Monday, April 02, 2007

Review: Racism and Paid Work

[Tania Das Gupta. Racism and Paid Work. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1996.]

I first encountered this book in the late '90s. Unfortunately for my political education, that encounter mostly involved lifting and carrying it -- I worked a couple of stints in the textbook section of a university bookstore. Thankfully, it doesn't read at all like the sort of eye-glazing, pedantic stuff I usually think of when I hear the word "textbook". Rather, it is a delightfully clear, straightforward, cohesive piece of political analysis that has obviously been constructed to be of broad pedagogical value while proudly embracing a framework Das Gupta describes as "Marxist, feminist and anti-racist."

The book begins with an outline of its theoretical framework. This is followed by brief descriptions of the various ways racism can actually happen in workplaces. For all its brevity, this list was enough to trigger me to really engage with the nuts and bolts of the issue, and had me going over my memories of a particular former workplace that was persistently inhospitable to several co-workers and trying to see if I could figure out which mechanisms applied and which ones did not. The book then moves on to two case studies: racism (predominantly anti-Chinese) in the garment industry in Canada and racism (predominantly anti-Black) in nursing in Ontario. Both, of course, are sectors where it is primarily women of colour that are affected. The work concludes with a look at mechanisms for resisting workplace racism. This chapter is also quite short, which in this case I think is a problem -- I think the book would have benefited from a much more extensive treatment of strategies for resistance.

Despite being published over a decade ago, this book is still a great introduction to the issues and concepts. The down side, not surprisingly, is that a lot of the detail is dated. Much newer statistics are available, for example, on labour market outcomes for people of colour and women of colour (e.g. in this book). Some of the qualitative research for the garment industry case study was done a decade or a decade and a half before the book was published -- so as much as a quarter century before the present day -- as part of Das Gupta's doctoral research. I think a lot of the general attributes of workers' experiences would be much the same today, but I'm sure details are different since then, and a lot about how the industry as a whole is organized has changed since since she wrote the chapters context and summary in '96. (Roxana Ng's chapter in this book talks about more recent changes in the Canadian garment industry due to global economic restructuring.) This is my first exposure to material specifically on nursing so I have no pointers to other sources, but I know the health care sector has also been under tremendous pressure in the last ten years, and has probably changed a lot in its organization. Given how these things tend to play out, I would bet that female-dominated professions like nursing have borne the brunt of these changes, and that racialized women within these fields have been particularly affected.

Despite the eleven years that have passed, the core ideas in the book are just as important and just as relevant today. In fact, as a book I reviewed recently argued, it seems that class relations in Canada are becoming increasingly racialized, and the need to acknowledge this and understand its implications may be even more important than ever. Racism and Paid Work remains a great resource to start wrapping your head around what that means.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

No comments: