Entering Columbia University, I knew that I would have to partake in the Core Curriculum. I did not realize that in addition to mandatory coursework and rigorous academics, I would frequently be required to offer my existence and knowledge as learning tools, let others challenge the fabric of my humanity, and allow my peers to use my emotional vulnerabilities for the greater sake of education and awareness. I am never thanked for my emotional expenditures, but I am always left feeling as if I’ve made a slight impact on my counterparts’ thinking and worldview, and by extension made the world a slightly better place. Thus, I am left with a conflict: Do I self-sacrifice for the greater good of our community, or prioritize my own well-being? Society chooses for me, and I am left as the instructor of an additional course titled "Free Black Emotional Labor."
I came into this realization after a barrage of emotionally draining, shocking, and racist interactions with those around me. I’ve heard the slur “n*gger” flee my white peer’s mouth not once, not twice, but three times. I consistently have had to defend my Black existence to my white counterparts. I have even had teachers attempt to invalidate my experiences as a Black woman, citing Oprah and Michelle Obama as examples to refute the subordination of Black women. On a daily basis, I deal with passive-aggressive and outright aggressive racism, while constantly being tokenized by my peers.
I have come to understand that on top of my current 18-credit course load, I may be forced to teach an extra class in my daily life. One in which I am constantly instructing my peers on my existence and recovering from racial trauma while avoiding a personal descent into complete Black rage—a form of anger, frustration, and disillusionment that stems from the historic racism derived from the Black experience. Not only is my course very popular, as it seems that almost every white person I interact with has taken interest in testing my Blackness and the limits of my personal strength, but I also spend more time explaining my existence, lecturing on Black identity and history, physically and mentally recovering from racist conversations and interactions, and trying to maintain a level-headed sense of sanity than I do on my course load.
Despite the constant hypervisibility and emotional demands, I am simultaneously forced into a dichotomy of forced visibility and invisibility; I am too often required to either explain my identity, or to pretend like my Black rage does not exist for the comfort of others, for the sake of white feelings and white “safety.”
On the one hand, I am thrust into spaces where my existence is constantly questioned, and I am immediately forced to put on my defensive, hyperintellectual hat and fight on behalf of all Black women, to teach the Black experience on behalf of all Black people. I am put in positions where my Blackness is apparently the only identifiable trait about my personhood and character, and thus I am constructed as the go-to token for racial conversations.
On the other hand, my Blackness and pride is not favored. In these same spaces, I am condemned for being too loud or too vocal. I am not taken seriously or ignored when I speak up. I am seen as just another angry Black woman, or my feelings are dismissed as “Amari just having her daily social justice breakdown.”
After experiencing invalidation, anger, frustration, anxiety, and sadness, I am always left feeling emotionally and physically drained. And at the end of it all, I retreat back to my room at night, blast Solange, and force myself to lull my exploding Black rage down to a dormant stage of repression, preparing myself to enter the white world and the whiteness of this institution tomorrow. And the next day. And for the rest of my life as I continue to navigate a white world as a Black woman.
When I address this hidden emotional labor with my peers, I am often confronted with statements such as: “Why don’t you just opt out? Can’t you stop taking on the emotional labor and save yourself?”
However, opting out will not resolve this problem. If someone is spewing racist ignorance, I can not leave such ignorance unchallenged. If someone questions whether or not Black lives matter, I can not just stand there and let Black people be invalidated. I can not comply in the perpetuation of oppression by allowing others’ harmful speech or ideas to thrive. The world forces me into the endless role of educator and giver of emotional labor for as long as ignorance surrounds me.
Therefore, as the forced instructor of Free Black Emotional Labor, I would like to finally teach all my “students” a few key concepts. Note that this will be on the final exam (and yes, non-Black people of color should take note, too):
Try to understand that Black women do not exist at Columbia, in all of our glory and magic, solely for the purpose of your education. We are not tools for your learning, but instead individuals with feelings and emotions. Recognize the emotional labor you ask from us, and attempt to take some of the burden for yourself. Take extra time to read informative texts and narratives from various perspectives, and think about the impact your words can have on those in our community before you speak. In addition, do not play the “devil’s advocate” regarding matters of my existence; there is no opposition to the truth of Black history and Black lives, only the legitimization of oppressive perspectives. Use your privilege to the best of your ability to challenge and deconstruct oppressive structures within Columbia and the world.
Stop forcing the oppressed to explain and fight for their existences. It is emotionally and physically draining, unfair, and oppressive. Black women do not exist to provide you with Free Black Emotional Labor.
The author is a first-year in Columbia College studying sociology and political science. As a member of the Race, Ethnicity, and Inclusion Task Force and America Reads, she aims to help advocate for social justice both on and off campus.
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