Janine Francois | text on empathy

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Ecologies of Care v 2.0

no image Janine Francois
no image, 2021

Date
17.06.2021

 

written by:
Janine Francois

this text was commissioned
by SEA Foundation
as part of the research
fold #01 on empathy


‘What is an intrinsic relationship of empathy to sustainability?
And how, in your practice, do you see/wish/experience empathy?’

Stories

Ecologies of Care v 2.0

The anniversary of George Floyd’s death and the global anti-racism movement it has inspired and provided provocative and thoughtful reflections about why I am asked to speak or in this case write about race, environmental justice and care. The last few months I have received numerous ‘invitations’ to discuss the interconnections between intersectionality, climate (in)justice and care. Nearly all the ‘invitations’ have been requested by white organisations and or institutions both big and small to discuss these topics. I am now having to ask, what are you doing around these very same issues you want me to talk about?  

In my essay, ‘Decolonise this Museum,’ I wrote, ‘many of us are socialised to only feel empathy towards those with already dominant or privileged identities, both interpersonally and structurally. Consequently, empathy and more importantly, care are highly priced commodities and depend upon the lucky draw of one’s social identities; and this is evident when we apply this to race.’ The scholars, Anjali Dut and Danielle Kohfeldt, define care as,‘a species of activity that includes everything we do to maintain, contain, and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment.’ The ‘racial empathy gap, a concept that explains why white people fail to empathise with the humanity of Black Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC), expounds how race and racism intersects to our understanding of care and why historically and contemporarily BIPOC have been denied access to care. The celebrated Jamaican academic, Sylvia Wynter would also contend that ‘humanity’ is a praxis rooted in the recognition of white cis-gendered, heterosexual abled-bodied males. Examples such as  modern gynecology being developed on enslaved women’s bodies or the Flint water crisis, where tap water is contaminated with lead, in a city that is disproportionately Black. Conveys why ‘fostering care-oriented environments and structures can […] alleviate the individual burden of care, while simultaneously propagating justice, wellbeing and a sustained sense of solidarity,’ as Dut and Kohfeldt write. They go on to write, ‘… a liberatory ethics of care encourages both integrations of care values at the structural and policy level, and necessitates prioritization of voices and perspectives that have been underacknowledged.’  

The re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movements, re-galvanised as result of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Toni McDade and Breonna Taylor to name but a few exemplifies how Black people are systematically denied access to fair treatment, by public servants whose primary duties are to protect, care and empathise. In some parts of America, Black men are six times more likely than white men to die at the hands of  the police. This phenomenon is not unique to North America, but globally where white supremacy and imperialism has imprinted themselves as the order of the day, from the UK to Canada, Australia to even Nigeria, these post-colonial nations are all victims to this same racial inequalities. Even the NHS, an institution whose sole purpose is to care for people, falls foul to institutional racism. It has been revealed that Black Women in the UK are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and Black and Asian people are disproportionately more likely to die from Covid.

The Critical Legal Scholar, Kimberle Crenshaw, would describe these injustices as ‘intersectionality;’ a concept that understands how people with multiple oppressed identities experience injustice because of how they overlap. When contextualising how BIPOCS lives are rendered as disposable and cheap, we see how interlocking systems of oppressions determine which bodies are valued and cared for and which ones are not. This explains how multiple forms of oppression are inherited systems that get mapped against marginalised and privileged bodies, which are exacerbated by laws, policies are practices designed to uphold the humanity of white-western, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, thin and citizen men.

If we understand that BIPOC does not receive the proper care and treatment because of how race and racism inform the system, it is designed to see us as not human as per Sylvia Wynter’s logic. Then the same oppressive frameworks of ableism, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy also inform how our lands and natural environment falls foul to such logic. The dehumanisation we experience as result of these oppressive systems is the same dehumanisation and oppression our planet and non-human species experience. Eco-Feminism becomes an important lens to understand these connections as the patriarchal and colonial systems of taxonomy, the organisations of people and places extend to colonised peoples and their lands. The celebrated Eco-Feminist Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies, writes, ‘We see the devastation of the earth and her beings …as feminist concerns… It is the same masculinist mentality which would deny us our rights to our own bodies and our own sexuality, and which depends on multiple systems of dominance and state power to have its way.’  

Eco-Feminism alongside Crenshaw’s ‘intersectionality’ provides an important framework to make clear the connections between race, gender, class, sexuality, ableism alongside indigeneity, citizenship, land displacement and colonisation. We can no longer understand climate injustice as a single narrative issue that only devastates the land, air or water and not the people who are disproportionately affected by such harmful changes. We have to urgently discuss how climate change is the outcome of white western colonialism and its damaging communities of colour across the globe. For example, Apple launching its ‘unity collection’ for the Black History Month, a watch in the colours of Pan Africanism, means very little when, coltan a key mineral in all of our gadgets, are being mined by Black Congolese men, women and children in the most hazardous and exploitative conditions. Large western corporations cannot be in ‘allyship’ with BIPOC in the Global North and engage in extractive capitalistic practices in the Global South. These contradictions are not lost on me and only amplify why we need an interconnected and intersectional understanding of climate injustice. We need to think deeply about which peoples and territories have really been experiencing a ‘climate emergency’ and for how long. The preservation of our planet is a direct preservation of the world’s global majority. 

In my introduction, I wrote of my frustration of being asked to perform my knowledge on these issues by predominantly white institutions and organisations that do not really care.  Or I am often asked by individual white people, what can they do? I don’t really know the answers to this as I do not possess the ‘means to production’ to quote Karl Marx, nor am I part of the dominant group. What I do think is required is for white cultural organisations regardless of their size, is to reconcile how culture with a capital ‘C’ is implicit in imperial knowledge systems, taxonomy, cultural extraction and appropriation, and how these colonial processes connect not only to climate injustices we have today but issues of racial inequity. In how this informs your hiring, exhibiting and collecting practices, are you engaging with outsourced workers? Do you have an anti-racism plan that examines what racism actually is? Are you investing in corporations that are involved in the occupations of other people’s lands and or harming the environment? These are critical questions to ask oneself, before asking me to talk about the subject.

Janine Francois

Is a cultural producer and lecturer at Central Saint Martins, London UK. She is interested in co-producing artistic and cultural work with marginalised and disempowered artists with multiple identities. Community’ and ‘care’ are central to her work and she reflects on questions such as: what does it mean to be with others, what does it mean to care for others, and how does this shape our artistic and cultural practices within groups, collectives or larger institutions? She is PhD student investigating whether the Tate can be a safe(er) space to discuss race and cultural differences within a teaching and learning context. Her PhD forms the basis of her educational/curatorial practice called ‘critical practice as play’, which uses experimental and playful approaches that bear witness in a performative teaching style, which spans performance art, poetry, embodied learning and creative/critical positioning.

Janine Francois website