I Am Tired Of Being Expected To Work For Free

©2016 Trudy | Drift Sojourn

©2016 Trudy | Drift Sojourn

As long as I have known labor, I have known discrimination and exploitation. My first retail job as a teenager in the late 90s paid me $5.35/hour while two White female cashiers (with the same level of experience that I had) were paid $6.00/hour. My first corporate job (at a wireless service call center) paid me a bit over $11.00/hour yet paid my male teammates $12.00-$14.00/hour. My first theoretically "high-paying" corporate job paid me only $43,000.00/year (which the Bureau of Labor Statistics average wage as well as the local average is almost double for) for a job that White men at the company earned 1.5-2X as much for, while my White female boss (with the same level of experience, fewer of the needed technical skills, and less education compared to me) earned more than twice what I did. Twice I experienced an interview process where I was offered a salary significantly lower than the low end of the published salary range in the job postings. I have always been underpaid.

This is usually difficult to discuss since most people will say that I should be "grateful" that White people saw fit to hire me at all, and since some people earn less than I have for completely different work with different skill sets from mine (derailment, to be honest), my experiences being underpaid are acceptable. Some people suggest that since having a college education is a privilege (it is, though it manifests differently for Black versus White graduates, and manifests very differently for generationally poor first-generation Americans), I should be "thankful" and accept exploitation and abuse in corporate, since some people have it worse. (Most people who discuss those who "have it worse" simply want me silenced/invalidated and do not care about those who "have it worse" at all.) Anyway, I know these aforementioned wages since sometimes I chatted with people in human resources, and luckily ones who chat too much. Other times, my coworkers themselves told me. Admittedly, they were not trying to rub it in my face; they naively thought that we were all being paid equitably. Otherwise, I would never know most coworkers' salaries since most jobs will fire you for even discussing them, as a way to continue wage discrimination through secrecy. 

However, some things are different with retail and corporate jobs versus independent work now. My paycheck was guaranteed, even if I faced wage discrimination; wage discrimination based on gender, race, and intersecting oppressions etc. is nothing new. My health insurance and sometimes vision/dental insurance were guaranteed, though I had to pay a partially subsidized premium; now, I have to figure out how to afford Obamacare; I have not had health insurance in eight years. Nobody straight up stole my work and said it was their work. Nobody expected me to arrive in the office and do hours of work with zero pay. As awful as corporate work is—and trust me, I am in no way calling such environments "good"—at the end of the day, nobody thought demanding completely free work and plagiarizing me was okay; while my managers always got the credit for my work, the managers themselves did not applaud coworkers pretending they did my work. I experienced micromanagement, microaggressions, racial harassment, sexual harassment, and exploitation (such as working 38 hours and being paid for 38 hours, but working 45 hours and being paid for 40; this is illegal manipulation of salaried employees). Even so, no one at any of these traditional jobs thought that all of my work should be completely unpaid and that I should be "flattered" by people plagiarizing my work. People certainly think both of these things about my independent work now.

My last corporate job ended in 2008. I left professional consumer photography (i.e. portraits, weddings, events) in 2012, after several years of doing both photography and corporate work (while completing my Master's degree). In the last few years, I have been doing independent work: writing, photography (different genres from the previous years), design, curating/critiquing media, scholastic development/mentoring and more. Since 2012—primarily since this is the year that I created Gradient Lair; I dealt with exploitation of indie work prior to this though—people have plagiarized my writing/tweets and have demanded free labor from me on a basis so consistent that there is no real way to keep track. I have been abused online for several years for four main reasons: for existing at all (being a woman online, especially a hypervisible Black woman online); for creating anything at all, whether people hate the actual creations or not (the myth that if you just "make your own" you will automatically be respected and supported is truly laughable); for the specific things that I create; for sharing my personal experiences and structural analyses of oppression. Some of this harassment has specifically been economic violence since most people find deep pleasure in blocking/denying resources for Black women.


