-lives-for-sake-of-grandchildren-during-coronavirus-crisis/2020/03/24/e6f64858-6de6-11ea-b148-e4ce3fbd85b5_story.html.
  19.  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 241.
  20.  Nydia Han, “I Don’t Scare Easily, But COVID-19 Virus of Hate Has Me Terrified: Reporter’s Notebook,” ABC News, May 23, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/US/asian-americans-covid-19-racism-virus-hate-reporters/story?id=70810109.
  21.  Nydia Han, “I Don’t Scare Easily, But COVID-19 Virus of Hate Has Me Terrified: Reporter’s Notebook,” ABC News, May 23, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/US/asian-americans-covid-19-racism-virus-hate-reporters/story?id=70810109.
  22.  Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, “Asian Americans Report Over 650 Racist Acts Over Last Week, New Data Says,” NBC News, February 26, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asian-americans-report-nearly-500-racist-acts-over-last-week-n1169821.
  23.  Joan B. Trauner, “The Chinese as Medical Scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870-1905,” California History 57, no. 1(1978): 70-87; Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: U of California P, 2001).
  24.  Aila Slisco, “Trump Reelection Campaign Asks for 10,000 Donations to Help President ‘Hold China Accountable for Their Lies,’ Newsweek, April 14, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/trump-relection-campaign-asks-10000-donations-help-president-hold-china-accountable-their-lies-1497906.
  25.  Jason Hall, “Sen. Blackburn, Others Introduce Act to Hold China Accountable for Coronavirus Spread,” Fox17 Nashville, May 4, 2020, https://fox17.com/news/local/sen-blackburn-others-introduce-act-to-hold-china-accountable-for-coronavirus-spread.
  26.  David Matthew, “Sen. Tom Cotton Wants to Ban Chinese Students from Studying Science in the US,” NY Daily News, April 26, 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-tom-cotton-ban-chinese-students-studying-in-us-20200426-uib4wzmjargufflazdcgx4jmfy-story.html.
  27.  Emily Lee, “Model Minorities” in 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, eds. Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2019), 235.
  28.  It is also worth mentioning that the “myth of the model minority” serves an important function within biopower. By emphasizing the success of a non-White racial group, the state is able to minimize its responsibility for the social, political, and economic inequalities between White and Black people. Shifting attention away from the structural and institutional realities of anti-Black racism, the “model minority” myth serves to further marginalize and victimize Black people. Kat Chow, “‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used as a Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks,” NPR, April 19, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks.
  29.  Norissa Haynes, Lisa A. Cooper, and Michelle A. Albert, “At the Heart of the Matter: Unmasking and Addressing COVID-19’s Toll on Diverse Populations,” Circulation (Preprint), May 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048126.
  30.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” CDC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.
  31.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” CDC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.
  32.  Stacey Patton, “The Pathology of American Racism Is Making the Pathology of the Coronavirus Worse,” The Washington Post, April 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/11/coronavirus-black-america-racism/.
  33.  Eduardo Mendieta, “Plantations, Ghettos, Prisons: US Racial Geographies,” Philosophy & Geography 7, no. 1 (2004): 43-59.
  34.  Eduardo Mendieta, “Plantations, Ghettos, Prisons: US Racial Geographies,” Philosophy & Geography 7, no. 1 (2004): 43-59.
  35.  Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt, and M. Norman Oliver, “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113, no. 16 (2016): 4296-301.
  36.  Myisha Cherry, “State Racism, State Violence and Vulnerable Solidarity” in The Oxford Handbook on Philosophy and Race, eds. Naomi Zack (New York: Oxford UP, 2017), 360.
  37.  As Emily Lee explains, during the 1940-60s, the United States had great need for high-skill laborers. To meet this demand, the United States repealed its immigration restrictions to allow skilled laborers from Asian countries, mostly China and Japan, to enter the country. The success of these immigrants and their offspring established the “myth of the model minority.” However, as Lee notes, “The success of the children of this immigrant population cannot be conceptualized as the success of the children of manual laborers economically climbing into the middle class; instead they were the children of middle-class professionals maintaining their parents’ class status.” Emily Lee, “Model Minorities” in 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, eds. Gail Weiss, Ann V. Murphy, and Gayle Salamon, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2019), 231.
  38.  Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 777-95.
  39.  Sarah Kolinovsky, “Some 1.2 Million Americans Won’t Get Stimulus Checks Because They’re Married to Immigrants,” ABC News, May 5, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/12-million-americans-stimulus-checks-married-immigrants/story?id=70493620; Nicole Narea, “US Citizen Spouses and Children of Unauthorized Immigrants Were Shut Out of Stimulus Relief. Now They’re Suing,” Vox, May 6, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/5/6/21248074/immigrant-citizen-spouse-children-coronavirus-stimulus-checks.
  40.  Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, (New York: Vintage, 1990), 95.
  41.  Bryan Armen Graham, “‘Swastikas and Nooses’: Governor Slams ‘Racism’ of Michigan Lockdown Protest,” The Guardian, May 3, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism.
  42.  Kailee Scales, “Black Lives Matter Global Network Responses to COVID-19 Ethnicity Data,” Blacks Lives Matter, April 9, 2020, https://blacklivesmatter.com/black-lives-matter-global-network-responses-to-covid-19-ethnicity-data/.
  43.  NAACP, “NAACP Launches #WeAreDoneDying Campaign, Empowering Black and Brown Communities to Take Action Against Senseless Killings of African Americans, NAACP, May 7, 2020, https://www.naacp.org/latest/naacp-launches-wearedonedying-campaign-empowering-black-brown-communities-demand-equitable-action-amid-covid-19/.
  44.  Hilary Beard, “The Color of Coronavirus,” The Philadelphia Citizen, March 25, 2020. https://thephiladelphiacitizen.org/people-of-color-coronavirus/.
  45.  David Greene, “Sen. Bill Cassidy on His State’s Racial Disparities in Coronavirus Deaths,” NPR, April 7, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/04/07/828715984/sen-bill-cassidy-on-his-states-racial-disparites-in-coronavirus-deaths.
  46.  David Greene, “Sen. Bill Cassidy On His State’s Racial Disparities in Coronavirus Deaths,” NPR, April 7, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/04/07/828715984/sen-bill-cassidy-on-his-states-racial-disparites-in-coronavirus-deaths.
  47.  David Greene, “Sen. Bill Cassidy On His State’s Racial Disparities in Coronavirus Deaths,” NPR, April 7, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/04/07/828715984/sen-bill-cassidy-on-his-states-racial-disparites-in-coronavirus-deaths.
  48.  Deborah Barfield, “Why Are So Many Black People Dying from Coronavirus?,” The Columbus Dispatch, April 8, 2020, https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200408/why-are-so-many-black-people-dying-from-coronavirus.
  49.  Stefan Stevenson and Nichole Manna, “Fort Worth Congressman Calls Out Black Community After Large Gatherings Amid Coronavirus,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 10, 2020, https://www.star-telegram.com/news/special-reports/article241880466.html.
  50.  Ibram X. Kendi, “Stop Blaming Black People for Dying of the Coronavirus,” The Atlantic, April 14, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/race-and-blame/609946/ (author’s emphasis).

Public Holistic Responses

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The Loss of Playfulness

By Janet Jones

Abstract:

How does social distancing affect our sense of self? Our ability to create ourselves? In this article, I explore the value of interacting with strangers for our sense of self and the impact of COVID-19 safety measures on our relationships with others. Specifically, I suggest that strangers can offer us opportunities to try on new identities but that this opportunity is lost as the public realm erodes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


To ask me to stay at home during the pandemic isn’t to ask for much. I’m an introvert. I enjoy working from home and love the company I keep. My partner isn’t an academic—far from it. He works in the fitness and health industry, so we don’t talk shop extensively. Mostly, we get to be a more personal version of ourselves at home. We talk about books, TV, our friends and family. I am lucky that my home is filled with laughter.

If I think about the nature of my life at home, I am inclined to put it into the words of María Lugones: home is where I am lovingly playful. In her paper “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” Lugones suggests that we can construct ourselves and our worlds when we are with others who allow us to be playful. For her, playfulness is an attitude that “involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction or reconstruction.”(1) Loving playfulness thus arises when we aren’t bound by expectations or rules and no norms dictate our behavior. We are lovingly playful when we are with others who love us and who, because of that love, create a space that is safe and comfortable enough for us to try on new identities. Home, then, is where we are likely to be lovingly playful. It is a private place, where uninvited guests are rarely found. Safe from the gaze of judgmental others, it is where most of us can be as silly or as serious as we want. It is where we are free.

The value of loving playfulness for our sense of self and identity is an established part of feminist literature. Theorists such as Seyla Benhabib and Hilde Lindemann Nelson argue for the value of narratives in identity building. According to their theories, our sense of identity is constituted through the stories we tell about ourselves, and our identities are either affirmed or torn apart when others support or reject our stories. Relationships of love and solidarity, then, are central to identity building because they encourage storytelling and foster identities that we ourselves choose to endorse. When it is filled with supportive others, home is fruitful for identity work.

Yet, not all homes are the same. Indeed, for those who live with a cruel and dominating family or partner, home isn’t a place of freedom. In a pandemic, it can be the site of isolation-induced oppression. If we are trapped with those who see us only as they want, we may find ourselves stuck in roles that we don’t want and can’t escape. According to twentieth-century philosopher Hannah Arendt, home, or as she puts it “the private realm,” is a realm of necessity;(2) it is where we take care of those biological needs that we can never permanently escape and which, therefore, always keep us busy and, subsequently, unfree.(3) As such, Arendt permits inequality and violence at home because attempting to maintain equality in the home results in inefficiency, which drains the time we could be spending in the public realm, where we are free to be free.(4) 

For Arendt, it is in public, away from home, where we are free to discover who we are. It is when we speak and act with others, as equals, that we disclose ourselves. Different aspects of our identities are developed and revealed when the presence of others or new situations give us the opportunity to try on new identities. To put it in the terms of Benhabib and Lindemann Nelson, for Arendt, we are free to develop our identities, not when we are home but rather, in public. And, in Lugones’s terms, we are most playful not when we are at home but rather in public with strangers.

