• Gray Butler

Emotional Labor And Emotion Work: We Are Not Your Free Educators



The phrase emotional labor has become a sort of buzzword within left leaning spaces, and is starting to gain more mainstream usage. It's a phrase that, while sometimes misnamed, represents a phenomena that needs to be discussed, flushed out and recognized. Its popularity has caught on due to the fact that it pertains to an experience many marginalized groups such as women of color, trans people, disabled people etc. have been all too familiar with, and have finally been given the language to discuss. However what is often referred to as emotional labor can more accurately be described as emotion work.


Both terms were coined by sociologist Arlie Hoschild in 1979. Emotional labor refers to the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill emotional requirements of a job. These jobs predominantly being in areas that deal with human interaction anywhere from sex work to public administration. On the other hand emotion work refers to a similar process but within the context of personal life. It is the emotional work such as showing affection, conflict resolution, apologizing etc. that keeps interpersonal relationships and interactions running smoothly. While emotional labor is for a wage in a job context, emotion work exists outside of the realm of duties required for a job.


The issue brought up with emotion work, however, is that this work is rarely evenly distributed amongst different kinds of people both interpersonally and in larger systematic interactions. The emotion work that goes into maintaining the status quo is often disproputnately placed upon marginalized people in order to maintain the comfort of those who hold particular power over us. While Hoschild's work originally refers to the additional emotion work women are expected to perform in interactions with men, these notions can be expounded upon (and amplified in destructive outcomes) by multiple often intersecting marginalities. Notions of unpaid emotion work, while it has drifted from it's original context still provides a valuable lens to discuss the notion that marginalized people are expected to perform extra work or labor that goes unrecognized, unpaid, and unappreciated.


Living as marginalized people, we are constantly dealing with the realities associated with existing outside of the status quo, living in spaces the have been constructed to keep us out, in spaces that are inherently violent to our existence. Personally as a genderqueer black person, I go through the world keenly aware of all the ways in which there are extra hurdles I go through to live my life, be that in my expression of gender, micro-aggressions from the larger systemic intergenerational trauma that effects black communities, the fear of brutalization from police, and the underlying chronic stress associated with simply being a woman of color. And these are just the experiences particular to some of my marginalities. Many marginalized people, especially black, brown, indigenous, trans, and migrant people and women of color, live with the legacies of our intergenerational trauma, we live with the fear of violence against us. Both direct and indirect. We live with the frustrations of fighting against socialization that says we don't matter. We have to fight to love ourselves, we have to fight against generations of trauma, many of us have to fight to simply exist, and many have to do so on multiple fronts because so many of us have intersecting marginalities.


But this is not all we have to do, we must also live in a world that expects us to take those experiences, and regulate our responses to that trauma to conform to and maintain the comfort of those who oppress us. We live in a world where our triggers are minimized, where the extra labor and hurdles we must go through to exist is erased, and never addressed. Then we are expected to put in the extra work to not only inform those who are contributing to our oppression, but we are expected to do so in a way that keeps them comfortable.


For instance, if black person informs you that something you are doing is anti-black, or racist, there is a fair chance that they are not telling you because they want an open dialogue in that moment. They are telling you because your actions may be actively contributing to their oppression, and you should stop (and most likely take the time later to educate yourself about why). They do not exist as your personal educator on racism. They are not a lesson from which you can extrapolate more information from when convenient . We do not exist to explain our traumas to you on demand in an concise, kind manner.


This doesn't mean that these dialogues regarding marginality shouldn't happen, but it is to demand unpaid emotion work to expect a marginalized person to engage in these discussions centering our trauma. Understand that in order for me, for instance, to talk about police brutality or explain why alllivesmatter is harmful, I must delve into the lived experiences of growing up in the same neighborhood Freddie Grey was killed, I have to tap into the very visceral fear I experience every time I walk out of the door, I have to relive the personal experiences and betrayal experienced during the Baltimore uprising, I have to tap into the fear that I face knowing any one of my family members could very easily end up dead for simply existing while black. I have to process all of the anxiety, the sorrow, the visceral fear, to simply engage in a conversation, much less face whatever micro aggressive (even well intentioned) statements. This is on top of the general background understanding of all of these other marginalities interacting in my day to day life. This is to demand a whole level of emotion work that should not be a prerequisite to having someone cease doing something anti-black.


This is also unneccary to demand of an individual person when there have been many articles, documentaries, movies, youtube videos, books and so much more created by marginalized people, people who would actually get paid and compensated for their work if you supported their content. Your random black co-worker or classmate on the other hand, is not getting paid enough to rummage through their trauma for fearing for their life or the life of a family member because you think #alllivesmatter.


