Rethinking Care: The Brazilian Challenges of Moving Away From Colonial Care

Bianca Sola Claudio

This essay argues that care bears the analytical means which might be necessary to identify colonial care practices. These are not only visible in domestic work often carried out by women of colour outside their own families but also when the black community is the care receiver. Based on studies previously conducted with care workers in Brazil, I use the Brazilian example to identify traces of colonial care within social assistance. Specifically, I use the case of mothers and their infants in the health system as well as adolescents entering the judicial system. This raises interesting thoughts related to care ethics within the postcolonial logics as well as the intersectionality of care ethics.

Ethics of care is inevitably connected to its underlying, contemporary, neocolonial, global relations. Postcolonial theory amplifies the ethics of care beyond its conventional boundaries, since its values favour a posture of humility in colonial encounters,  while highlighting the caring experiences of people of colour (Mooten 2015). Here, I will emphasize the need for a postcolonial readjustment of the ethics of care, which could help to build common grounds through such posture in the context of care practices.

Although dismantling the colonial care within Brazilian institutions, as partly achieved by Márcia Campos Eurico (2015) and Rachel Gouveia Passos (2013), exceeds the scope of this essay, its purpose is to point towards potential insights from ethics of care in a dynamic where people of colour are the care receivers.

What is colonial care?

Colonial care often relates to nursing practices in a postcolonial context, the role that nurses and nursing played in a country’s colonial and postcolonial past as well as the impact that the experience of this particular form of nursing had on the wider development of nursing. Here, I use Gouveia Passos’ (2020) definition of colonial care[1], where she understands that one of the legacies left by colonialism – particularly for black women – was colonial care, which is expressed  in the contemporary scenario in many ways. She categorizes three forms of manifestation of colonial care: the first constitutes the ‘zone of non-being’ (Fanon 2008), the second manifestation lies in the perception of black persons as killable and ‘exterminable bodies’, and the third as a stereotyped object. In light of the thoughts of Frantz Fanon (2008), we can highlight that black individuals – men and women – are placed in the ‘zone of non-being’.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon (2008) shows us that there is a universal conception of the human being that is intended only for whites. In this light, Gouveia Passos (2020) points to the fact that care is enabled and transformed according to social reproduction and, therefore, subject to colonial exploitation. Thus, given the social and sexual division of labour in the capitalist mode of production, women were responsible for carrying out care work. This distribution of tasks is determined by gender and only deepens with race and class, promoting the naturalization of supposed skills. It is in this process that the association between women and domesticity is constituted (Biroli, 2018), which cannot be homogenized due to racial and class relations that cross and differentiate the experience of being a woman. In the case of black women, the intersection between gender, race, and class will lead to them remaining in the field of domestic and care work, not only as an extension of the reproductive sphere – as is the case for white women – but established and demarcated by coloniality. Hence, there is ‘something more about black females doing care work than merely its connection to reproduction’, which is entrenched in colonial exploitation (Gouveia Passos 2020 119).

This ‘something more’ described by Gouveia Passos can be understood in acknowledging the intersectionality of the reproductive sphere. However, there is no way in which one can appropriate the myth of maternal love (Badinter 1985) to all women, particularly if colonial exploitation comes into play (Biroli 2018). The delight of motherhood remains an experience denied to black women, reinforced not only by more violent practices from the slave regime but also the imposed mothering and raising of white children. The position of the black woman challenges the private public dichotomy and the notion of the exclusive and essentialized bond between mother and child (Collins 1990). Hence, caring practices can be further examined by black women’s historical experiences with such practices or – in many cases – tasks and add to the ‘something more’ that Gouveia Passos (2020) so eloquently pointed out (see also Fitzgerald 2022). Given that the site of caring is ‘broader than home-based kin’, historically never having had the opportunity to care for their own families, care for black women, as well as racialized and other groups of disadvantaged women, is not an unpaid private activity in the home but takes the form of domestic service (Graham in Mooten 2015 14). Such service links them to the perpetuation of the colonial labour system in which the same type of work used to be performed for little or no compensation in an extension of institutionalized slavery (Hilary Graham 1991 69).

‘When the colonized comes to the homes of the colonizer, various layers of relationships contribute to the unevenness of power’ (Sarvasy and Longo 2004: 393). This can sometimes even occur between nations, in the case of migrant women,  women and also households in a hierarchical system of interpersonal relations (Hankivsky 2006: 101). As Mooten (2015) points out, this is the case for caregivers being oppressed, although the postcolonial recasting of the relational ontology includes asymmetry and hierarchy in such a way that also suggests that care can be as ‘oppressive’ to care receivers. This idea highlights the danger of paternalism, where caregivers could inferiorize receivers, as the caregiver is always in a position to dictate how and with which frequency care is given. It could be the case that care receivers are not in position to express how they need to receive care. This is not to say that caring must be domineering and oppressive. However, considering that care relationships are asymmetrical and hierarchical, they often have the power to be so (Mooten 2015).