For, strangers provide a kind of spontaneity that isn’t possible at home. Family and friends, because they know us—our likes, dislikes, our hopes and dreams—can’t provide the same kind of creative potential that strangers can. By definition, our relationships with strangers are short, so the rules that bind us to fixed roles are few and lax. Thus, when we engage strangers, we can abandon the roles we have been pushed into or built up for ourselves, even if we endorse them. As an introvert, for example, I can become a social butterfly for the few minutes I’m in a coffee shop. The barista doesn’t know me and so doesn’t hold any ideas about who I am or who I am likely to be. Of course, she could hold prejudice about some aspect of my identity, but, if she doesn’t, we’re just two strangers passing by who present each other with the opportunity to be playful—to see our own lives from uniquely liberating perspectives—precisely because we don’t know each other. Homelife, in comparison, is a bit predictable and routine. Until recently, I hadn’t had a chance to really appreciate the playfulness that can arise when we are out in public. But it’s been weeks now since I’ve had a passing conversation with someone on the street or shared jokes with a cashier at a store, and I am finally starting to miss it. I miss the feeling of being surprised and delighted, of encountering new worlds where I can be a “new” me. Arendt talked about the public realm as a place where we appear to others, that is, as a place where we disclose who we are by acting and speaking with different people.(5) For her, the public realm is valuable because it facilitates political action.(6) But, I think, in light of the potential playfulness of strangers, we could also say that the public realm is valuable because it is a place where we can explore different aspects of ourselves with different people. Being lovingly playful, at home, is predicated on the existence of a loving relationship in which the other knows me and cares for me. The playfulness of strangers, however, is predicated on the very lack of a relationship. Strangers in the public realm don’t know us and may never know us, so they give us a chance to explore who we might (want to) be. The public realm is thus a place of freedom not only because we are liberated in the Arendtian sense but also because it can become a place of playful experimentation that might open truly novel ways to be together. By simply remaining open to each other and engaging with others respectfully, we make the public realm into a space of individual and community possibilities.

Unfortunately, social distancing jeopardizes this emancipatory space. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for us to be with strangers. We can’t be out and about in public and, even when we are, everything is done with an almost militant efficiency. Stand two meters apart. Follow the blue tape lines. Wear masks and gloves. The freedom that the public realm provides is lost when strict rules govern our behavior; it takes away our ability to be playful with strangers. There’s no time to talk to one another, to explore the possibility of narrative solidarity, if we are scared to be in each other’s presence. Yet, this is precisely what the coronavirus lockdowns foster: fear of the other’s presence and proximity to us. This is especially evident in the Canadian province of Ontario, where municipalities are opening up “snitch lines,” dedicated phone numbers and emails to contact if one witnesses a violation of physical distancing measures.(7) The fact that reports are being made daily to these centers exemplifies the loss of playfulness in the public realm because now, instead of being open to others, we are policing one another. Others don’t represent opportunities for freedom and growth; they are strangers to be watched, in case they act in a way that could hurt us.

This sort of fear-based surveillance is especially troubling because it mimics the conditions that make a home unsafe. Recall that homes can become a place of isolation-induced oppression when the people at home are dominating or cruel. In these cases, we lose the sense of safety and trust required to be playful because others force us to accept their ideas of us. These narratives of “intimate terrorism” and the domestic abuse that usually accompanies them push us into roles we despise and force us to be someone we don’t want to be.(8)  As sociologist Marianne Hester puts it, if “people have got to be at home … that gives [the abuser] an opportunity, suddenly, to call the shots around that. To say what [the victim] should be doing or shouldn’t.”(9) A parallel argument can be made for the public realm. If we allow fears about the coronavirus to cloud our perceptions of strangers and we replace our lack of a relationship with them with a sort of active distrust or wariness, then we risk losing the creativity that comes from the diversity of the public realm. In other words, we will lose the spontaneity needed to be playful with strangers and, in so doing, destroy the creative potential that they can provide for identity work.

For this reason, the physical distancing that is imperative to mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus presents a unique challenge for identity work. I have heard people say that crises can bring people together, that new communities can be built across existing communities when something like a pandemic shows us the need to work together. But identity work is different from merely working together for some common cause because it requires equal parts safety and diversity. In other words, we need to be able to play at home and out in public. Playfulness exclusively in one realm isn’t enough. We need both the support of those who love us and the solidarity of those who may never know us to fully experience all that we want to be and all of who we might be.

So, how can we keep being playful, despite the fear in the public realm and the terror in the private realm? The answer, I think, lies in an observation that Lindemann Nelson, Benhabib, Lugones, and Arendt all had in common: We need to remember that isolation always breeds violence and that freedom always requires others. We need each other, even when it seems like we would be better off alone. We need to find ways to be together, despite the physical distances between us. Togetherness will offer a reprieve to those whose homes are unsafe and new opportunities for solidarity to those whose homes are safe.

Acknowledgements

First, I am grateful to my two reviewers and the PPJ editorial board. Their feedback was tremendously helpful in drawing out some of the insights of my reflections on the coronavirus pandemic. Christopher Long’s suggestions on community and solidarity, especially, have helped me to explore what it means to be together, even when we are apart. Second, I owe thanks to Katy Fulfer, who hired me as a Graduate Research Student for her Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant, “From Rootlessness to Belonging: An Arendtian Critique of the Family as a Structure of Refugee Assimilation.” Under this grant, I have had opportunities to read and write about the work of Hannah Arendt in the context of my interest in relational ethics. I am also grateful to have my own research be funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (Wayne Fox) in 2019-20 and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Finally, I would like to express my thanks to my partner, Jeff, who is always patient and kind but has been especially so during our time together at home these past few weeks.

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1958.

Benhabib, Seyla. “Sexual Difference and Collective Identities: The New Global Constellation.” Signs 24, no. 2 (1999): 335-61.

Lindemann Nelson, Hilde. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Ithaca & London: Cornell UP, 2001.

———. “Holding on to Edmund: The Relational Work of Identity.” In Naturalized Bioethics: Toward Responsible Knowing and Practice, ed. Hilde Lindemann, Marian Verkerk, and Margaret Urban Walker, 65-79. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Lugones, María. “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception.” Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1987): 3-19.

O’Brien, Cillian. “People are Reporting on Their Neighbours over COVID-19 Concerns.” CTV News. Published 28 March 2020. Last updated 29 March 2020. https://beta.ctvnews.ca/national/2020/3/28/1_4872683.html/.

Taub, Amanda. “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” The New York Times, 6 April 2020. Last updated 14 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html/.

Contributor Information

Janet Jones is a PhD student in Applied Philosophy at the University of Waterloo (in Waterloo, Canada). Her research interests include bioethics (especially in connection to drug addiction and harm reduction), feminist epistemology, and relational ethics. She has been featured on ImpactEthics.ca and Rejoinder.

Footnotes

  1. María Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2, no. 2 (1987): 17.
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1958), 30.
  3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1958), 32.
  4. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1958), 31.
  5. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1958), 179.
  6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1958), 182-83.
  7. Cillian O’Brien, “People are Reporting on Their Neighbours over COVID-19 Concerns,” CTV News, 28 March 2020; Last updated 29 March 2020, https://beta.ctvnews.ca/national/2020/3/28/1_4872683.html/.
  8. Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” The New York Times, 6 April 2020; Last updated 14 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html/.
  9. Amanda Taub, “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide,” The New York Times, 6 April 2020; Last updated 14 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html/.

Public Holistic Responses

Laetitia Ramelet

Thanks to the PPJ for including me in the discussion of this thought-provoking piece. Two of the things that strike me as particularly important are the awareness of the very different psychological consequences these months at home will have for each of us, depending on how safe home is, as well as the value of informal interactions with strangers, that we may well come to consider as an important component of our (moral and political) communities once we can participate in such interactions lightheartedly again. I also like the way the academic literature is introduced, in a very accessible way.

Christopher P. Long

Loss can be revealing. As Janet Jones suggests in her investigation of the loss of playfulness in a time of distancing, an ominous pall of anxiety has descended upon our public encounters with one another. This anxiety is conditioned by the ubiquitous feeling of being under constant threat by an unseen virus that can quite literally hang in the air between us, making even the most innocuous meeting potentially noxious. The loss of spontaneity and play in the public realm has uncovered for Jones the emancipatory possibilities for a deeper sense of solidarity.

Bringing the transformative power of playfulness in the work of María Lugones into dialogue with Hannah Arendt’s existential analysis of the public and private spheres, Jones invites us to consider what the COVID-19 pandemic has to teach us about the realities of isolation and the possibilities of community.

Her essay establishes a connection between domestic abuse in the private sphere and the practices of surveillance and policing found in a public realm riven by fear. To this, however, she contrasts the emancipatory possibilities that emerge in private spaces animated by loving playfulness and in public spaces shaped by playful experimentation. Cycles of abuse, surveillance, and fear chart a future conditioned by terror and destitution, those of playfulness and experimentation open possibilities for a future of solidarity, hope, and even justice.

This essay invites us to consider where we might find the courage to reach out across the veil of anxiety that separates us; how we might cultivate liberating habits of solidarity resistant to the debilitating forces of fear. What structures of institutional support would we need to empower such courage? What shared commitments would we require to create the conditions of loving playfulness and experimentation that would establish a more just future?

The answers to these questions remain shrouded in uncertainty. An apocalypse, however, is an uncovering. How we respond to what we discover about ourselves and the world we knew will shape the realities of the world we create.

A Contractual Justification for Strong Measures against COVID-19

A Contractual Justification for Strong Measures against COVID-19

By Laetitia Ramalett

Abstract:

Many countries have taken extensive measures to slow COVID-19’s progress and attempt to avert a sanitary collapse. Although the necessity of saving lives seems evident to many of us, these measures will nevertheless have dire economic effects and impose major costs on much of the population. A solid public justification is essential, for which a social contract perspective is useful. I argue that it helps us understand why such measures not only do justice to the claims of those who are likely to become severely ill, but also those of many others, and that no less is at stake than the foundational bonds of our communities.


In the last months, many countries have taken extensive lockdown measures against COVID-19’s horrific progress. These measures, such as closing nonessential stores, bars, restaurants, sports and cultural facilities, as well as limiting travel and canceling events, aim to slow down the spread of the virus by temporarily suspending the activities that facilitate its transmission. Although the necessity of saving lives seems evident to many of us, these measures nevertheless entail dire economic effects. For some people, this will mean losing their income, savings, and/or current housing. Many will also have to give up projects dear to them. In view of their distress, as well as the ongoing political debates regarding the proportionality and duration of the lockdown measures, a solid public justification for the lockdown is essential. To this end, a social contract approach is useful.