Below are examples of labor that I have been expected, asked and at times demanded to do with zero compensation, since 2012. The requests come from a variety of people: from people who think that we automatically have a "relationship" because they consume my tweets; from fellow Black people who exploit fictive kinship and require unpaid labor as "proof" of "Black love," "activism," and/or "unity;" from a variety of strangers (i.e. academics, journalists, activists) who think that unaffiliated Black women like myself are mules at their disposal and are in permanent arrears to everyone on Earth as penance for the apparently offensive and rebellious act of existing as Black women.

Intellectual, creative and emotional labor that people ask or demand I do for free:

1) Blog-related: Create blog titles. Develop mission/vision statements. Set up URLs and create graphic/web design for personal or small business blogs. Teach blog post writing. 

2) Academe (students): Produce curated reading lists. Research academic topics. Provide sources and APA citations. Write the actual papers (extremely unethical). Give them my blessing after they plagiarize me as long as they mention that I "inspired" them on Twitter, yet they do not officially cite my work in their actual academic/mainstream media work. (I discussed the toxicity of such "inspiration" in I Rarely Trust People That Say That I "Inspire" Them.)

3) Academe (professors): Produce curated reading lists. Allow my content to be used in their classes without citation solely based on where the content is hosted (i.e. if it is on Tumblr not Medium; Tumblr is regularly deemed marginalized "free space" of "resources" for students to mine content while mainstream spaces require formal citation). Develop syllabi (i.e. I have been asked to suggest reading materials and ideas for college courses, which is something professors are paid to do). Allow course hashtags on my tweets so that I am used as a perpetual public textbook without compensation and with invasion of my day to day online experiences and work. Give talks and participate in panels without paid travel, lodging, meals and payment for intellectual labor. 

4) Journalism: Produce free essays and articles. Comply with "interviews" when publications could simply hire more Black female writers versus White people regurgitating content from Black women's scholarship and vantage points. Be silent about my tweets being used without my consent, when my thoughts and analyses—based on my unique perspectives, education and experiences—are not considered "work" when I tweet them, but magically become paid "work" once lifted by a journalist. Ignore that entire tweet threads, Storify collections and essays are plagiarized by writers/publications that would never offer me a paid writing opportunity. Respond to journalists who have set up fake Tumblr accounts (Stat Counter exposes them) to ask me questions on "current events" so that they can use my responses without citation in their articles. 

5) Writing: Engage in an enormity of highly specific writing-related consulting work of a variety of types under the guise of allowing people to "pick my brain." Figure out rates for other writers to include in their proposals. Provide tutorials on pitching. Provide extensive personalized "career advice." Read, review, and edit long form writing. Produce film/tv reviews of films/tv shows that I did not choose to watch; this is 10-24 hours of viewing and several hours of writing/editing per piece; people love to state that they "look forward" to this free labor I did not consent to doing. Read, review (intellectual labor) and share (use my social media reach) lengthy unsolicited content (long essays, pamphlets, books). 

6) Photography: Allow use of my professional photography by corporations and individuals versus commercial image licensing. Ignore the unpaid use of my professional photography in blog posts on for-profit sites where the posts conflict with my views. Conduct free photography sessions in genres that I no longer work in, as I still receive free portrait/wedding photography requests from people who clearly do not engage my work in the present. Provide extended portfolio reviews and critique for new photographers. 

7) Emotional labor: Respond to unsolicited links/content on violent topics (i.e. rape, Black death/State violence) from people I barely have a connection to and they have zero regard for my own mental health. Provide extended personalized advice and "therapy" on triggering abuse topics despite not being a licensed therapist. Respond with "compassion" towards abusive men who think since they admit their abuse (and sometimes it is abuse that I myself have endured from men) I owe them coddling, applause and care. Romantic relationship advice for heterosexuals (who often dump undesirable unsolicited sexual content in my DMs/emails) when it is clear that they ignore what I say about my life and asexuality; they think their "sex positivity" gives them the right to violate my boundaries. An assortment of other care duties (misogyny) and mule duties (misogynoir) that people think I owe them because I am a woman and specifically a Black woman. (#GiveYourMoneyToWomen has discussed this in detail and this type of exploitation is something that I spent years writing about on Gradient Lair as well.)  In these cases, consenting to engage emotionally with people that I have relationships with is treated as blank consent and ownership from people I do not know or from people that I casually know, but they do not examine their own misogynoir and entitlement.


