Calling All White People, Part 48: Black labor should not be free labor

TODAY’S EPISODE: Don’t make Black people your intellectual and emotional sharecroppers

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

As I’m writing this post, it’s Black Friday. For the 0.1% of you who don’t know what that is, it’s the day after the Thanksgiving Day holiday (or Day of Mourning or however you treat it—I personally go for Colonizer Remembrance and Family Gathering Day now) when people flock to the stores for super-duper sales to get a jump on Christmas shopping. Or just to get a really cheap big-screen smart TV to pin to their living room wall.

Given the COVID-19 surge, I hope your Black Friday shopping is limited to online forms.

But it is, traditionally, a day on which we really put the pressure on retail workers in particular. We lean on their labor to handle the teeming masses and stock the shelves when really they should have a day off to finish digesting their turkey and such from the day before. We storm the front doors of their workplaces and trample each other to get a chance at grabbing one of the 50 or so $100 72-inch TVs or whatever.

We take advantage of their labor.

And in that theme, let me remind you that many of us take advantage of the labor of Black people. Media outlets and people writing books on race-related matters—you know, most of these people being white—take bits and pieces (sometimes huge swaths even) of knowledge written by Black people online or in print and use that material without any kind of recompense to the Black people. Often not even acknowledgment.

We white people often ask—nay, we often demand—that Black people explain white supremacy and white privilege to us yet again. We lean upon them to tell us what to read, what to do, what to say to racist relatives and friends. We don’t do our own work in terms of research or even looking deep inside our own intentions and preconceptions—and we just ask for that help without doing any homework. And then when we don’t get an answer, or are told to do some work ourselves, or asked to drop a couple measly dollars in PayPal or Patreon for accessing their knowledge, we get irritated.

Sometimes we threaten to take away our support of Black Lives Matter and anti-racism efforts in general.

Just because there are Black people who stand their ground and refuse to be free labor.

It sucks to do that to them. If you do that, stop. If you don’t think you do it, make sure you really haven’t been doing it—and stop when you finally figure out where you have been.

Black labor built much of this country—literally and in terms of wealth for the white people that is still growing today. Because of free labor from slavery. Because of almost free labor through sharecropping. Because of really cheap labor from workplace abuses. And so on and so on and so on.

And just as there is self-hatred among some Black people that causes them to betray themselves and their fellow Black people to white supremacy, there are Black people—not just white people—who also try to use other Black people as their free labor in terms of knowledge, access and emotional support.

I recently saw a post online from BGIM herself about someone who seemed to be suggesting that she owed this person mentorship or amplification. And I know BGIM has given many people opportunities and answered many a question from Black people about Maine life and so much else. But when a Black woman is running an entire anti-racism organization and this media site, presuming that she should mentor or uplift you all by herself is a bit much.

BGIM isn’t the only Black person to get this treatment. Too often online I see Black women in particular who are leaned upon for their labor—often demanded free—by people who with no sense of self-awareness or irony will also talk about “supporting Black women.”

Yes, we will have questions and confusion. We will sometimes need to ask Black people about something. We may even ask for direct help sometimes. But do your own work first. Your own homework. Your own work to build a following or produce useful knowledge of your own. Your own work first, before you ask for any amount of free or reduced-price labor from Black people. Better yet, support them financially and give them credit where it’s due even for those things you think are “minor” asks.

Do it now, on Black Friday. Do it before Labor Day rolls around. Do it always.

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