The social contract approach seeks to articulate relationships among citizens by reflecting upon political communities and institutions as if they had arisen from a contract between all their members.(1) Although such a contract may be imagined to take different forms, the main idea is that citizens agree to establish a state in charge of making and enforcing laws for the sake of all citizens’ safety and stability. Citizens would have both moral and instrumental reasons to abide by this agreement, as laws and authorities would significantly improve everyone’s condition (at least compared to anarchy).

According to such a contract, each of us is bound to do our share for the community by obeying the law. In exchange, we benefit from the public goods provided by the state, which are dependent upon citizens’ compliance with the state’s commands. Often, this arrangement implies solidarity with the needs of the most vulnerable (for instance, those with limited physical or financial resources), which usually takes the form of a redistribution of resources among the community’s members. This is not only required for the sake of the community but also—perhaps for its more skeptical members—is a prudential rule because each of us is likely to be in such a position of vulnerability eventually, for one reason or another. Importantly, the social contract approach is not about a systematic calculation of what each person actually gives and takes but about a general principle that should provide an orientation across various circumstances.

In times such as the COVID-19 crisis, such solidarity requires sacrifices, like the ones mentioned above, to avoid the unnecessary suffering and deaths of the persons most at risk. However, the contractual approach also helps us understand why such measures not only do justice to the claims of those who are likely to become severely ill but also those of many others. Hospital staff and their loved ones face heavy exposure to the virus and must make immense efforts to cope. They deserve to work in better conditions than the chaos of overloaded facilities in which they must choose which lives to save and struggle with equipment and medication shortages.(2) The same holds for those who work at high exposure to maintain the country’s fundamental infrastructure and supplies, such as supermarket staff.  

We must also remember that the virus will not stop the usual diseases and accidents. Saturated hospitals have proven unable to care for their patients as they would have in normal times, which affects many more people than those sick with the virus. Let us also consider all those who will lose someone dear to them without being able to accompany them and say goodbye, possibly knowing that this person could have been saved if not for the want of resources available in normal times.

These claims comprise some of the immediate arguments in favor of significant protective measures. If these do not suffice, a more general contractual justification lies in our deeper motivation to accept the restraints and efforts imposed by life within a political community. If we choose a societal model that copes with hard blows such as pandemics by quickly abandoning those affected, playing along becomes less attractive. Why work, pay taxes, obey rules not always favorable to one’s own interests, and engage politically or socially if we know that we or our loved ones will be abandoned as soon as it is expensive to provide care when it is needed? Alternatively, what happens if we realize that we are no longer worth protecting once the peak of our economic contribution lies behind us? It seems, then, that no less is at stake than the foundational bonds of our communities.  

None of this is intended to minimize the losses incurred by those most heavily affected by the lockdown. On the contrary, the social contract approach only makes plain that genuine support is due to those for whom solidarity comes at a high price, including from those citizens relatively unimpacted by the virus and the measures deployed to harness it. Again, not only is this is necessary for the flourishing of the community in which those citizens have acquired such a safe position, but it must also be kept in mind—again for the more skeptical—that they could well have been affected under slightly different circumstances.

Neither are these thoughts meant to embellish the situation as it was before COVID-19, as if to suggest that all of our interactions were fair before the outbreak of the pandemic. The social contract approach aims to formulate an ideal to strive for and a standpoint from which to assess our societies, not to depict their realities. It is not difficult to think of people who benefit far less from the organization of their communities than others do or who seem forgotten in any such contract. The current crisis itself brings out neglected needs, especially those related to health and precarity, as well as questionable inequalities of work and education conditions.(3) Let us at least take COVID-19 as a wakeup call in this respect.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to my reviewers Joseph Arel and Janet Jones, as well as to Bethany Laursen, Kurt Milberger, and Victor Mardellat for their insightful comments on former versions of this piece.

Bibliography

Baumgold, Deborah. Contract Theory in Historical Context: Essays on Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke. Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Friend, Celeste. “Social Contract Theory.” In Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2004. Accessed 24 April 2020. https://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/#H4.

Ganguli Mitra, Agomoni. “Social Justice Should Be Key to Pandemic Planning and Response.” Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, 4 March 2020. Accessed 23 April 2020. https://www.ed.ac.uk/usher/biomedicine-self-society/centre-news/social-justice-should-be-key-to-pandemic-planning.

Hampton, Jean. “Contract and Consent.” In A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, 379-93. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Harrison, Ross. Hobbes, Locke, and Confusion’s Masterpiece. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Sandel, Michael J. “Are We All in This Together?” The New York Times, 13 April 2020. Accessed 23 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/opinion/sunday/covid-workers-healthcare-fairness.html.

Savulescu, Julian, and Dominic Wilkinson. “Who Gets the Ventilator In the Coronavirus Pandemic? These Are the Ethical Approaches to Allocating Medical Care.” ABC News, 17 March 2020. Accessed 23 April 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-18/ethics-of-medical-care-ventilator-in-the-coronavirus-pandemic/12063536.

Schweiger, Gottfried. “Recognition in Times of COVID-19.” Justice Everywhere, 26 March 2020. Accessed 23 April 2020. http://justice-everywhere.org/general/recognition-in-times-of-covid-19/.

Contributor Information

Laetitia Ramelet is currently finishing her PhD thesis entitled “Decrypting Political Consent: Back to the Roots with Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf” at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Footnotes

  1.  See, for example, Jean Hampton, “Contract and Consent,” in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, 379-93 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993); Celeste Friend, “Social Contract Theory,” in Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2004, accessed 24 April 2020, https://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/#H4. The social contract approach is largely inherited from early modern political thinkers such as Hobbes, Pufendorf, Locke and Rousseau; see Deborah Baumgold, Contract Theory in Historical Context: Essays on Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke (Leiden: Brill, 2010).
  2.  See Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson, “Who Gets the Ventilator In the Coronavirus Pandemic? These Are the Ethical Approaches to Allocating Medical Care,” ABC News, 17 March 2020, accessed 23 April 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-18/ethics-of-medical-care-ventilator-in-the-coronavirus-pandemic/12063536.
  3.  See, for example, Gottfried Schweiger, “Recognition in Times of COVID-19,” Justice Everywhere, 26 March 2020, accessed 23 April 2020, http://justice-everywhere.org/general/recognition-in-times-of-covid-19/; Agomoni Ganguli Mitra, “Social Justice Should Be Key to Pandemic Planning and Response,” Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, 4 March 2020, accessed 23 April 2020, https://www.ed.ac.uk/usher/biomedicine-self-society/centre-news/social-justice-should-be-key-to-pandemic-planning; Michael J. Sandel, “Are We All in This Together?” The New York Times, 13 April 2020, accessed 23 April 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/opinion/sunday/covid-workers-healthcare-fairness.html.

Public Holistic Responses

Janet Jones

In order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, we are being told to stay home and keep our distance. By physically distancing ourselves, the evidence shows, we stand to save thousands of lives, mitigate the impact on overwhelmed health care facilities, and prevent the evolution of a pandemic that threatens our way of living. But, as Laetitia Ramelet points out, the physical distances mandated between us can be quite costly and, for that reason, for some of us, the potential to save lives isn’t enough to outweigh those costs.

Perhaps picking up on the self-centered nature of these sorts of complaints, Ramelet argues that we need a contractual justification for some of the stronger coronavirus lockdowns and measures. One of the benefits of a contractual approach is that it helps break down costs and benefits at the individual level, so if individuals are concerned about themselves, then this is the right way to go. Indeed, I think Ramelet is on to something; a me-vs.-them attitude helps to account for some of the protests that have taken place and continue to take place in the United States and Canada.

What surprised me, however, is that Ramelet invokes the concept of solidarity to make the argument. In Ramelet’s own words, a contractual approach to the pandemic measures implies “solidarity with the needs of the most vulnerable,” and that “such solidarity requires sacrifices.” So, it seems as though Ramelet wants to say that the strong measures justified by a contractual approach can foster solidarity and it is that solidarity which actually facilitates compliance with the strong coronavirus-related measures. Yet, if that’s true, then does that mean that solidarity can be borne of compliance and obedience?

If we think of relations of solidarity in identity politics, it is fairly evident that the solidarity there arises from common interests or goals and compassion for the other, not out of a contractual duty or obligation. The upshot is that, when solidarity is prioritized, there is no need to enforce compliance; self-regulation works well because everyone has a stake in what goes on. So, if Ramelet is right that some kind of justification is needed for all the coronavirus-related measures, then what is it about the coronavirus that affects our relationships with others? Why is it so hard for some of us to see that “We’re all in this together”? What can the coronavirus teach us about solidarity?

Solidarity Care

Solidarity Care

By Myisha Cherry

Abstract:

Being aware of social injustices can cause existential and mental pain; comes with a burden; and may impede a flourishing life. However, I shall argue that this is not a reason to despair or to choose to be willfully ignorant. Rather, it’s a reason to conclude that being conscious is not enough. Rather, during times of oppression, resisters must also prioritize well-being. One way to do this is by extending what I refer to as solidarity care. I begin by providing an account of solidarity care. I then offer pragmatic ways in which one can extend solidarity care to others. I conclude by responding to two possible worries.


Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.

—Audre Lorde (2007)

1. The Problem of Awareness

The epistemic state known colloquially in the United States as “Being Woke” has become a pop-culture phenomenon. A pop song commanding listeners in a falsetto to “stay woke” is the first tune we hear in the 2017 hit movie Get Out, a film that reveals in horrific and thought-provoking ways the scary reality that some white liberals may not be as woke as many assume. Although a slang term indeed, “woke” proved its pop-culture dominance when it appeared in the dictionary in 2017. Merriam-Webster now defines it as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Writing about the concept, blogger Raven Cras claims:

The phenomenon of being woke is a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices and the overall status quo through complete awareness. Being woke refers to a person being aware of the theoretical ins and outs of the world they inhabit. Becoming woke, or staying woke, is the acknowledgment that everything we’ve been taught is a lie …. Woke(ness) provides us with a basic understanding of the why and how come aspects of societies’ social and systemic functions. The phrase itself is an encouragement for people to wake up and question dogmatic social norms. It requires an active process of deprogramming social conditionings, focusing on consistent efforts to challenge the universal infractions we are all subjected to. However, in order for one to stay woke, one must first, be woke.(1)

The term is not recent but is said to go back to a 1962 New York Times article “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” by William Melvin Kelley.(2) Some might even recall similar reiterations of the term expressed in late ’80s and early ’90s rap music by artists who would eventually become known as “conscious” rappers because they were aware of how social structures function, and they challenged––through rhyme––such structures. Essayist and novelist James Baldwin uses this latter term in The Fire Next Time to describe aware citizens––referring to them as “relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks.”(3) Consciousness, like wokeness, referred to a state of being aware of injustices, sharing that knowledge and even decrying manifestations of injustice.

