Labor exploitation is something that Black women know well. Whether it was working “the second shift” while the first shift was unpaid as well, and both occurred within bondage (with physical abuse, rape, medical experimentation, psychological warfare and repeated familial destruction accompanying this, no less) to currently earning less money (and having much less wealth) than both White men and White women, exploitation and labor have always gone hand in hand. Black women, like Black men, currently have double digit unemployment and many Black women work within “care” professions that are devalued in a capitalist society that’s White supremacist and patriarchal.
When our feelings, health, needs and safety are disregarded while we are expected to care endlessly for absolutely everyone but ourselves, our emotional labor is exploited. From the time that Black women did the same manual labor as Black men while enslaved to currently large percentages of Black women working in demanding, stressful, physical, low paid labor, or even in the corporate world where we’re expected to do more for less pay and accept microaggressions, overt racism and sexual harassment, our physical labor is exploited. But there’s a third area where Black women are repeatedly exploited: our intellectual labor.
Whether as writers, journalists, speakers, organizers, case managers, social workers, counselors, or post-secondary educators, thought leaders or other roles where work is specifically focused on anti-oppression praxis, feminism or politics in relation to social justice, Black women’s labor is repeatedly exploited. And this exploitation comes from those quick to ascribe to “liberal,” “progressive,” “feminist,” and “humanist” labels. Everyone is on “the same side” until someone wants to take from a Black woman and expect her to quietly endure it.
Paid work, leadership, networks, connections, program acceptance, committee creation, platform, recognition, praise. All for White women. Free work, follower status, isolation, disconnection, rejection, exclusion, insults about platform size/brand, derision. All for Black women and other women of colour as well. (Latina and Indigenous women, for example, mentioned to me that they deal with similar.)
And let me be clear; I don’t want what White women have. Period. I hate fame. I avoid the “mainstream.” I thrive in the underground. I don’t want a seat at their table. But at the same time, why should they continue to stand tall only by standing on my shoulders? How are they fighting for justice for all women (and I don’t even mean “all marginalized people” as many of them are already not fighting for men of colour who are marginalized, trans people, intersex people etc.) if they must exploit women of colour to do it?
In the age of social media, two ways that White feminists (and White-owned mainstream publications no less, who at times use other people of colour to exploit people of colour who don’t work in the mainstream) exploit Black women is via content trolling (regularly checking a Black woman’s blog for content to appropriate, rewrite simpler for less informed audiences, don’t give credit and get pay/recognition while this occurs) and straight up plagiarizing. They also devalue us by expecting pay from mainstream organizations for their work, but reply with haughtiness and derision to Black women who expect to be paid or even properly cited. We can’t even expect to be cited without being called “selfish,” “arrogant,” or worse, “capitalists.”
I’ve heard White men, White women and even some Black men and other men of colour suggest that Black women who expect to be cited or compensated for their intellectual labor are “capitalists.” See, everyone but us deserves respect for their work. The idea that Black women have to “prove” our commitment to social justice and anti-oppression praxis and to the willingness to critique capitalism by allowing exploitation of our labor is actually contradictory. Inherent in capitalism is labor exploitation that is top down. If I allow my labor to be exploited, I am not critiquing capitalism, I am sustaining it. To reject labor exploitation IS to critique capitalism. And even the work for justice is labor. It’s physical, emotional and intellectual. It’s life or death, actually.
Those with money, platform and power expect to literally profit from my writing, critiques, analyses, text reviews and more as I sit here wondering how something will be paid next week. Wondering what am I gonna do about Sallie Mae. Wondering if I have enough money to move to an area where the street harassment I experience could reduce a bit from my calculations (this is really nuanced though) though it never fully evaporates. Wondering if I have the money to even try another go at doctoral applications. Wondering. Always wondering. Born in poverty, never truly a member of the middle class. Wondering. And all of this wondering makes me the “capitalist” because I won’t applaud middle class White women and White-owned, millions in profit publications to exploit my labor? As if they care about justice. As if it isn’t about page hits and traffic for them and them noticing that Black bloggers on Tumblr get interaction and number of impressions (likes/reblogs) that their blogs can’t match. They don’t care about me or the people/issues I care about. I’m a means to an end for them. This is the only reason why they pursue Black women for free content or worse, just troll and plagiarize. And you can’t even tell these people NO. I told a White publication NO to cross posting and was called “rude.” I’m tone policed and harassed over my content but I’m the “capitalist” and they’re “feminists?” There’s a difference between trying to survive in a capitalist society and being a capitalist.
Yet the oppressors’ tools filled with anti-Black woman logic are in the hands of White-owned media, White men, White women and even some men of colour, and as follows: 1) Be silent or be flattered by labor exploitation. 2) If you care about social justice, you don’t need money to survive, so allow labor exploitation. 3) The only way to prove you are against capitalism and for justice is to never be paid, recognized or even cited. 4) Expecting respect as a human being contributing to important theory, deconstruction, conversation, and praxis means you must want “fame” and a “platform” like White women.
None of this nonsense is posited to anyone but Black women and other women of colour.
I watched some of the recent responses to several plagiarism debacles between White-owned media power structures and women of colour. While other women of colour and a few others stand up for us, many take the stance that unless we allow abuse, we aren’t really about justice. The truth is that any people who think this are the ones not about justice. Top down content trolling, plagiarism, and labor exploitation are not progressive. Those who do this are basically making even that which is supposed to be progressive space truly oppressive space.
When people suggest that I, a Black woman in a society where my status is already placed at the bottom, who creates an entire space for Black women (and myself too, of course) for free, who answers emails to help, comfort, guide and support Black women, who spends time offline educating in a variety of ways, who does so much usually without credit or a cent beyond small donations (there’s no ad revenue or White mainstream publication cutting me a check) is “selfish” or a “capitalist” for wanting to be quoted and cited when my content is used, not wanting fame or mainstream cross posting that only financially benefits Whites where most of their readers aren’t concerned about justice anyway, and being against plagiarism altogether, it lets me know that these people expect me as a Black woman to endure abuse. To them, I have to “prove” my commitment to justice by allowing abuse.
There is a word for those with privilege exploiting the oppressed in the name of “feminism” or “justice.” It’s called oppression.