Unpaid Labor and Boundaries

“Do you have any books that you’d recommend that I read on this topic?”

“Explain to me how *insert microaggression* is problematic.”

“Why are Black people upset with the police?”

“Is police brutality still an issue?”

For a long time, answering these questions felt like an obligation to me. Especially while attending a PWI where I spent the better part of four years being confronted by the willful ignorance of my classmates. I still remember the face of the white classmate who confidently stated that he felt that activists should lighten up on white cops who kill unarmed African Americans, because doing so is a “human” thing to do. I also remember a white classmate arguing that the only food supply that African American have access to in low-income neighborhoods are corner stores that only sell Arizona teas and Flaming Hots. The white professor's response? “Good point”. I still remember a white professor assigning videos of police brutality to watch as homework. African American students in the class(including myself) raised objections at this, feeling like such videos (including videos that the families of the victims specifically asked the public to stop sharing) were not only traumatizing to watch, but also aren’t necessary for nonblack students to understand how bad police brutality truly is. I remember him arguing that he felt that visibly seeing Black death is necessary to provoke nonblack people to act on our behalf, and truly understand how serious police brutality is. 

These events, and countless others, made college a traumatic experience. What was presented as a welcoming community ended up being a place where casual racism was considered “educational discourse”, and many students of color were made to endure silencing and blatant disrespect by their classmates, professors, and other administrators. The sense of entitlement to our culture and use of the n-word were made apparent to me when a white professor openly used it in class, then proceeded to tell the African American students who raised objections that they were overreacting. This sentiment was further solidified when this professor faced no consequences, despite the objections of many students of color, including myself. This sentiment was solidified again when I watched a white student angrily storm out of class when someone said something about Indigenous culture that contradicted what he had said. Apparently, he and his family considered themselves somewhat experts on this subject because his uncle “spent years studying these people”. I recall reacting to these incidents by being as outspoken as I could be. Despite being emotionally exhausted and burnt out, I pressed forward, believing that it was my obligation to do something. I believed that if I didn’t, I may find myself in a situation where these classmates would become the neighbor who killed my children over loud music or simply because they didn’t look like they belonged there, or the officer who thinks it’s okay to kill unarmed people of color. I felt that if I didn’t fight every incident of racism that I witnessed or endured, I would find myself regretting it later when their ignorant statements escalated enough to become physically dangerous. 

My breaking point came when a white classmate told me that, as a woman of color, I am obligated to lock myself in a metaphorical cage with racists and not let up until they change their minds. Then it hit me. Why am I doing this for free? In an institution where anyone who really wanted to learn to be better could simply take classes in the Africana studies department and not argue with the professors who were being paid to educate them on racism, I was doing the work for free, and to my own detriment. 

Since graduating, I’ve come to accept that what I did during those years and after does, in fact, count as labor. Taking time out of my day to teach white people how to not be racist, answering countless questions about the history of the oppression of my peoples and the current state of affairs, and teaching people how to be allies absolutely counts as labor. So I again posed the question to myself: Why am I doing this for free? I came to the conclusion that I no longer would be. Part of this came from the realization that anyone who chooses ignorance will continue to be ignorant, no matter how many times I debate them. If anyone decides that they want to be an ally, or a better ally, they should be willing to hear how taxing this kind of labor can be, and compensate me for my time. Not only does it show the proper respect to me as an activist, but it also comes with the acknowledgement that I don’t have to take the time to do this. I’ve chosen to prioritize my mental health and set up boundaries in a society that feels entitled to Black culture and Black bodies. Should I be passive in my own oppression? No. But should I forgo my own sense of self preservation and happiness by prioritizing unpaid labor that takes such a heavy emotional toll? Absolutely not. 

Compensate those who educate you. Period. 

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Paypal Email: daughterofmaat19@gmail.com

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