Monday, September 26, 2016

The Emotional Toil and Toll of Office Work

“The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency.”

I taped up the following quote up near my desk where I worked as a secretary. For the last five years, I had worked for the organization for two whole dollars above minimum wage and some pretty rocking benefits – at least in theory. (It’s worth noting that although friends coveted my benefits package, my meager paycheck couldn’t stretch to cover insurance deductibles, so I never visited the doctor or dentist, even when asthma had me gasping for air and a cavity slowly morphed into a dead root.)

In addition to my bureaucracy quote, I also decorated my office with various feminist paraphernalia, including goddess statues and quotes about women’s worth. A coworker even crafted a very official-looking sign for the door that read “Goddess Elle.”

In my workplace, I perched on the bottom rung of a very steep ladder. My first five years, I had slogged through payroll-related tasks and knew I made literally less than everyone else. (As any feminist theorist would predict, two White guys occupied our two highest paid positions.) My official job titles morphed from “Records Clerk” to “Office Specialist,” but I called myself a secretary; I answered phones, faxed, maintained correspondences, suffered through A/R and some A/P, and I did it all while smiling and laughing with my coworkers, all of whom made substantially more money than me.

I performed rote administrative tasks that rarely strained my brain; my primary reason for existing in that setting involved lavishing cheerfulness and subservience on the public. As do all secretaries, I sold my emotional labor, meaning the biggest part of my job involved pretending to be happy, assuming responsibility for the general cheer of our workplace, and providing an emotional buffer between my coworkers and the public (Hoschchild, 2012 [1983]). I made everyone happy as diligently and reliably as I made coffee every morning. The price of emotional labor, as Hochschild notes, is quite high. Selling my feelings required me to either perform inauthentically or to convince myself I genuinely cared about the people I assisted -- not an easy task. When people treated me rudely or curtly or as just another piece of office furniture, my chest burned, but I unfailingly smiled and wished them a pleasant day. Even my phone voice radiated cheer, as several people mentioned when I chirped my canned greeting into the dreaded mouthpiece.

Later, if I had time between my eight-hour shift at work and my night classes or my second job, I inevitably scrambled home and slumped on my couch for an hour, staring at the ceiling, trying to find myself again. I ached with tiredness for the seven years I worked as a secretary, not only because I worked two jobs and went to school full-time but also, as I would discover later in life, interpersonal interactions drain this introvert very quickly.

I obsessively decorated my office. Of course I did. I was a straight A college student getting her Social Sciences degree, a secretary for forty hours per week, a feminist opinion columnist for a local newspaper, and an activist during my spare time. Occupying the bottom of a workplace hierarchy humiliated me, and stapling a constant, beatific, subservient smile to my face sometimes stung. According to Goffman’s role theory, I engaged in role distancing, meaning while performing my role as secretary, I placed distance between my audience and me by also having visual symbols of my other identities: scholar and activist (Cohen, 2004). I may be a lowly secretary, my many quotes and feminist baubles reminded folks, but I am also a brilliant social scientist and social justice warrior. Role distancing helped me maintain a positive sense of self in what was otherwise a demeaning social position.

Of course, Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality says we are nothing if not multiple “roles” (she would say identities, of course) that coexist and influence one another (1989). I was not just a secretary but also a feminist, a woman, a student, a fat person, and so on. Most of these coexisted beautifully, if not necessarily harmoniously, in a statue of a fat goddess I kept on my desk at work in an attempt to ease some of the humiliation I felt as a devalued worker in a job with low pay and almost no, as Weber would call it, occupational prestige (Gilbert, 2014).

Another example of role distancing? Me saying very often to my family members, “Being a secretary reminds me every day why feminism and a higher degree are absolutely necessary.”

Note: This is my response to a course project in my Social Stratification class in which I asked students to relate various theories to their occupational experience. 


Cohen, R. 2004. Role Distance: On Stage and On the Merry-Go-Round. Journal of Dramatic Theory and     
     Criticism: Fall. Found at

Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of 
     Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. In the University of Chicago Legal 
     Forum: 139–67.

Gilbert, D. 2014. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, 9th ed. Sage Publishing.

Hochschild, A. 2012. [1983] The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Beyond Ebony and Ivory

“Ebony, ivory living in perfect harmony.”

I just finished a compelling paranormal romance by a Black American author in which she described a character as having skin so dark it seemed blue-black. Not long ago, a book I read by a White American* author described a character’s skin as so light, it almost appeared translucent.

In spite of what popular songs, literary imagery, and even our language itself tells us, skin colors don’t come in black and white. Ebony and ivory language aside, we are all shades of brown. Some, like me, have very light brown skin; I like to think of myself as a fetching shade of beige. Some, like the woman pictured to the right, have very dark brown skin; rather than “black,” we might think of her skin color as mahogany or seal.

Often in my classes, I flatten myself against the whiteboard in the front of the class and ask students if I’ve suddenly become invisible to them. Spoiler alert: I haven’t. The fact is, even pale, Western European-derived me isn’t really “white.”

Race isn’t a real thing. There’s no basis in biology to distinguish this ridiculous, false construction. This doesn’t mean, of course, race doesn’t matter. In spite of being, you know, totally fake and stuff, our socially constructed racial categories contribute to everything from amount of wealth families have to where they live to how much education they get to national incarceration and poverty rates. But. Race. Isn’t. Real.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who thinks we can wish away racism by simply acknowledging race as a lie and then sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “La la la.” Racism is deeply implicated in all our systems and institutions, from our construction of laws to the very language we use.

Speaking of language, why do we pretend skin tones come in opposite colors? It’s beyond my scope here to provide a historical analysis of why binary terms have been applied to varying shades of brown. Suffice to say it isn’t an accident that we associate whiteness with positivity, safety, and purity and blackness with darkness, dirtiness, and evil.

But why do we authors feed into the myth that skin tones actually come in milk white and midnight black? Habit, I guess, and the authorial urge to make scenes pop with dramatic visual imagery; it’s more dazzling to refer to skin as “powder white” or “obsidian” than “sand” and “hickory.”

She raised her head and stared into Marcus’ bright blue eyes. She’d never seen so many pairs of light eyes [before]; maybe Barstow had a preponderance of skin and eyes tones toward the darker end of the brown spectrum. Her own eyes, she knew from staring into the mirror every morning for the past twenty years, gleamed a dull medium brown, too light for chocolate and too dark for amber (The Tithe). 

In The Tithe, a novel about a postracial utopian/dystopian society, my characters reflect on skin color only as a matter of description. I’m not saying I do race right in my books, but it is important to me to try not to reinforce existing racial misperceptions and, therefore, inequalities. This may or may not help dismantle understandings of race and racism, but hey, at least I’m highlighting sameness rather than reinforcing difference. That has to be doing something right, right?

* I use "Black" and "White" not because I want to reinforce these chromatic misrepresentations but because these are actual legal racial categories in the U.S.