If ignorance is bliss, as some claim, one might wonder about the advantage of having such an awareness. More specifically, given the seduction and comfort that comes from being willfully ignorant of suffering and injustice (as well as their sources), why then would anyone choose to be woke, conscious, or aware. It is, I claim, because there are benefits.

The first is an epistemic benefit. By being woke, one is able to see and perhaps understand the world for what it is: a world that is filled with wonder and beauty but also a world, particularly this American part of the world, filled with inequality, oppression, social exploitation, and social exclusion. This epistemic benefit is the red pill from The Matrix (1999). While the metaphorical blue pill may give you security, it will also make you ignorant. On the other hand, while the red pill may give you unpleasant knowledge and expose you to cruel truths, it still gives you knowledge and truth nonetheless. This truth is valuable within itself.(4) There is also a utility benefit to being woke: for one can only challenge systemic injustices after she is first able to see that injustices exist. As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw eloquently puts it, “When you can’t see a problem, you can’t solve it.”(5) 

Although there are benefits to being woke, I have a worry. I wonder if the public’s obsession with being woke, and the discourse around it, have come at the cost of neglecting another phenomenon: being well. This is not to say that there are no other important worries associated with the concept. Some liberal and conservative critics have provided arguments for why the term needs to be, in their words, “put to sleep.” Pointing to a utility disadvantage, conservative journalist David Brooks claims that “the problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation—building a wall between you and the problem—not a solution.”(6) Pointing to an epistemic disadvantage, NPR’s Sam Sanders claims that the problem is that “we’ve made woke a rigid state of being instead of a process of continual growth. For that reason … let’s put woke to sleep.”(7) I think these claims are tenable. However, these worries are related more to the misuse of wokeness rather than its uses. I take it for granted that those who are “growing in their wokeness” and are inspired towards action given their understanding of oppression are more vulnerable to threats to their well-being and are likely to neglect it as they pursue social and political solutions. Therefore, it is worrisome that the discourse deemphasizes well-being.

I find the neglect interesting because there is a connection between being woke and being well. The connection is this: being woke can impede being well. If this relationship is neglected, then those who are trying to understand oppression and engage in productive action to end it, will eventually be consciously awake but perhaps psychologically, emotionally, and even physically asleep. I do not take this claim to be controversial or even novel. Scholars, writers, activists, and those in the medical profession mostly agree with me on this point. However, I will offer––if only briefly––three premises to support the view.

First, being woke, with all its benefits, can cause existential pain. W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 rhetorically engages the wokeness dilemma in the form of a depressing question when he asks “How does it feel to be a problem?” in the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folks. He goes on to argue that the second sight that Black Americans have “yields him no true consciousness … this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”(8) This is the constant task of being aware of how others see you or will see you in your identity. This task does not only strip you of the existential freedom and pleasure to see yourself through your own eyes alone, but it limits your being to a subject (often a despised, inferior, or suspicious one) of constant gaze and investigation. How can one truly be oneself or think of oneself as such, when they have this consciousness? This is existential pain.

Second, being woke to one’s own oppression can also lead to mental pain. Take, for example, racial oppression. In an in-depth study, Robert Carter argues that racism can be a source of stress, trauma, and emotional injury.(9) This race-based traumatic stress is defined as “emotional injury … racially motivated stressor that overwhelms … racially motivated, interpersonal severe stressor that causes bodily harm … that can cause fear, helplessness, or horror.(10) Thompson-Miller and Feagin in their interviews with elderly blacks found that the blacks’ memories of racist interactions produced responses that indicated race-based traumatic stress.(11) They concluded that racial discrimination and other racial oppression can have a psychological impact that can last a lifetime. Janssen and colleagues found that in the UK and the Netherlands, people with high rates of psychosis are chronically exposed to discrimination.(12) Feagin and Sikes also recognize how dealing with racism saps energy from subjects. Sighting a prominent black clinical psychologist they write:

Now a black person also has one hundred ergs; he uses 50 percent the same way a white man does, dealing with what the white man has [to deal with], so he has 50 percent left. But he uses 25 percent fighting being black, [with] all the problems being black and what it means.(13) 

This energy that is sapped by dealing with a hostile world, is energy that could be used for family interactions and creative projects. This has material consequences. If being woke to sexist, homophobic, or classist oppression can sap energy then a person loses precious energy that she needs to live a flourishing life.

Third, the complete awareness found in being woke that Cras alludes to also comes with a burden. Baldwin urges folks he describes as “relatively conscious whites” and “relatively conscious blacks” to insist on and create the consciousness of others. And he says that we have a duty to do so. “For if we do not,” says Baldwin, “like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty…. If we do not dare everything … the fulfillment of that prophecy … is upon us … the fire next time.”(14) Now this is not just a warning to others who are resistant to having this awakening of consciousness. Moreover, it is also a weight––a weight placed on the shoulders of those who are already awake. This turns Du Bois’s question upside down: How does it feel to be the answer to a problem?

In addition, having the above burden of awakening and challenging others is not just the activity of bringing them to account but it also consists of having some form of faith in humanity that the person will change. And it’s this faith that leaves one vulnerable to certain loses, such as the pain of disappointment. Also the best efforts to persuade people to act morally can fail and in turn make one’s life go worse. This can leave a person at the risk of being mistreated, again. As Ryan Preston-Roedder writes:

Someone who has faith in humanity is vulnerable in certain respects to losses she will incur if people in whom she has faith turn out to be base, or if they have acted, or will act, wrongly …. She may suffer the pain of disappointment when people in whom she had faith, and whose behavior is salient to her, commit serious wrongs. And if she makes personal sacrifices in order to encourage people to act rightly, but these people act wrongly instead, the fact that her efforts fail can, by itself, make her life go worse, quite apart from any emotional pain it causes her.(15) 

Lastly, the aforementioned act of challenging, which consciously aware folks engage in, requires certain virtues. However, these virtues may not lead to a flourishing life. Lisa Tessman argues that certain virtues that the oppressed take on such as courage are virtues in the context of injustice. They enable survival in the midst of oppression. But they also come at a moral cost. They are “burdened virtues” in that they interfere with our ability to achieve moral goodness and they can distract from our well-being. On her view, courage, for example, may be a burden for those who are woke in that “courageously accepting the many possible risks and sacrifices in the life of a committed political resister, puts a burden on the self” and it may lead to a painful, self-sacrificial life.(16) 

Being woke does not just affect those who are the direct victims of injustice and oppression. Woke allies can also bear a cost. Baldwin makes this point above by noting the burden of both black and white conscious ones. And I think Tessman would also agree that not only the oppressed but those in solidarity with them may take on burdened virtues as they fight against injustice. However, although a person can be in solidarity with those who are the direct victims of an injustice, this does not mean that she experiences the same threats to her well-being. Threats do vary in kind and degree. But the point that I want to highlight for our purposes is that being woke has no respect of persons when it comes to compromising being well.

Although being woke can cause existential and mental pain; comes with a burden; and may impede a flourishing life, these should not be reasons to descend back into Plato’s cave––a metaphorical place in which one prefers to live a life in which the shadows of illusions are their new reality; a place where they think they live in a world in which inequalities are a thing of the past––in order to dodge these harms. Instead, I think this provides reasons to conclude that being woke is not enough. Perhaps one must not only beware of injustices but be aware of each other. Perhaps one should not only resist injustice but restore, repair, and reaffirm each other. One must make being well a priority, too.

I shall argue for the rest of this paper that this can only happen when those who are aware of injustice and are committed to addressing it take care of those who are similarly woke in this respect. (I expand, more specifically, on who these agents are in section 3). In section 2, I claim that the ways in which care can be extended is through what I call solidarity care. After providing an account of solidarity care, I provide, in section 3, pragmatic ways in which one can extend solidarity care to others. I conclude in section 4 by responding to two possible worries.

2. Solidarity Care

What exactly is Solidarity Care? Let’s begin first by looking at solidarity. Simply speaking, solidarity is unity or mutual support and recognition. There are five core normative requirements for solidarity according to Tommie Shelby, and robust group solidarity exists where these five characteristics are exhibited: 1) Members identify with each other to the point of treating fellow members as extensions of each other; 2) There is special concern and thus a disposition to assist and comfort members; 3) There are shared values and goals between members that can take the form of social visions, ideals, or policies; 4) Members have loyalty to each other and faithfulness to the group’s values; and lastly 5) There is mutual trust between members.

But any form of solidarity will also have content. For Shelby, this content is defined by the goals the group embrace as being a member of the group. For example, the content of black solidarity, on Shelby’s account, is unfair social disadvantage because of blackness. Solidarity with the group then is about “identifying, correcting, and ultimately eliminating race-based injustices.”(17) I have argued elsewhere for vulnerable solidarity; a solidarity whose content is unfair targeting, social death, and incarceration of social groups who are always vulnerable to being next in line for such treatment. It’s a solidarity that is about correcting and eliminating such treatment.(18)

As I see it, the content of solidarity and its aboutness seem to traditionally show that solidarity by itself has as its primary focus the issue and in correcting it. Members’ loyalty to each other is based on the ideals of the group; special concern is to assist members in the work of the group; trust is in order to contribute to the values of the group. But what about the members? What are our obligations to them not as fellow fighters but as humans? Their individual needs are worth responding to––not as a means to accomplish a grand objective––but because they are worthy of our care. Now this is not to say that Shelby’s account is not concerned with members. However, I think my account makes caring more central.

