Editor’s note: Marx’s theory of alienation describes the estrangement of people from aspects of their humanity as a consequence of living in a highly class stratified society. Capitalism has distorted human relations. Alienation from our labor leads to separation from community— putting our passions and creativity on hold and leaving us with barely enough money to survive, let alone live meaningfully lives.
This morning I’m calling on any softness in the verb “deserve.” I believe public discussion of the feeling’s often hijacked, then weaponized in this country by influential racists, uterus-haters or capitalists. Most of us are just workers, customers unintentionally feeding the babies we were screwed for too much arsenic— power is always a key distinction.
Stuck in my tenacious twenties, I’ve been making sales at a smoke shop for close to a year and a half now. At the seven-ish month mark of my time at Hookah Hookup, a sweet, white, 1996-born millennial was hired to sell for the company at a base pay of 11 dollars an hour; I was hired at a base of nine dollars an hour, though we all made commission. After 30 days of work I’d received a dollar raise, meaning I was making a base pay of 10 dollars an hour at the time I found out about Cailey’s pay.
Viscerally disturbed by the situation’s implications, suddenly but stupidly ashamed of whatever was on or in me that warranted this form of punishment, I reached out to the store’s former manager for sympathy, maybe clarity. Tony was the only other black worker who sold for the company in Greensboro, North Carolina, and he ran the Spring Garden branch for five years before the owner, Lee, transferred him to the branch on the gentrified side of town. Tony had trained me, so I knew how disconnected he generally preferred to be from all disruptions, but now I wanted to pull his attention back to that neglected part of his inner life. The urge to quit was warm and sprang from my gut to my chest, and I needed him to feel and express some anger so that I could feel valid in this burgeoning rage.
“She probably has more customer service experience than you…I mean, when I started with Lee nine years ago I was makin’ way less than both of you, no commission.”
“Yeah. But it’s fine, I put in the work and I’m here now, earnin’ more than most managers in the company. That could be your story if you keep at it. Show ‘em you’re responsible and committed. Ask Kristin if she needs any help with the warehouse transfers or trainin’ the newbies, be like her work wing-woman. and always accept shifts when someone calls out.”
“I mean, those are mostly assistant manager duties but I do ‘em all anyway, or try to. I think they just don’t wanna pay me. It’s messed up, they pay us all these low-ass wages but make us do the workload of three people, and expect us to show up on time and obey their arbitrary rules. We shoulda all been hired at 11 an hour, at the very least!”
Some seconds of silence. Then a hesitant exhale.
“I mean. You’re a good worker now, but when you came to us you were sorta spazzy, no offense. Do you really think you deserved 11 an hour?”
Wild. I definitely don’t work there anymore. Here’s how to know you’ve been thoroughly poisoned by late stage capitalism: you don’t often feel your inner freedom, can’t easily identify it. Assuming that to be free in this context is “to be able to surpass the given towards an open future,” as my feminist ally Simone de Beauvoir once compellingly insisted, then maybe low wages and unreasonable employer expectations have severely stunted the black worker’s perception of what’s possible in this life, and maybe being a woman on top of all of that means no one will automatically remember to deem you worthy of a free existence.
So far, my working life’s been characterized 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 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 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 make your personality and emotional range.
As I was accumulating massive debt during college, I also worked in my University’s dining hall washing dishes alongside an older black woman named Miss Willie. Dish washing 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 involuntarily smelling soaked sponges
tinged with unyielding spaghetti-like sauces. Yet dish washing 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 or brown, and severely overworked.
The situations that our employers constantly put Miss Willie 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 coworkers 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 Willie stayed late a lot, and regularly walked home because she’d miss the last bus of the night.
Some tax payer, perhaps believing that they’ve never been oppressed by the same circumstances, may ask plenty of questions here: 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, also black and poor, felt the need to rapidly fire a variation of these concerns when I told her about a particularly long day in Miss Willie’s life. I’m fully ashamed of the fact that I never asked Miss Willie 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. I’ve had years now to feel my way through everything, and I want to try to unpack the role of “deserve” in all of this hurt.
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 from another low paying service job, a young woman of color with a Bachelor’s degree in some form of 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. Marni’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. I fear that capitalism will continue to exploit this natural interdependence in a way that leaves us ultimately landless, culture-less 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 crap that grants maybe a few people a ridiculous amount of money and power.
Yesterday was my 25th birthday, and to celebrate I finally ended a relationship that I should already be healed from, but I know such things take incredible effort. I’ve known Iain since we were in middle school together, though we didn’t date until my second year of college, and we officially split soon after my mom died. For the next four or so years we talked on the phone regularly, hung out with each other whenever we could, and had sex pretty much every time we saw each other in person, which varied but was usually once or twice a month. Really, I loved him eons before I loved myself. So I became comfortable with our arrangement, though I was rarely satisfied. Iain would not do the one sexual act that I adored, the thing that was guaranteed to get me off and make me feel good about my body. I never brought it up because I was embarrassed, I didn’t want him to confirm the fears I had about myself. I guess I also didn’t want him to stop loving me.
Fast forward to the gathering I’d organized for my quarter of a century on this confused planet: Iain wants us to have a threesome with an old mutual friend, his current partner. I’m open to this, I know he’s been dating this friend and I’m very much into the idea of experiencing pleasure with both of them, I just need to openly discuss sexual desires and boundaries, I tell them. I know this is the time to bring up my clitoris and his decision not to taste it, especially since I know his partner is someone who enjoys that particular sex act. Alright then Iain, tell me what’s wrong with me? Why after screwing me over 200 times to completion was I not also getting off?
Apparently I’m the problem. I weigh too much, work too much, sweat too much. He’d tried my 19 year old poor vulva twice and decided never again. I, someone that this man claimed to love, was not even worthy of a conversation, or a negotiation. He just kept finishing on me or inside of me, often without explicit permission, rarely asking how I felt.
Though I’ve been systematically under-educated in all areas of women’s health, it seems to me like a vulva and vagina go through about a billion changes in a lifetime, just like the person they’re connected to. If my genitals did or do stink, here’s a list of possible contributing factors: a diet foraged in poverty, tight black server pants, climate change, years of my mother’s insistence that I douche and spray perfumes down there. Human freaking sweat. But.
My body, this miracle, needs no justification. What needs an explanation is Iain’s understanding of love and liberation, so now here’s my attempt to tie these loose narratives together: no act, no feeling, is separate from the living world. We are all unceasingly responding to what we are given from the world, we are taking in rules and differences and vibes and choosing to perform in ways that bring us closer to worthiness and empathy or further from them. We are looking at, and listening to, a range of responses from creatures and haters and lovers and simultaneously internalizing the intimate and cultural impact of those gestures or words.
No one can fully understand, or learn, or grow alone so when you love someone you should choose to feed their spiritual and physical transcendence as passionately and earnestly as you do your own. You should want the person(s) you love to feel good, and ask them how to make that possible. In a country where you can’t control when or how the oppressive forces will come for your energy, it feels important to be anchored to people that genuinely want your freedom, people who will take the necessary steps to make that happen.
I don’t have a foolproof solution or a replacement for this system that’s both swaddled and stunted me. That anecdote about the arsenic in the baby food feels true, at least Harvard Health Publishing’s got an article with a link to the federal report completed in 2021 on their website. I only know for certain that I’m tired of wanting to die. I think I’ll try wanting freedom now. Freedom is another feeling that deserves malleability in our hearts—it’s also communal. “The function of freedom,” said Toni Morrison, “is to free someone else.” I like that, need to believe it. Miss Willie 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?