By Samantha Belleus
Image by Corrina Chow
As a Black woman living with mental illness, it seems educating my peers on my intersections has become a daily task. I’ve put in so much labour into explaining and re-explaining, all for free. It is important that we realize the risks we take when accepting to do unpaid work. It requires brain-storming, preparation, execution—it is real work.
A couple weeks ago Shaun King announced on Facebook that he had spoken at Harvard University. He went on to say that he had driven 4 hours from Brooklyn in a minivan with 111,068 miles on it to be there and wasn’t paid a single dollar. Despite this being disappointing, it is nowhere near surprising. It did leave me with a couple of questions: If Shaun King can’t even get paid, how am I ever going to make bread off educating folks? Why is the educational work of people of colour so devalued?
From what I’ve gathered, the reason POCs are forced into unpaid work is because we would rather do it for free than not at all. Whenever I’ve been asked to do unpaid work (and unenthusiastically accepted), whether it be writing an article, participating in a panel, or regulating some kind of event, I’ve always had the anxiety that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done at all, and consequently, an opportunity for a progressive and safe space would be passed up. I have spoken with other women of colour about this and they all echoed these feelings of anxiousness.
Trying to make the world a better place shouldn’t be at the cost of those working to do so. There needs to be a general consensus made to accept POCs’ hard emotional labour as exactly what it is—labour. It is outrageous to expect people of colour to simultaneously manoeuvre through an oppressive society which factually affects the amount of income I may be able to gain, be resilient through it all, and then explain it all for free . . . which, painfully doesn’t help the whole income situation. It’s some kind of vicious cycle that only truly benefits one side of the party.
If you understand why lawyers charge premium rates simply to look over a case, you should be able to understand why a POC would demand at the least some type of payment for their services. The principle is essentially the same—paying for someone’s expert opinion. Personally, spending 5 years pursuing a higher level education only to be told my opinion on the very subject I study is worth a grandiose “Free.99” is unacceptable.
We are talking about real, living, breathing people here. People who take time out of their day to plan out and execute events, who spend hours staring in the mirror or pacing around the living room practicing their speech, trying to remember every word, carefully wording them as to not stutter when the time comes. As people of colour, it is important that we learn to re-center and prioritize ourselves. It is okay to demand payment for hard work and, in fact, it should be expected.
All in all, I completely understand why POCs stumble into unpaid work, like Shaun King said in the same Facebook post “I did this for the love.” However, it’s important to keep in mind that, for the most of us, “love” don’t pay the bills. To the people of colour doing unpaid work and those attending and benefiting from unpaid POC work, know that those who truly care to change their attitudes and support POCs will actually invest in us. •