Social work as colonial care

Indeed, this can be the case for care practices within the context of social assistance, where this asymmetry and hierarchy can be oppressive to care receivers. Relatively recent literature has researched Brazilian institutional racism within social workers’ care practices (Campos Eurico 2015; see also Gouveia Passos 2020). In investigating professionals’ perceptions concerning racism and racial discrimination in their everyday work, they expose racial prejudice within institutions  of the Brazilian health and judiciary system. The choice of these areas is justified by the relevance of research pointing to ethnic-racial belonging as a factor in unequal access to public policies or as a determining factor in situations of greater likelihood of illness or death in certain circumstances including the presence of physical or psychological violence. A survey conducted in Brazil by the institute Fiocruz identified that black women represent 65.9 per cent of those who suffer obstetric violence ( Bastos and Bertoni, 2014; see also Lansky et al. 2014), with the black population representing 67 per cent of the total public served in the services of the single system of health (Ministério da Saúde 2017). ‘We always witness violations of rights. In almost all consultations, we were unhappy with hospitalization, because we assumed that restraint alone, without any work [...] is deeply harmful to the adolescent. I've dealt with cases of teenagers who attempted suicide, two or three times [...]. Adolescents who suffer physical violence within the institution, moral embarrassment. We can always identify this type of situation and the violation of rights,’ a social worker explains regarding the judiciary system (Campos Eurico 2013: 302).

Historically, social work in Brazil is not built to deal with post-colonial readjustments. Under the influence of the Catholic Church, the Brazilian Social Service emerged in the 1930s to intervene in the various manifestations of the social issues produced by capitalist society. As the Social Service emerged deeply marked by the character of a Catholic apostolate, the social issue was seen as a moral and religious problem and racial relations were not adequately problematized, since the focus was on a resolution of class contradictions. The Social Worker’s Code of Professional Ethics – approved in 1993 – is the first professional code of social work to introduce the issue of non-discrimination as one of its fundamental principles (Campos Eurico 2015). This led to a reflection on the importance attributed to ethics and human rights within the ethical-political project from the 1990s onwards, strengthening the foundations for the development of a debate on the ethnic and racial issue in the daily life of the social worker.

In this scenario, despite the growing demands of the black movement in defense of a re-signification of the racial issue in Brazil, the profession’s contribution to the production of knowledge on this subject remains very modest. ‘These three elements constitute social death: being poor, being black and committing an infraction, which indicate to the justice system that the individual is unable to live in society,’ explains a social worker interviewed by Campos Eurico (2013: 302). She further explains that the mother of one of the adolescents being helped through the judiciary system mentioned to her: ‘Wow, but the other one is out! Could it be because he was lighter?’ They conclude: ‘There is still that judgment that black people are potentially dangerous’ (Campos Eurico 2013: 302). Given that the health and judicial system is not built to deal with such prejudice, it is also the case – as we can see from their testimonies – that not only social workers, but also relatives from the care receiver can spot the blunt prejudice.

Building common grounds despite colonial care

To bridge the gap, between caregiver and care receiver, the moral and political value of ‘effective listening’ proposed by Fiona Robinson (2011: 847) can be useful, as she explains that listening in this sense means not only hearing, but being attentive and understanding the concerns, needs, and aims of others in dialogue. This in itself is a care practice, which cannot only help ‘overcome those differences in power, but to work within and through them’ (Robinson 2011: 854). The ethics of care in this regard highlights the need to think critically about the nature of power and dependence in a way that could be a means to create common grounds.

In the Brazilian example mentioned above, one can note that it is not only the fact that a caregiver can determine when and how care is given as Mooten (2015) has argued, but analyzing care relations with a post-colonial lens also engages in questions of who is deserving of care in this logic of exploitation. Hence, giving care to those deemed ‘undeserving’ of it either through ‘effective listening’ or other forms can be a means of resistance, as well as of overcoming, but also of working through differences in power. Notably, care ethics in this context bears the danger of overburdening the care worker and not changing the institution accordingly or, as Mooten (2015) has argued, of portraying the care receiving and oppressed community as ‘needy’ and care workers as saviours. These dangers represent the limits to care ethics in implementing post-colonial readjustments and show us that non-colonial care cannot be achieved without institutional change. Yet, a move towards the decolonization of care unveils care as a powerful means to dismantle not only the colonial representation of the ‘exterminable body’ but also to work towards humility and the responsibility of learning from those who are oppressed.


[1] Translated from Portuguese cuidado colonial (Gouveia Passos 2020).


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Bianca Sola Claudio is a PhD scholar at the University of Cologne, where she also teaches. She is currently substituting research group leader at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen and also a member of InZentIM (Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Integrations- und Migrationsforschung). Her research interests lie in feminist care ethics within the South American context and migration ethics, as well as social movements related to displacement. Her dissertation and teaching focus on the normative questions of distributive justice for displaced persons in Europe.