While care has been neglected in liberal theory, feminist philosophy has recognized its moral significance. Care ethics is in some ways the opposite of liberal theory. The liberal tradition asserts the importance of the individual and views the individual as a self-made person in need of their rights being respected without interference from others. The feminist care tradition, on the other hand, recognizes that we are dependent on one another to survive although this level of dependence varies. Our lives being better or worse depends on how we respond to and interact with each other. It is our relationships that shape us and also have life-altering effects. These relationships call us to be attentive to each other.(19) Care ethics reminds us of the importance of caring for and caring about each other. As Maureen Sander-Staudt writes, “care ethics involves maintaining the world of, and meeting the needs of, ourselves and others. It builds on the motivation to care for those who are dependent and vulnerable.”(20) 

Taking all of this together, solidarity care, then, prioritizes not issues but caring for and about each other with the goal of making members be and stay well––given the reality of the issue (i.e., social injustice). It is not a replacement for existing solidarity. It is an essential and even necessary complement to other kinds of group solidarity. It’s Shelby’s normative requirement number two (special concern) on steroids but informed by different motivations.

Who are the targets of solidarity care? The phrase “member of a group” should not be taken to only refer to members of institutional or racial groups, for example. A person can be in solidarity with another person and this solidarity need not be rooted in any affiliation at all. Marco can be in solidarity with Femi based on an unjust incident in which Femi was victim to (e.g., Femi suffered abuse by his boss). Marco need not be in solidarity with everyone who suffers like Femi. As long as Femi and Marco fulfill the normative requirements that Shelby describes, they are targets of solidarity care. In this way, we can get rid of the term “group” and replace “members” with Marco and Femi. Is it possible to be in solidarity with those who are either ignorant of your solidarity or who reject it? This is too big a question to answer in this paper. However, I do not have to answer it fully to make my argument. My argument for solidarity care and how to extend it presupposes that the relationship between parties is such that there is mutual awareness of members’ solidaristic commitments (although this awareness can vary in degree) and members do not reject the solidary, instead, they have certain expectations (and justifiably so) of it. In addition, Marco need not be in solidarity with Femi on every issue. He may be in solidarity with Femi around the unjust incident, but not in solidarity with him around a wrongdoing that Femi perpetrated. However, as I will argue in what follows, since Marco is in solidarity with Femi in other areas, he can still extend solidarity care. So what does solidarity care look like in practice? In other words, how might we care about and care for others who are also awake, actively deprogramming themselves, and challenging oppressive systems?

3. Extending Care

In what follows, I offer up three ways in which relatively conscious folks can extend solidarity care to others; however, these suggestions are in no way exhaustive.

The first way that members can extend solidarity care is by figuring out how they are each other’s problems and then stop being a problem. No matter how committed a person might be in her solidarity, there is always the possibility that ego, privilege, bias, and other “isms” can rear their ugly heads at any time. These things are difficult to let go of and they do not disappear because a person makes a decision to be in solidarity with others. However, if a person cares for and cares about those she is in solidarity with, she should not only focus on making sure outsiders are not inflicting pain on them. She should also make sure that she is not repeating the same actions and reproducing the same harms as oppressive others.

In her critiques of second wave feminism, black feminist scholar Audre Lorde was constantly concerned about this “being a problem” phenomenon. Lorde recognized that although white feminists at the time championed feminism, they paid little to no attention to the experiences of poor women, women of color, or lesbian women. Lorde noticed that white women were engaging in the same exclusionary and inequitable actions of the patriarchy they were criticizing. She argues:

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women—in the face of tremendous resistance—as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.(21)

It is a mistake to think that because a person is “consciously aware” of race and it’s problems that they are, by definition, also aware and awake to homophobia or classism. A woke person’s ability to understand one issue does not equate to their epistemic or moral mastery of the other. Recall that this rigidity is what grounds Sander’s critique of what I have described as a misuse of the concept “woke.” We see examples of this lack of epistemic or moral mastery when we look at past and present social justice movements. Today, as in the past, there are, for example, members of the LGBTQI community who are in solidarity with other members but are also transphobic. We see this in the way that trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson are often erased as key leaders in the history of LGBTQI liberation. We can also see this in the way in which marriage equality is often hailed as the pinnacle of LGBTQI rights while legislation that addresses the vulnerability of trans folks is seldomly advocated. And we also see this in the explicit transphobic actions that gays and lesbians engage in. This shows that “You too may be someone else’s problem.”

Lorde recommends that white feminists who perpetuate racism “touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears.” She suggests that only then “the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”(22) Similarly, wherever your hate, intolerance, disgust, or indifference resides inside of you for those you say you are in solidarity with, face it and try to overcome it. Lorde is right, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And this means that members cannot do what oppressors do if they want liberating results. I will also add that the master’s tools will never create a home, a home where all solidaristic fellows are cared about and cared for.

The second way that one can provide solidarity care is by reciprocating care. Reciprocity is mutual responsiveness. This does not mean that one ought to care for others in the exact ways, at the same time, or to the same degree that others care for them. I do not think this is always possible. One reason is due to the fact that people are in different positions of power and privilege and thus have access to different levels of resources to share. However, although reciprocity can never be exact, it should still be extended. If members are in solidarity with each other, care should not be one-sided. When there is mutual responsiveness, a person does not feel taken advantage of. Instead, he feels appreciated. He feels that his concerns matter, that he is loved, that he has support. This feeling helps create security and a much needed healthy sense of importance.

What can lead one to neglect this form of reciprocity? What is the cause of this “care-gap”––a slit in reciprocity between members of solidaristic groups?(23) A person can widen the care gap when they think that their issues are the most important ones. This is an example of the proverbial Oppression Olympics—a competition where people view their individual pain or struggle as the worse struggle and therefore ordain it as the pressing issue of our time. By doing so, they neglect caring for others who may face different issues. In addition, failure of reciprocity care can indicate, or at the very least, communicate, that they believe only certain lives are worth fighting for. This is not merely neglect. It is lack of care that arises out of a sense of superiority. Recent examples of this can be found in The Movement for Black Lives and in recent criticisms of a lack of feminist solidarity as it relates to black and white women.

The Movement for Black Lives was founded by black lesbian women who wanted to bring attention to the physical and social deaths of black and brown bodies of all backgrounds––deaths that were at the hands of state actors. However, the police brutality cases that got massive media attention and galvanized people, were cases involving black boys and black men. The deaths of black cis and trans* women were almost completely ignored by black activists and, not surprisingly, the larger public. What often occurred, unintentionally by the founders, was that the narrative began to center black boys and black men at the exclusion of black cis and trans* women. This communicated to many that the black lives that really mattered when it came to police violence were boys and men.

But if we consult the recent archive of the movement, we will find that it was black women who started the hashtag and started the organization. It was women who marched against police brutality in protest through cities across the nation. It was women who got behind podiums, case after case, holding back tears as they represented the deceased and unfortunately the black community at press conferences. Women showed up for the movement, but people rarely showed up for them. Reciprocity was lacking, making the care gap quite wide.

In response, black feminist academics and activists started the #SayHerName campaign. It’s an initiative that acknowledges that “although black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality … [the campaign seeks to] respond to increasing calls for attention to police violence against black women by offering a resource to help ensure that black women’s stories are integrated into demands for justice, policy responses to police violence, and media representations of victims of police brutality.” Women’s default was to engage in this kind of self-care because they did not get the reciprocity care they needed. This should not be when others purport to be in solidarity with them. The #SayHerName campaign was created not as a response to minimize the reality of black male death or to steal attention away from that reality. It was created to say that black women suffer too. It proclaimed: Acknowledge us, like we acknowledge you! Cry for us, like we cry for you! Fight for us, like we fight for you!

There are other examples of this care gap. In January of 2017, women of all backgrounds descended on Washington, D.C. and other places around the world to protest the misogynistic language and actions of the incoming U.S. President. One of the most popular photographs from the event, depicts an image of a black woman, Angela People, with a sign that says: “Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump,” as she stands in front of a group of young white women dressed in all pink.

According to interviews with People, the sign was not meant to sabotage the march, be divisive, or a downer in a moment of feminist affirmation. It was a sign that expressed a lack of reciprocity care. On People’s view, 95 percent of black women fought against the incoming politician in the voting booth. However, white women did not. Maybe it was because they had other interests. But the point was: Black women showed up for themselves and other women, but white women did not show up for them. Reciprocity care was lacking. It is examples like this that give reason to women of color to view white feminists with suspicion, leading journalist Jenna Wortham to write: “while black women show up for white women to advance causes that benefit entire movements, the reciprocity is rarely shown.”(24) This creates distrust––a distrust between two communities whose liberation depends on this solidarity and trust. However, we can learn from this. When people show up for you, you should also show up for them. This is how you care for others.

The third way that one can extend solidarity care is through affirmation and encouragement. In present-day social discourse, valuing how people speak to each other has been termed, pejoratively, as political correctness. And a person who values such things are labeled snowflakes or cupcakes. On the other hand, the ability to say particularly destructive speech is, by some people, hailed as the American right of free speech. It’s the right that tough people exercise.

However, if being woke has the mental effects that I claim it does in section 1. (regardless of one’s sensitivity level), then affirmation and encouragement are not luxuries or coddling. Solidarity care is a necessity. The work of psychologists show us that what we believe about ourselves on the subconscious level can have an impact on outcomes. Their work also shows that affirmation and encouragement provide a buffer to stress, particularly the racial and sexual traumatic stress that many experience. It can be stressful to be awake in a world that reminds you and others that you are in solidarity with––through rhetoric, policy, entertainment, and laws––that your life does not matter; that you are cursed, a mistake, a freak, or inferior. However, being presented with counter evidence of this through affirmation, confirmation, and encouragement is both a form of care and resistance against such destructive claims. A person can fight for freedom and still not be free because she can eventually––if not believe these messages––be in such a vulnerable position that the words can beat, defeat, and burden her. Destructive words have harmful mental and physical effects that threatens one’s overall health. However, affirming through counter-speech can help block these effects.

This way of extending care is what made Malcolm X so appealing. Many may disagree with the rhetoric and arguments of the early Malcolm X, but one of the many things that the black community adored about him was his use of language. His words allowed them to feel like they were still human. His words affirmed the black man who was getting beat by the cops on the streets of Harlem. His words sowed a seed of love to the black woman who felt disrespected by life. His defense of blackness made the unemployed young person feel that there was still hope. This is because affirmation has this power. If a person cares for others, she will not only speak words to power but she will also speak words that will empower others.