To be clear, indie creators who are not Black, women, or Black women specifically, face free labor demands too. Some are my friends and they have shared their awful experiences with me. However, how many of them are told that they are selfish, "traitors," "phony," whores, mercenaries (yes, that word has been used at me before), are "the real capitalists" (which is something that I discussed in Abusing/Exploiting Independent Creators Is Not "Fighting Capitalism"), "do not care about feminism/womanism/justice/freedom" if they will not work for free? Which White men are told this when they are asked for free photography? Are most White women told this when they are asked for free writing? Which Black men are told that they "owe" race education to racist Whites so that they can "learn" in the way that unaffiliated Black women online are? When are Black men expected to do as much intraracial work without compensation as Black women are under the guise of "unity?" Which people, other than unaffiliated Black women, are expected to do labor for free even for elite Black women who have greater social statuses, salaries, resources, and connections, to "prove" "sisterhood?" 

While anyone who works as an indie creator can and do face these horrible exploitative demands, the gaslighting and extended abuse campaigns in response to a "NO" are simply not the same for them as they are for unaffiliated Black women (and I have seen non-Black women of colour and Indigenous women face similar at times). When I see a notification appear for a DM in Twitter for iOS, or an email notification, my heart starts racing. I never know what to expect. Essentially, free labor requests are the "unsolicited dick picks" that I get (though those awful violations are sent to me as well, like most women online). I have received thousands of these free labor requests and demands; thousands since 2012. Now, I have had great clients before. I do have supporters who engage my work respectfully. There are people who have sent me gifts as tokens of appreciation since they learn from and use my work. I do have people that I have worked with, by choice, on non-profit or unpaid work at times, for specific reasons that I value. I do give back to others through many ways including my time and even money (such as supporting over 50 independent Black femme creatives this year) despite not having much money. I do recognize that to work in order to survive is to also engage in an exploitative system. The technical tools that I need to do my work are made in horrible conditions. The clothing I wear. How some of my food is made available. However, when Black women have a median wealth of $5.00 and some like me are generationally poor children of immigrants, altering the system that makes such things happen is difficult. Thus, I am not suggesting that I am independent of this system, but that I am trying to live. I get to try. 

The people who demand free work from me are not in "survival mode" where exploiting me will "save their lives." I have seen some of them respect other indie creators' work and time, especially when those creators are "ally" Whites/men. Some of them get paid at their high-paying traditional jobs with benefits that I do not have and often with salaries that I do not make. I make less now than what I did in corporate (by tens of thousands), even as I was still underpaid there. I do not deserve to be treated as someone in a consistent state of arrears to privileged, monied and inconsiderate people where I always owe something new or something else. Most of these people pretend to be about justice yet do not view their behavior as unjust. Worse, some of these people think that if I write something "for free" for myself (it is not really for free; it costs me time and much more than that in some cases) as an exercise in self-care, pleasure, writing skill development, because I view it as important (i.e. Gradient Lair), and/or because I may use it in a way that I am paid for later, then somehow I have consented to work for them for free as well. I mostly enjoy my work, but I truly hate the context that it occurs in. I feel discouraged using social media, which I discussed in Social Media: "Fans," Supporters, Hypervisibility and Survival. Being devalued and harassed every single day and for years now makes it difficult to want to create, though creating art outside the context of labor is healing for me at times. However, there is not a current alternative since just like everyone else, I have to work to be able to survive. People have made it truly clear that my survival only matters insofar as I am "of use" to them. People have made it clear that I do not deserve payment for that "use."

To this I say..."fuck you; pay me." #BBHMM.