7 Thoughts On The Value Of Black Labor

Originally Published at BlackFreelance

I woke up this morning to a stomach-turning account from a guide at a slavery museum. It was about an exchange with some White visitors, and basically amounted to the visitors’ efforts to argue (and I’m sure convince themselves), that slavery wasn’t that bad, that masters were caring, and that slaves, overall, were happy.

I’m painfully struck by the ubiquity of that thought process in an environment like the U.S. where 70% of people hate their jobs, and 87% of people distrust their managers — imagine how much worse those numbers would be if the companies and managers actually owned employees lives, existences, income, and offspring…

There is something extra going on here though. This isn’t just some White people just trying to make themselves feel good by wiping their history clean of the stench of human theft and abuse. It’s also an active continuation of the devaluation and commoditization of Black labor…in that we should have been happy to have employment at all, regardless of trades and lives left back in Africa, and regardless of the suffering endured, we should have been happy to work…period — with no nod to compensation aside from being “given” food that we had grown ourselves. If you listen carefully, it won’t sound unfamiliar.

It’s an insidious thought process and one that I’m beginning to think still has a tight hold on all of our attitudes toward work. So in that vein, here are 7 thoughts on the value of Black labor and how it’s addressed in the modern environment.

We’re slow to complain about our jobs.

In the corners of the Internet I frequent I see a lot of mentions of racism in the hiring process or racist/flat out irritating coworkers, but much less talk of job satisfaction. Now…among my close Black friends, job dissatisfaction is a frequent topic, but it’s not something that I see discussed openly…at least not anywhere near the level that White people do (they’ve dedicated entire comic strips and TV shows to it after all).

It makes me wonder if we still as whole at some level, don’t feel that we should still “be thankful” that we have employment at all and if a figurative masters’ gun isn’t still being held to our heads.

I don’t say that just as a general assumption. My own complaints of utter burnout in a corporate job have been met with “encouragement” to continue to climb the ladder, and I’ve been loudly chastised by a group of professionals for advising a new hire at a car rental internship program (one who I’d done the recruiting for) to be careful of her new employer.

I imagine this will only get worse as secure jobs become less common and more highly valued.

Navigating the layers of racism in the employment process is a cumulative drain on our compensation.

In the same high-skilled positions such as computer programmers and software developers, Asians make $8,146 less than Whites and Blacks $3,656 less than Whites, according to the report from the American Institute for Economic Research. ~USA Today

When we talk about racism and work, it’s easy to limit that thought to not being hired because an organizational gate keeper decided that your levels of Blackness didn’t fit with company culture. It’s so much more cumulative than that though.

If you pass the name and address test and are called into an interview, you may very well be offered less than other applicants. If you accept, your promotions will likely be delayed in relation to your White counterparts, even as you take on more work than others. If you are promoted and compensated at all, your raise won’t likely be as high. That $3,656 you’re not receiving doesn’t just appear one day…it’s a cumulative and systematic chipping away in very small amounts that increasingly devalues your labor.

There’s a stench of warranted frustrations.

I’ve been out of undergrad, even graduate school for a while now.

I remember my frustrations…even the situational depression I sank into while I went about my job search and was met with surprise hiring freezes and jobs that disappeared the minute I showed up. I also remember envying people 10 to 15 years younger than me, and the enlightened, robust, even equitable job market they would face.

Today, I consider myself lucky.

New graduates and job seekers face many challenges in their job search — the catch-22 of experience and employment…the confusion of learning the reality of the work world — but on top of that, young Black workers face a quickly deteriorating job environment in an employment culture that is deludedly “post-racist”. I read the complaints of job-seekers and new hires and can hear them clinging to hope, but I think that at some level they can see the cliff they have to scale.

We’re reluctant to critique

The Internet is FULL of brilliant Black women and men examining everything from food, to media, to feminism, to politics. Business (the system of labor), goes largely untouched outside of strictly numeric approaches.

I understand that, because it’s easy to brush off business as “logical” and amoral — look at how often questions of ethics and abuse are brushed off with a curt “it’s just business”. But business is humanity quantified, and that humanity unfortunately, has largely been defined within the scope of White culture, so I understand why all of us are slow to critique the hand that feeds us…it’s largely because…

…We are in love with the White male model of work.

From a worship of corporate culture to the lifting up of mediocre bloggers over ones that truly connect and grow thriving communities (hello BlackTwitter), much of business in Blackness ignores its own strengths and values in favor of an uncritical embrace of traditional White, male values and structures.

This happens in the office, in the blog world, in the worlds of personal branding and marketing…everywhere.

It’s the last frontier of decolonization

…and that makes sense. American (continental) Blacks weren’t brought here as slaves to entertain nor to increase the population nor up numbers of Christians on the planet. We were brought here to allow White people to work less while not losing out on any of the benefits of labor. We were brought here for our work. Our work is the very foundation of a racist social system, so of course, the road to equitable value of Black work in a capitalist system especially, is a long one.

The question of the value of Black labor and its impact on society is a complex one, but one worth trying to answer, especially on an individual level.

I named only 6 thoughts on labor, because I believe it’s important that as individuals, Black people start answering this question for ourselves…Do you feel your work is properly valued and compensated? Have you ever taken steps to change this? (Asking for a raise, quitting a job where you felt underpaid, etc.) How much control do you feel you have in respect to the value of your work and effort?

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