Consider the affirmation James Baldwin offers to his namesake in a letter to his nephew:

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear … [later on he says] this is your home … do not be driven from it… it will be hard … but you come from sturdy peasants … men who picked cotton and damned rivers … and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved … a monumental dignity.(25) 

Consider the affirmation and encouragement Martin Luther King, Jr. gives to members of SCLC in one of his most radical speeches, “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful or exploited … yes, yes we must stand up and say “I am black but I’m black and beautiful. This self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.(26) 

Consider the encouragement of black Congresswoman Maxine Waters spoken in a MSNBC interview after white TV personality Bill O’Reilly demeaned her for her black hair:

And I’d like to say to women out there everywhere: Don’t allow these right-wing talking heads, these dishonorable people, to intimidate you or scare you. Be who you are! Do what you do!(27) 

This is why social media hashtags such as #RefugeesWelcome, #TransIsBeautiful, #BlackExcellence, and #BlackGirlMagic are so needed and powerful. They are viral expressions of care. Their users express them in order to affirm and encourage those who may be hearing opposing messages.

While validation and affirmation are important, providing it in response to fragility should be avoided. I will use “white fragility” as an example.

Robin DiAngelo describes white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”(28) In white fragility, whites seek racial comfort (when they are challenged for example) instead of tolerating racial stress. White fragility can occur when a white person in solidarity with people of color receives feedback that their behavior had a racist impact. In displaying white fragility, they can come to feel guilty or angry thinking that the group now takes them to be racist and they get defensive. DiAngelo suggests that the behavior functions to reinstate white racial equilibrium. They push back to regain their racial position. Their resistance ensures that racism itself will not be faced by means of protecting their moral position while deflecting accountability. This defensiveness is also steeped in a perception of white arrogance, white purity, and racial comfort.

However, validation goes wrong when people respond to white fragility by affirming the above behavior. This can occur by telling the white person “it’s not your fault” or “everybody’s a little racist.” This also happens when a person responds by validating or affirming their response of denial and resistance by saying “You are right to feel this way” or “You don’t have to take this.” In this way, the fragile person and the affirmer can engage in the perpetuation of white supremacy. I think the correct response in these moments is not validation or verbal comfort but criticism. In this way, Marco can provide solidary care to Femi when he criticizes Femi’s racist behavior even though he is not in solidarity with Marco in relation to his racist behavior. And this leads me to my next suggestion.

A person can provide care for another’s moral well-being by challenging them to be morally better through criticism. This is because being well is not just about feeling better. It is about being and doing better.

Baldwin had no problem criticizing America because he knew it was an act of care. He understood that criticism that was grounded in truth and aimed at accountability was essential to care. He writes: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”(29) When people care for you, they tell you the truth about yourself.

The caring criticism that I am concerned with here always aims to be constructive and not (negatively) destructive. A caring critic aims to correct and help change problematic behavior. He does not aim to tear down but to build up anew. There is much debate in the activist community about calling in and calling out, when to do it, and which approach is best in certain circumstances. I do not have time to deal with these debates here but I do want to note that a caring critic is not motivated by things like moral grandstanding. Caring––not attention––is the goal.

4. Conclusion

In closing, I want to address two possible worries. Some may be concerned that I have only focused on human beings in this essay at the neglect of nonhuman animals and the environment more generally. And so the thought might be, that the only solidarity that I think truly matters is our solidarity with humans, and this sounds untenable.

However, this is not what I am arguing. I think that we also need to figure out how we are being a problem to other species and stop being a problem. I also believe that the world gives us so much beauty, sustenance, and connection and we need to reciprocate that care as opposed to treating nature like the giving tree—taking and giving nothing in return. The environment is already in solidarity with us. Some of the questions I think we need to ask ourselves before we can tackle the care question in this domain is: Can we acknowledge its solidarity with us and are we truly willing to be in solidarity with it? (These are questions that I do not think are restricted to this relationship.)

Some might also be concerned that I have neglected self-care. And they may think I have done so because I do not think it’s important. And this is unfortunate since self-care is often times the only care option that oppressed people have access to.

However, I think when people use the term self-care, they often use it in the narrow sense of the individual taking responsibility for their own health. In popular usage, it’s used to account for the ways a person mentally, spiritually, and physically tends to their own needs––needs that are often sacrificed for others’ needs. So self-care is a person following the airplane instructions of first taking care of themselves before they take care of others. The idea is that if you are not well, you cannot help others be well. Audre Lorde believed in the power and need for self-care and she claims that it is not an act of self-indulgence but of “self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”(30) I also think that self-care is of utmost importance in spite of my non-emphasis above.

However, I do not think that self-care is a sufficient condition of well-being. More importantly, I think that we should view self-care differently than we often tend to. Self-care is never done independently. Someone has to watch the kids as you meditate. Someone teaches the yoga class that relaxes you. Someone gifts you with the book that is changing your life. A therapist or friend listens to your story. A friend shows you how to make the green juice. Self-care takes place in community. Even if and when we decide to take care of ourselves, someone else is always joining in. The challenge that I have hoped to motivate throughout this essay is: Are you willing to provide the same care to others?

Let’s return back to the epigraph by Audre Lorde that begins this essay: “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.”(31) Lorde reminds us that freedom is not freedom from others. Without community there is no liberation. But I also think that without caring for others that we are in solidarity with––providing solidarity care––we will never truly be free or well, no matter how woke or aware we think we are.

Acknowledgments

I am indebted to the audiences at the 2017 Race and Health Conference at University of Washington; 2018 Black Religion, Spirituality, and Culture Conference at Harvard University School of Divinity; 2019 Public Philosophy Network Conference at Michigan State University; and 2019 Public Philosophy Conference at Boston University for their thoughtful and invaluable questions, comments, and suggestions.  

References

Baldwin, James. “Autobiographical Notes.” In Baldwin: Collected Essays, 5-10. New York: The Library of America, 1998.

———. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International, 1993.

Brooks, David. “The Problem with Wokeness.” New York Times, June 7, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/opinion/wokeness-racism-progressivism-social-justice.html.

Bryant-Davis, Thema. “Healing Requires Recognition: The Case for Race-Based Traumatic Stress.” The Counseling Psychologist 35, no. 1 (2007): 135-43.

Carter, R. T. “Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress.” The Counseling Psychologist 35, no. 1 (2007): 13-105.

Cherry, Myisha. “State Racism, State Violence, and Vulnerable Solidarity.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, edited by Naomi Zack, 352-62. New York: Oxford UP, 2017.

Cras, Raven. “What Does It Mean to be Woke.” Blavity News, September 26, 2015. https://blavity.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke?category1=opinion.  

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “The Urgency of Intersectionality.” TED, December 7, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Priscilla Ocen, and Jyoti Nanda. Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected. New York: African American Policy Forum and Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, 2015.

DiAngelo, Robin. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.

Feagin, Joe R., and Melvin Sikes. Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Gruen, Lori. Entangled Empathy. New York: Lantern Books, 2015.

Hinks, Joseph. “Maxine Waters to Bill O’Reilly: ‘I’m a Strong Black Woman and I Cannot Be Intimidated.’” Time, March 29, 2017. https://time.com/4716111/maxine-waters-bill-oreilly-fox/.

Janssen, I., M. Hanssen, M. Bak, et al. “Discrimination and Delusional Ideation.” British Journal of Psychiatry 182, no. 1 (2003): 71-76. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.182.1.71.  

Kelley, William Melvin. “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” New York Times, May 20, 1962. https://www.nytimes.com/1962/05/20/archives/if-youre-woke-you-dig-it-no-mickey-mouse-can-be-expected-to-follow.html.

King, Martin Luther and Cornel West. The Radical King. Massachusetts: Lantern Books, 2015.

Lorde, Audre. Burst of Light and Other Essays. New York: Ixia Press, 2017.

———. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007.

Merriam-Webster, s.v. “woke (adj.).” Accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/woke.

Preston-Roedder, Ryan. “Faith in Humanity.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 87, no. 3 (2013): 664-87.

Sander-Staudt, Maureen. “Care Ethics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 27, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/.

Sanders, Sam. “Opinion: It’s Time To Put ‘Woke’ To Sleep.” NPR, December 30, 2018. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/680899262.

Shelby, Tommie. We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Boston: Harvard UP, 2017.

Tessman, Lisa. The Burdened Virtues. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thompson-Miller, Ruth and Joe R. Feagin. “The Reality and Impact of Legal Segregation in the United States.” In Handbooks of the Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations, edited by Pinar Batur and Joe R. Feagin, 203-13. Boston: Springer, 2007.

Wortham, Jenna. “Who Didn’t Go to the Women’s March Matters More than Who Did.” New York Times, January 24, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/magazine/who-didnt-go-to-the-womens-march-matters-more-than-who-did.html.

Contributor Information

Myisha Cherry is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. Her books include The Moral Psychology of Anger (coedited with Owen Flanagan) and UnMuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice (Oxford). She is also the host of the UnMute Podcast—where she interviews philosophers about the social and political issues of our day.

