By Michelle Everette
After years of working racist, spirit killing jobs, I’ve finally settled into a work environment that’s not perfect but is purposefully collaborative, a place where the excessive energy I’ve been anxiously compelled to give each task is not expected or demanded of me, and now I’m actually starting to like myself again. Still, It’s been difficult to let go of the complicated feeling that I don’t deserve some grace, or even ease, unless I overextend myself in every possible way for zero personal gain. Yesterday I stayed late to finish some things I hadn’t been able to get to during the week and ran into one of my co-workers, who could sense I was on edge. After asking me why I felt the need to stay late, since I was definitely not getting paid for it, she told me something I deeply needed to hear from another oppressed woman: “you are valuable to the team not solely because of the work you do, but because of the person you are.”
What a wild concept. Up until the fall of 2022, my working life had been marked by a relentless feeling of alienation. Deeper than loneliness, alienation is feeling the wet, heavy and biased boot of exploitation penetrate your skin and saturate your entire sense of self. The ingenuity of individual workers, as well as any cooperative worker effort under this system, particularly in the service industry, gets manipulated, erased and or undermined purposefully, as it serves many companies well for bosses to be divisive and take sole credit for each day to day success. Work in retail or food service for long enough and you’ll start to measure your value in this world not by how effectively you’re helping the members of your community, but only by how efficiently you can perform the most mundane of tasks, how accurately you’re able to follow arbitrary directions and how small you can shrink your emotions.
While I was accumulating massive debt during college, I also worked in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s dining hall as a temp, regularly washing dishes alongside an older Black woman named Miss W. Dishwashing in any large cafeteria is a brutal way to earn survival: there’s the consecutive minutes of tiny but quick and intense movements it takes to get a crusty pan clean enough to rinse, there’s a lot of bending and the involuntarily smelling of soaked sponges tinged with unyielding spaghetti-like sauces. Yet dishwashing jobs tend to be low paying in the South compared to other service jobs, and the majority of workers in the dish pit at the restaurants and cafeterias I’ve worked at were Black like me or Brown, and severely overworked.
The situations that our employers constantly put Miss W in truly pissed me off; when she was assigned to the dish pit in the University’s catering kitchen, they would often schedule her to come in at three or four o’clock and expect her to do the dishes that had piled up from the morning rush by herself. Some co-workers and I believed they screwed her over with that particularly cruel act simply because they didn’t want to pay another worker for the day. Miss W stayed late a lot, and regularly walked home because she would miss the last bus of the night.
Why stay employed at a place where the management doesn’t respect your time? Why not demand more from your employers, why choose to suffer? My sister, half Black and relatively poor, felt the need to rapidly fire a variation of these concerns when I told her about a particularly long day in Miss W’s life. I’m still ashamed of the fact that I never asked Miss W how she felt about the way she was treated, though I tried to help lighten her workload when I was available to do so. Mostly I was her selfishly unaware coworker who’d been imprinted by fear.
What if this is how to gauge how thoroughly you’ve been poisoned by late stage capitalism: can you understand the connection between this exploitative system and your identity? Can you feel your inner freedom, or easily identify it? Assuming that to be free involves being able “to surpass the given towards an open future” as my sort-of ally Simone de Beauvoir insists, then maybe low wages and unreasonable employer expectations — among many other structural oppressions — have severely stunted the Black worker’s perception of what’s possible in this country, and maybe being a woman on top of all of that means few will automatically remember to deem you worthy of a free existence.
The last stanza of the Black, lesbian poet Audre Lorde’s “Litany for Survival” reads: “So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive.” Lorde’s sentiment echoes an overlooked reality for Black and Brown women in service positions, and maybe all unnurtured members of the proletariat class navigating America — this place was designed to antagonize us, to obstruct our open futures by demonizing our empathy and exploiting any instinct we have to transcend individual interests. Of course, this place actually kills us too, because it is threatened by us, because it doesn’t want us to seize the wealth we’ve created and carefully maintained.
Though it may be better for our souls to speak out against this country’s constant injustices, since we’re currently so oppressed that we have nothing to lose according to Lordian logic, it’s certainly not easy for us to fully believe that we are worthy of liberation. Another memorable coworker of mine called M from another low paying service job, a young woman of color with a Bachelor’s degree in studio art, once told me that she’d intentionally asked for less money in her hiring interview because she was afraid she wouldn’t get the job if she asked for more. M’s confession sparks a connection: deserve as a communal feeling, as a collective responsibility.
Worthiness, wherever it truly springs from, is a feeling that’s either nurtured or damaged by the conditions of our lives, by the systems we work under and the people we grow with. I, you, we, don’t exist in a bubble; our individual lives are defined by our relationships to the earth and other individuals. Capitalism will continue to exploit this natural interdependence in a way that ultimately leaves us landless, cultureless and isolated, wondering how in the hell we work so intimately with other people everyday to create and maintain things that end up inculcating our children with fear and hatred — soulless shit that grants maybe a few people a ridiculous amount of money and power.
I don’t have a foolproof solution or a replacement for this system that’s both swaddled and stunted me. What I will suggest is radical unity: a total reorientation toward each other. As of January 2023, there are 272 unionized Starbucks locations, and as the globe keeps warming and the price of everything continues to go up, I suspect there will be a lot more unionized workplaces. Americans are getting scared and want to start shaping these inevitable changes, and our intuition is telling us that we are stronger together.
In the fall of 1968, when nearly all of the University of North Carolina’s non academic workers were Black according to the University’s archives, food service workers in Lenoir Dining Hall sent a memo to their employers with a list of 21 suggestions for a better work environment, including but not limited to higher wages. After the suggestions weren’t taken seriously and administrators refused to meet with employees, the food service workers asked the majority white students frequenting the Dining Hall for help, and a walk-out of 100 workers was organized and led by seven main Black women workers. The initial strike evolved and went on for over a year, and then another strike happened after the agreements of the first strike weren’t upheld, but eventually the Dining Hall workers and helpful students won, inspiring many different movements across the state.
All of that is to say I believe in us, and I’m tired of wanting to die. I think I’ll try wanting freedom now. Freedom is a feeling that deserves flexibility in our hearts — it’s communal. “The function of freedom,” said Toni Morrison, “is to free someone else.” I like that, need to believe it. Miss W does not deserve our pity, she deserves freedom, she deserves a community dedicated to freeing her. Will clocking in again ever thoroughly save her, though?