Your questions may be in earnest, but it is not just a theoretical or abstract debate for us. It is our lived experiences, our trauma, our pain, our histories. We are expected to make these giant experiences into bite sized teachable moments. The work is disproportionately put on us to teach, and much less on allies to go out of your way to learn. More importantly to not just learn when there is conveniently a marginalized person to defend themselves and their whole community. Not only is that one event tiring, but often times we are expected to do this multiple times a day.


Recognize that the marginalized people who take time to have these conversations with you are not obligated to. Nor is it a failing on their part for choosing to no longer offer that work for free. There are many other more in depth resources created by marginalized people that would give you a more in depth understanding if educating is your true goal. There are content creators struggling to have our stories heard, and struggling to get paid for the work we create. We are expected to do this work not just for free but for our own survival, because often times ignorance that ensues otherwise leads to more violence against us.


From my own experience I spent many years performing unpaid emotion work for the people around me. Not because I felt like I was doing anything good but because I felt like I had to. If I didn’t then they would go off and continue to contribute to oppressing people like me. I felt as if I would still feel the impact of their ignorance anyway. Because I knew they wouldn’t go and do the work themselves. That was an excruciatingly crushing dynamic. I was explaining out of a survival instinct rather than a genuine desire. That was how I coped. And I know many people have benefitted from it. But it tore me apart. I had no energy to step away and care for myself. I had no energy to actually tend to the wounds created by these realities I’d explain over and over to folks.


The notion that the oppressed must educate our oppressors rarely puts the pressure on allies to be a medium between the traumatized folks they're align with and the genuine ignorance of others. Where are the white people en mass supporting creators of color? Where are the cisgender and straight people people supporting queer and trans content. Where are the white gays supporting QTPOC exclusive work even if it doesn't depict their brand of queerness? Where are the allies taking time to calmly educate other well intentioned folks so marginalized people can get a chance to rest?


We cannot heal our own communities and further ourselves if we are preoccupied with your ignorance all the time.We are not being met in the middle. Often times people think they are meeting us in the middle simply because they do not understand the sheer depth of inequity that exists.


This doesn't mean don't ever ask questions. But it does mean you need to show an appreciation for the emotion work marginalized people constantly perform. Do not take it for granted, and start compensating us for that work, start supporting our content, start paying us, start providing us connections, sharing our work, compensating us any way you can. And more importantly do not externalize your anger at a marginalized person who decides not to educate you. You are not entitled to their emotion work as a prerequist to not continue to contribute to their oppression. A marginalized person should be able to say "This hurts me" and that should be enough of a reason. They do not need to justify why what you did was racist, misogynistic, transphobic etc. from there it is your job to seek the answers about how and often times those answers are far more complex than you may have anticipated.


There’s no shame in asking for resources. It’s true that google is free, it’s also true that sometimes it can be overwhelming. Be on the look out for this stuff BEFORE you get called out on something. Make it a point to seek out media from marginalized people. Bits and pieces of our stories come out in the things we create. Support us and our work. PAY US. You have to put your own ego aside, because often times it’s informed by inherently unfair dynamics. The playing field is not level. And yes some marginalized people will have the excess energy to explain and educate you, and if they do you need to be thankful and truly understand the depth of what they're doing. But do NOT use us as an excuse to look down on others who do not have the energy to.


Our emotion work is valuable, it is needed, but it cannot always be free. It cannot go without recognition, and it just giving lip service to the fact you are demanding it is not enough. Our knowledge, and lived experiences are under valued in society, yet the very nature of the work that is most needed is not the work you can get a certificate or degree for. We don’t get paid for our lived experiences, we do not get supported for our time to educate, yet our communities, our efforts to move forward, to provide for our communities struggle because we do not have the resources. Start valuing us, valuing our experiences, and truly paying us back in some way for the extra work we put in. It should not be a radical notion that marginalized people are experts on our experiences, and that our experiences are valuble, that our voices are worth being supported, our content paid for, and for our voices to truly be supported. If your support for marginalized people only exists as long as it comes of no cost to you (time, energy, resources and/or money), then your support is conditional to the very power structures that have kept us oppressed staying in place. Start putting in your own effort to educate yourself, start looking for content created by marginalized people as your source, start supporting those content creators, donating, promoting, sharing their work, spreading it. Go out and educate other people USING THEIR WORK AS REFERENCE. Save the links, have them ready to go. Remember their names. Share them with family and friends, give them your connections if you can, and stop assuming ever marginalized person has an obligation to offer you their emotion work to educate you merely because they exist. They don’t have to, there are plenty of other avenues to break down barriers, there are plenty of ways to have these much needed conversations, they just require a bit more work on the ends of allies. If any of us want to be serious about social equity we HAVE to be willing to put in that work. There’s no shame in asking for help and direction, but you have to be willing to put the work in.





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