Footnotes

  1.  Raven Cras, “What Does It Mean to be Woke,” Blavity News, September 26, 2015, blavity.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke?category1=opinion.
  2.  Some even claim that it goes back to the 1940s.
  3.  James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 105.
  4.  According to the metaphor, there is extrinsic value as well. Having this knowledge represents true freedom. On the other hand, while the blue pill provides a beautiful prison, it is still a prison nonetheless.
  5.  Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” TED, December 7, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o.
  6.  David Brooks, “The Problem with Wokeness,” New York Times, June 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/07/opinion/wokeness-racism-progressivism-social-justice.html.
  7.  Sam Sanders, “Opinion: It’s Time To Put ‘Woke’ To Sleep,” NPR, December 30, 2018, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/680899262.
  8.  W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 3.
  9.  R. T. Carter, “Racism and Psychological and Emotional Injury: Recognizing and Assessing Race-Based Traumatic Stress,” The Counseling Psychologist 35, no. 1 (2007): 13-105.
  10.  Thema Bryant-Davis, “Healing Requires Recognition: The Case for Race-Based Traumatic Stress,” The Counseling Psychologist 35, no. 1 (2007): 135-43, 135.
  11.  Ruth Thompson-Miller and Joe R. Feagin, “The Reality and Impact of Legal Segregation in the United States,” in Handbooks of the Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations, edited by Pinar Batur and Joe R. Feagin (Boston: Springer, 2007).
  12.  I. Janssen, M. Hanssen, M. Bak, et al., “Discrimination and Delusional Ideation,” British Journal of Psychiatry 182, no. 1 (2003): 71-76, https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.182.1.71.  
  13.  Joe R. Feagin and Melvin Sikes. Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 295-96.
  14.  James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 105-06.
  15.  Ryan Preston-Roedder, “Faith in Humanity,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 87, no. 3 (2013): 664-87, 669.
  16.  Lisa Tessman, The Burdened Virtues (New York: Oxford UP, 2005), 127.
  17.  Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2017), 151.
  18.  Myisha Cherry, “State Racism, State Violence, and Vulnerable Solidarity” in Naomi Zack’s (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).  
  19.  Lori Gruen, Entangled Empathy (New York: Lantern Books, 2015).
  20.  Maureen Sander-Staudt, “Care Ethics,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, December 27, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/.
  21.  Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 113.
  22.  Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 113.
  23.  In Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out , Overpoliced, and Underprotected (New York African American Policy Forum, 2015), Kimberlé Crenshaw refers to it as ‘asymmetrical solidarity.”
  24.  Jenna Wortham, “Who Didn’t Go to the Women’s March Matters More than Who Did,” New York Times, January 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/magazine/who-didnt-go-to-the-womens-march-matters-more-than-who-did.html.
  25.  James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 10.
  26.  Martin Luther King and Cornel West, The Radical King (Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2015), 170-71.
  27.  Joseph Hinks, “Maxine Waters to Bill O’Reilly: ‘I’m a Strong Black Woman and I Cannot Be Intimidated,” Time, March 29, 2017, https://time.com/4716111/maxine-waters-bill-oreilly-fox/.
  28.  Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011): 54-70, 57.
  29.  James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes,” in Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 9.
  30.  Audre Lorde, Burst of Light and Other Essays (New York: Ixia Press, 2017), 130.
  31.  Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 112.

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Community-Engaged Learning in Times of COVID-19

Community-Engaged Learning in Times of COVID-19

By Angie Mejia

Abstract:

In this text, I outline my attempt at restructuring a community-engaged course during a pandemic while also navigating institutional expectations that gloss over the logistical difficulties of modifying this type of curriculum. I argue community-engaged educators should bypass existing resources provided by their universities and look to what those at their discipline’s intellectual margins are providing instead. In a hurried, almost confessional tone, I also reflect on whether we can do community-engaged work during a plague; and, if so, how we can deliver educational experiences that remain centered on community building and societal transformation. I end this piece by summarizing changes to my curriculum, which run counter to what I (and possibly others) have been asked to do to meet course learning objectives. Thus, while this piece opens with a sense of doubt, it ends with a tentative sense of hope by advocating for the role of bold pedagogical movidas (moves) that could empower students to engage in new ways of being and doing community in pandemic times.


Community-Engaged Learning in Times of COVID-19 or, Why I’m Not Prepared to Transition My Class into an Online Environment

“I leave that up to you.” This was the email response I got from many of my community partners as news of COVID-19 hit my city a few weeks ago. I had written them emails asking whether my students (at that time, still on Spring Break) should resume their volunteering at their sites. Obviously, each conversation went no further. I knew that each leader felt the obligation to keep almost all their staff and volunteers at home but were also in urgent need of people power to continue providing services to the community. That left me to decide whether I should remove groups of student volunteers that provided hours and hours of face-to-face services at sites that desperately need twice that amount to meet their goals. (The decision to pull students from their sites was eventually made for me by my institution, without clear directions on how to support my community partners in this time of need.) I am not prepared to transition to online-only instruction nor am I prepared to make these hard decisions. That was how I was going to start the email to my faculty’s department head. But, knowing that he was already dealing with the five other emails I sent, I redirected my thoughts here, all the while thinking of those also rushing to adapt community-engaged classes during a pandemic.

Community Collaboratory

I am an assistant professor at University of Minnesota Rochester, the smallest campus in the University of Minnesota system. As a health-sciences campus, UMR is “committ[ed] to empower students to be engaged citizens and collaborate with the local community to solve healthcare challenges.”(1) The irony is not lost on me. I am the lead faculty member of a team-taught course, Community Collaboratory (CoLab, for short). We connect students, faculty, and community partners, with the goal of effecting social change. Students gain professional skills in the health sciences by on-site volunteering. They also engage with theoretical and methodological approaches to community health practices during lectures and assignments. I currently have fifty-two students assigned to one of ten nonprofit organizations in the Rochester area. My students provide early childhood education, coordinate health and social services for older adults, organize STEM-based after school programs, and help deliver citizenship and ESL curriculum and training for new Americans. Yes, the class is a lot of work. And I had everything under control until COVID-19 forced us educators to design online courses overnight.

Pandemic? Canvas! Kaltura! Zoom! Activate!

My heart sank when my university moved to online-only classes. My job now was to figure out how to use Zoom, hopefully without looking like the fool who forgot to unmute her mic. But I also needed to come up with ways my students could work with community partners while social distancing. And this had to be done in a week; two days before entering midterm grades! Here’s the question that no one bothered to answer: What is this actually achieving? Nothing, actually, since the shift from face-to-face to virtual community engagement was sudden and without adequate resources. And not only that, those of us teaching community-engaged scholarship are being asked to figure out, most often by those who do not teach, how students can “answer the challenge that COVID-19 has put in front of us” using the skills learned in our classes.

Answering Challenges at the Drop of a Hat

First, I needed research and resources; I went straight to my regional Campus Compact website. There had to be strategies for restructuring community-engaged projects into an online format while still remaining meaningful for my students and helpful to my community partners. Campus Compact’s mission is to support my university in achieving its public engagement goals. The resources I found, sadly, were not geared to solve my problem. I needed to find ways to guide my students to help out with the immediate critical needs of my community partners. Meeting learning outcomes was not my priority nor something that would benefit my students and our communities at this time. How was I going to support the communities that had welcomed my students and let them engage in meaningful acts of public service? Instead, I was being directed to resources on virtual volunteering. … What? Virtual volunteering? What is virtual volunteering? What urgent needs can students meet remotely? Social media tasks? Internet research? “Maybe they can design brochures in Canva…” Brochures? Really? Should I really ask the director of an organization that connects older adults to companionship services if she has any busywork non-direct tasks for my students to complete? I am way too Latina to bother this woman with nonsense. She and I know very well that face-to-face engagement is irreplaceable in her clients’ lives. There is no alternative assignment here; no real substitute for in-person, human interaction. And the majority of these virtual volunteering tasks are not adequate ways to help alleviate the critical needs of my community partners; they just meet learning objectives.

Most of our nonprofit partners cannot deliver services without the labor of student volunteers; they exchange time and labor so they can apply their classroom skills in the “real world.” In the pre-COVID-19 reality, I was sending my students out into a moderately predictable environment. My class was a welcome change from the monotony of quizzes, labs, and finals that comprise the bulk of their STEM coursework. Students found themselves in a world of opportunities that I had curated with my community partners and fellow faculty members. My students went to a field site, provided valuable services while being able to measure the impact they made on their local communities, and got to use what they learned in class to understand the larger social forces that define the community partner’s responses and practices. Hopefully, they would use these skills in the next stage of their journey as future health science professionals. And, as I keep stressing, I am not prepared nor have I received the support needed for my students to engage in this very real, for-real-freaking-real world, where the epidemiological, biomedical, and clinical understanding of this virus is still being mapped and analyzed. All I wanted was some help so I could teach class in a COVID-19 world where our collective survival is still being negotiated by people far greedier than you or I can imagine.

Complaining as a Community-Engaged Practice

It has been a few weeks, and I am going to be blunt.(2) Organizational bodies whose whole existence is to support community-engaged learning practices have yet to provide me or my colleagues teaching community-engaged courses tools and resources to restructure our coursework in a way that supports our community partners during this time of need. All I have gotten is the same spiel on meeting learning objectives while following social distancing protocols. That’s it. To that, I say … thanks but no thanks.

It is not that implementing virtual community-engaged classes is an impossibility. A growing body of research shows that community-engaged learning environments can be replicated online. Educational and social aims can be achieved remotely under certain conditions. I argue, however, that you need to have, at minimum, the resources to plan, design, and deliver this curriculum online,(3) ability, skill, and training to implement high-impact pedagogical practices,(4) and a social justice or similar framework(5) that buttresses the curriculum to be able to help our students understand why we are now online, what it means to do work online during a pandemic, and what are we able and not able to do as a community-engaged class to help our communities under these pandemic conditions.

First, resources, like time and infrastructure, need to be available and in place for any community-engaged class to meet its learning goals.(6) Cynthia B. Vavasseur and her colleagues have shown how virtual tutoring activities were meaningful not only for their students but for the community. Specifically, they measured benefits for those community members receiving tutoring services since the curriculum was planned to be delivered in that format and the technical infrastructure was in place to do so. The capacity for the community partner to receive and implement the curriculum was also established ahead of time. In one of the many resources geared to those teaching community-engaged classes, virtual tutoring delivered by students from home was a suggested alternative. Well, my community partner had to close their doors and send their clients home. And half of these clients do not have internet access.

Second, we need to understand the best way to transfer and apply pedagogical practices to online delivery formats.(7) Many community-based course instructors may not have the training to do this. I was lucky to already know the basics of various Learning Management Software packages since, until recently, I taught online to supplement my income as a graduate student. However, some faculty members have not had the time to learn how to restructure their courses or shift their pedagogical styles. Those who do not teach think that watching a video about uploading PowerPoint lectures to YouTube will solve our problem. Some in the world of higher education are starting to see that pandemics are not conducive to quality education. (Emphasis on some.) And here is something that none have yet to answer me: How does one read students’ levels of engagement and body language from the fifty-plus tiny video thumbnails on our Zoom screens?

Finally, during this moment of worldwide suffering, instructors committed to community-engaged learning need to not only meet learning outcomes but to help their students understand the limitations imposed to the social justice goals that buttressed our syllabuses’ missions.(8) It is impossible to make newly-restructured, COVID-19-friendly, community-engaged activities as meaningful for students or communities under these conditions. Those of us who connect academia to community are struggling to align liberatory objectives with what we are given to meet learning outcomes. In my case, social distance and virtual volunteering are not the way to go. And I imagine that many of my fellow educators feel the same way.

