Every few months, something happens to reignite the discussion centered around the adage, “We have to work twice as hard.” Since we were freed of slavery, Black people have had to work twice as hard to get half as much -this is a reality we cannot escape. The Obamas have spoken about it. Olivia Pope’s father spoke about it. Each time it comes up, it ignites a firestorm of think pieces and personal accounts of having to burn the midnight oil at the firm while the other folks get to leave early to do lines of coke (or whatever it is people in these high power positions do).
The conversation is always valuable, as it is important to highlight gross disparities between White American lives and Black American lives. What if, at least every once and awhile, we allowed ourselves to challenge this long held reality? What if sometimes we allow ourselves to just…work?
Admittedly, I am a millennial with limited experience with working for the sake of working. So I definitely have limited experience working twice as hard for anything that doesn’t also align with something that is inherently fulfilling. But, for the brief moments that I attempted to work twice as hard during my civil engineering days straight out of college, I found myself working twice as hard for the favorable gaze of my boss (who, surprise surprise, was white). My days were no longer marked by marveling at principles of structural engineering taught in school applied in the real world. Instead, I’d be strategizing how to “get the right answer” at work and how to trick myself into happily working the overtime hours. None of these things had to do with asking myself if I even wanted to be there, or if I actually wanted to be an engineer at all. In retrospect, I spent my first year out of college working twice as hard, living half as much.
Maybe this speaks to a bigger challenge. We’ve made a lot of progress with such a long way to go (as Jessie Williams so eloquently reminded us), but what if we added “working as hard as possible to impress myself” to that list? Not just the job that sounds most distinguished, the job that pays the bills, or the job that affords the clean pair of Jordan’s you couldn’t afford in grade school. I’ve found that my best jobs have been the jobs where I’ve worked hard to impress myself. I’ve felt exponentially more valuable when I’ve burned the midnight oil pushing my own perceived limits, whether or not my boss observes this hard work and translates it into a “Good job, Jennifer!” or not. By shifting the focus from external praise to internal wonder, I feel empowered to work for myself.
And guess what? Some days, I don’t feel like working half as hard and yet just for showing up, I fully expect to be paid for that day of blessing the office with my presence. These rare days aren’t out of laziness, but things we all experience: burnout, exhaustion, the latest death of a Black culture icon, etc. On these rare occasions, I don’t need my boss looking at me over his imitation art school glasses wondering why he’s not getting the 2-for-1 my skin color promised him. I cringe when I think of him scrolling through Twitter seeing everyone lament the realities of working twice as hard while I’m scrolling through Facebook. I want him to see my temporary inactivity through the same lens as he sees my white colleague’s inactivity. This is a tall order, but this is true freedom. I want the freedom to work, and the freedom to take a break from time to time.
I’m not advocating for a complete rebellion against work in the workplace. I’m also not suggesting that we totally ignore the very real, very disheartening data that shows we are disproportionately reprimanded and profiled in the workplace. I believe we deserve a break, a loosening of the reins, a moment to ask ourselves, are we working twice as hard for something we care half as much about? To ask if we’re impressing ourselves, or denying ourselves for the sake of impressing others. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find time to answer these questions when you’re busy working twice as hard.
Main image courtesy of our Art Director, Makeda Lane.