On overworking, disposability, and feeling (un)worthy of kindness

What does it take for people of colour to see themselves as they are?

Last week, I looked at my calendar and had a moment where my heart sunk with a wave of overwhelm. I was working a full-time job, juggling a handful of freelance and volunteer graphic design projects, organizing and facilitating community events, and attempting to pitch essays and submit short stories to online magazines. It was the way it has been for a while, now: I would start working on side projects the minute I finished my day-job in the early evening, and would regularly work until my 2AM bedtime. I spent a lot of time in isolation; going full Saturdays without speaking to anyone, save a cafe barista. Last week, it finally began to feel impossible. I knew this scenario was unnecessary and unsustainable; something that I had manufactured at my own will. Why was I so obsessed over tangible outputs? Why did I want so badly to be productive?

I messaged a friend, writing: I don’t know what I’m trying to prove, or who I’m trying to prove it to. Up until now, I’d mostly chalked up my proclivity for overworking to something akin to muscle memory. A “good” work ethic has long been instilled by my immigrant parents, who, approaching their late sixties, still work up to six days a week. Keeping busy was also an effective coping strategy for my ongoing low-grade depression and anxiety. I found refuge in the stress that came with a heavy workload: it was distracting — more touchable than the bigger, more amorphous anxieties that I often did not want to name; and more manageable than the anxieties I did know how to name, but felt like I had no control over. Outputs were something I could hold onto. If I couldn’t be happy, I could at least productive.

That night, I wrote that I didn’t know what I was trying to prove and who I was trying to prove it to. But what was I really trying to say? I wondered how much of my fixation on overworking was tied to wanting to attach value to myself. I wondered how much was because I was afraid of no longer being useful or needed; of being disposable, of being alone, or of disappearing altogether.

I am constantly aware of my body as a woman of colour and how it presents itself in white academic and professional spaces. And although my proximity to whiteness as a non-black person of colour, my family’s class mobility, and my education has undoubtedly helped me enter these spaces, I also watch how my race, gender, and perceived age (I am 26 but am, somewhat absurdly, often mistaken for being in high school) collude to render me invisible inside of them. I am familiar with the feeling of having someone’s gaze gloss over me at a conference or in a meeting, as if I might as well not be present at all. I have seen words that I’ve written be attributed to white peers with more authority and power. I had a seat at the table, but I wasn’t sure that anyone at the table could see me.

I recently shared my anxieties around not presenting “professionally” enough with a friend, a fellow woman of colour. I put the word in quotations, because we both tacitly acknowledged the race and class connotations the word implies. She comforted me by saying it shouldn’t matter — that she knew I was smart and competent and that the quality of my work would speak for itself. It was validating to hear, but it was also a reminder of the importance of being exceptional for those at the margins: because if our work didn’t speak for itself, then what would?

I know my relationship to overworking is not unique to me. I have a number of friends — primarily people of colour — who share that they feel they are not doing enough: not enough community organizing, not enough writing, not enough social justice work. I often repeat a phrase that they often say to me, back to them: you are more than your productivity. I see these friends for their values, their kindness, their ability to show up, their commitment to justice, their listening ear, our shared hobbies, the way they make me laugh, or their patience in helping me unlearn. It was easy for me to see this in other people, but why was it so difficult to see it in myself?

I think about how much of this is socially learned. As “diversity and inclusion” becomes mainstreamed, there has been some troubling language that reinforces the narrative that people of colour’s humanity should be contingent on their productivity. Under the veneer of “inclusion”, I see how (often liberal, white-led) diversity initiatives advocate for the presence of people of colour and other marginalized identities. A common argument is that diversity leads to “more profitable” teams — that people of colour are, in fact, good for business! A means to an end. And when Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and travel from Muslim-majority countries in 2017, I saw countless organizations release statements critiquing the ban, arguing that people travelling to and from these countries were good for American society — that they were talented researchers, scientists, doctors.

But what if they weren’t? I wondered: if people at the margins were not exceptional, if they were not productive, if they did not provide value, were they allowed to be?

When I started writing and self-publishing work online a few years ago, I was surprised by how much this changed the way I navigated my immediate world; or perhaps more accurately, the way my immediate world perceived me. Once, after I shared a link to a personal essay I wrote on Facebook, a white former classmate from high school messaged me, saying she didn’t realize I had “so much going on inside my head” when we were in school together, and did we want to go for coffee? We hadn’t spoken in seven years. Another time, a colleague told me that they didn’t realize I was so emotionally intelligent: they wouldn’t have a clue, if they hadn’t read the latest piece I shared online.

And while I was not seeking validation from these people in particular, I realized that narrativizing my life — as I am doing here — could be a tool for for being seen, for being seen the way I saw myself, for rendering my full self less invisible. I think some part of me convinced myself that if, through my essays, I could demonstrate that I was emotionally intelligent enough, or that I felt enough, then maybe I could be more loveable — more deserving of kindness.

I added writing to the list of outputs I was fixated on producing.

A few days ago, I was helping out at a community event when I received a text from a friend asking me how it was going — they would be on their way there soon. I hadn’t eaten all day and was ravenous, so I messaged back a simple: “good but v hungry!!!” I shoved my phone back into my pocket, and didn’t think any more of it.

A few hours later, when my friend came to say hi at the end of the event, they pulled a plastic tupperware out of their backpack. I made you a sandwich, they told me. I wanted to cry. It was such a quietly kind gesture, and I wasn’t sure what I had done to deserve it.

I wonder what it takes for people of colour to see themselves as they are. I wonder why it is so difficult. I took up a hobby of taking portraits for friends a few years ago. I consider it a privilege to photograph them, people of colour who are kind and beautiful humans. But it is bittersweet, watching their delighted expressions as I let them preview some of the photos on my camera. Often, they are surprised to see their photos, saying something like: Wow, thank you for making me feel beautiful. As much as it is heartwarming, it also makes me angry. You were always beautiful! I want to scream—not at them, but at the world who conditioned them to think otherwise.

I wonder what it takes for people of colour to see themselves as they are.