Social distancing and virtual volunteering are just a copy-and-paste response to urgent concerns that community and organization partners bring to us. And I am tired of receiving cop-out emails. First, social distancing is an individual response to a collective crisis. Even qualifying it as just the “physical” kind does not take into consideration the needs of those who go unheard—the houseless, the low-income, the chronically ill, the non-White, etc. I know my students are already doing the face-to-face work for the health, safety, and wellbeing of communities as they work in patient-care roles outside the context of my class. Many of them have no choice but to break social distancing rules and take risks. And virtual volunteering? After doing some background work, I found a number of these virtual volunteering opportunities fail to engage learners with a framework to understand and make sense of the interconnected inequities of this crisis. Any perspective-broadening, understanding-building work of volunteering has been reduced to “what can I do to help,” with an added “pat on the back” for helping out. This practice does not force the learner to critically explore the connected economy of suffering around this pandemic. While composing this essay, for example, I was multitasking as always: on my computer reading about requests to create PPE at home having more volunteers than capacity, while on my phone scanning a news item on hospitals asking workers to take unpaid leave. What an ironic juxtaposition the universe threw at me.

Bridging and Crossing: Grassroots Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning

Different sources of intellectual exchange (and not the organizational bodies to which my university has most likely paid a substantial membership fee for advice) have provided some real solutions to my immediate quandary. My teaching has been enhanced by exchanging ideas with Zoom chat participants during the presentations on intersectionality hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw and her colleagues at the African American Policy Forum. I have also received helpful strategies from members of the Public Health Awakened collective and from a random assortment of individuals in my existing social networks: faculty and colleagues at other universities, former students, social workers, and community activists. In sum, what has helped is to go outside the existing channels (while trying to avoid their avalanche of links listed under “COVID-19 Resources” or similar descriptors) to restructure pedagogical practices that tap into a myriad of collective knowledge projects that take into account not only the inequities exacerbated by governmental responses to COVID-19 but also reflect on the global South’s responses to past health crises. Again, I am going to be blunt: The institutional bodies and representatives in place to support my community-engaged teaching have not been in any way, shape, or form helpful during this time. In all, my work as an educator is, and always was, about crossing borders and finding solutions at the margins. Something that I momentarily forgot because it was suggested that I “absolutely must” attend a webinar on strategies to keep students from cheating while test-taking from home.

So, how did I restructure my curriculum?

Logistically: students who were serving as companions to older adults are now checking up on them via bi-weekly telephone calls and doing other forms of capacity-work to help the community partner with new operational needs. Others, if not already working as health care advocates in their own time (a number of them serving and caring for those directly affected by the pandemic), are providing similar, essential services in their respective communities. I trust my students are already meeting the critical engaged component of the class elsewhere.

Intellectually: I am less Professor Mejia who teaches community-based research methods and more Professor Mejia the bridge, the nepantlera (a person, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words, who inhabits liminal spaces and can help others cross). I am guiding my overly-anxious, often sleep-deprived, grade-focused STEM students to cross disciplinary fronteras (borders) and helping them wrestle with unfamiliar yet vital knowledge from the margins that can nourish their souls during these trying times.

I have replaced required readings with works (in addition to the few that I had already snuck in before this whole thing started) by Feminists of Color and other Global South scholars. Instead of an issue brief on health policy, I ask them to read J. H. Cuevas’s report on health practices in Chiapas. Textbook chapters on evaluation methods have been substituted with The Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement,” and Shakira R. Hobbs and colleagues’ case study on Black women’s acts of humanitarian engineering. Mixed-methods research articles have been exchanged for works on critical public health models. My lectures are asynchronous and not the best quality; but I can at least be a bridge and guide students to imagine new ways of relating as peers, as scientists, and as members of ailing communities. Perhaps I can even guide them to create new practices and new worlds.

In writing that “en unas pocas centurias, the future will belong to the mestiza,” Gloria Anzaldúa, once again, urges us to use our sabidurias (wisdom) to collectively envision more just futures by making them ours.(9) And my students cannot begin to imagine those futures by designing brochures in Canva.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Stephanie Vasko and Bethany Laursen for their careful reading of this text and their invaluable comments and suggestions for its improvement. Thanks also go to Kurt Milberger and Taylor Mills as well as the rest of the editorial team at the Public Philosophy Journal for their timely coordination of the formative peer review process.

Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

Becnel, Kim, and Robin A. Moeller. “Community-Embedded Learning Experiences: Putting the Pedagogy of Service-Learning to Work in Online Courses.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 32, no. 1 (2017): 56–65. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2016.1265443.

The Combahee River Collective. “A Black Feminist Statement.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 42, no. 3/4 (2014): 271–80.

Cuevas, J. H. “Health and Autonomy: The Case of Chiapas.” Report for WHO, 2007.

Eudey, Betsy. “Civic Engagement, Cyberfeminism, and Online Learning: Activism and Service Learning in Women’s and Gender Studies Courses.” Feminist Teacher 22, no. 3 (2012): 233–50.

Guthrie, Kathy L., Holly McCracken, and Terry Anderson. “Teaching and Learning Social Justice through Online Service-Learning Courses.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 11, no. 3 (2010): 78–94. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v11i3.894.

Hobbs, Shakira R., Bethany Gordon, Evvan V. Morton, and Leidy Klotz. “Black Women Engineers as Allies in Adoption of Environmental Technology: Evidence from a Community in Belize.” Environmental Engineering Science 36, no. 8 (2019): 851–62.

Jaffee, David. “Asynchronous Learning: Technology and Pedagogical Strategy in a Distance Learning Course.” Teaching Sociology 25, no. 4 (1997): 262–77. https://doi.org/10.2307/1319295.

Maddrell, Jennifer A. “Designing Authentic Educational Experiences through Virtual Service Learning.” In The Design of Learning Experience: Creating the Future of Educational Technology, ed. Brad Hokanson, Gregory Clinton, and Monica W. Tracey, 215–29. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16504-2_15.

McLean, Jessica, Sophia Maalsen, and Alana Grech. “Learning about Feminism in Digital Spaces: Online Methodologies and Participatory Mapping.” Australian Geographer 47, no. 2 (2016): 157–77.

Purcell, Jennifer W. “CommunityEngaged Pedagogy in the Virtual Classroom: Integrating EServiceLearning into Online Leadership Education.” Journal of Leadership Studies 11, no. 1 (2017): 65–70.

Schwehm, Jeremy S., Tennille Lasker-Scott, and Oluwakemi Elufiede. “A Comparison of Learning Outcomes for Adult Students in On-Site and Online Service-Learning.” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 20, no. 1 (2017): n1.

University of Minnesota Rochester. “Public Engagement Action Plan.” 2017. https://engagement.umn.edu/sites/ope.umn.edu/files/rochester-engagement-action-plan.pdf.

Van Hoover, Cheri. “Innovation in Health Policy Education: Project-Based Service Learning at a Distance for Graduate Midwifery Students.” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 60, no. 5 (2015): 554–60. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmwh.12264.

Vavasseur, Cynthia B., Courtney R. Hebert, and Tobey S. Naquin. “Pre-Service Teachers Serving Students: Service-Learning through Virtual Tutoring—A Case Study.” Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education 2 (2013): 47–61.

York, Reginald O. “Comparing Three Modes of Instruction in a Graduate Social Work Program.” Journal of Social Work Education 44, no. 2 (2008): 157–72.

Contributor Information

Angie Mejia, PhD, is an assistant professor and civic engagement scholar in the Center of Learning Innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester. Her research uses a feminist intersectional and critical sociology approach to the study of mental health inequities in Communities of Color. Her work has appeared in several academic journals, including Theory in Action, Action Research, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and Cultural Studies <-> Critical Methodologieshttps://orcid.org/0000-0001-9136-9345

Footnotes

  1.  University of Minnesota Rochester, “Public Engagement Action Plan,” 2017, 3, https://engagement.umn.edu/sites/ope.umn.edu/files/rochester-engagement-action-plan.pdf.
  2.  Here I am drawing inspiration from Sarah Ahmed’s work on complaint as Feminist of Color praxis.
  3.  Kim Becnel and Robin A. Moeller, “Community-Embedded Learning Experiences: Putting the Pedagogy of Service-Learning to Work in Online Courses,” Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning 32, no. 1 (2017): 56–65, https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2016.1265443; Cheri Van Hoover, “Innovation in Health Policy Education: Project-Based Service Learning at a Distance for Graduate Midwifery Students,” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 60, no. 5 (2015): 554–60, https://doi.org/10.1111/jmwh.12264.
  4.  David Jaffee, “Asynchronous Learning: Technology and Pedagogical Strategy in a Distance Learning Course,” Teaching Sociology 25, no. 4 (1997): 262–77, https://doi.org/10.2307/1319295; Jennifer A. Maddrell, “Designing Authentic Educational Experiences through Virtual Service Learning,” in The Design of Learning Experience: Creating the Future of Educational Technology, ed. Brad Hokanson, Gregory Clinton, and Monica W. Tracey, 215–29 (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16504-2_15.
  5.  Betsy Eudey, “Civic Engagement, Cyberfeminism, and Online Learning: Activism and Service Learning in Women’s and Gender Studies Courses,” Feminist Teacher 22, no. 3 (2012): 233–50; Kathy L. Guthrie, Holly McCracken, and Terry Anderson, “Teaching and Learning Social Justice through Online Service-Learning Courses,” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 11, no. 3 (2010): 78–94, https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v11i3.894.
  6.  Reginald O. York, “Comparing Three Modes of Instruction in a Graduate Social Work Program,” Journal of Social Work Education 44, no. 2 (2008): 157–72; Jeremy S. Schwehm, Tennille Lasker-Scott, and Oluwakemi Elufiede, “A Comparison of Learning Outcomes for Adult Students in On-Site and Online Service-Learning,” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 20, no. 1 (2017): n1.
  7.  Jennifer W. Purcell, “Community‐Engaged Pedagogy in the Virtual Classroom: Integrating EService‐Learning into Online Leadership Education,” Journal of Leadership Studies 11, no. 1 (2017): 65–70.
  8.  Jessica McLean, Sophia Maalsen, and Alana Grech, “Learning about Feminism in Digital Spaces: Online Methodologies and Participatory Mapping,” Australian Geographer 47, no. 2 (2016): 157–77.
  9.  Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987, 102.

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