In the Blog
To Exist Outside of a Culture of “Hustling”
Illustration by Ki Chin
I have spent tremendous time reminiscing. I think often about how certain spaces remind me of how I felt during a specific point in time. I compare the experiences I had as a small child to those I have as an adult woman now, and examine how much I have evolved.
It is beautiful to have arrived at this new milestone in my life, which has provided me with the opportunity to unpack my identity, and recognize who I am. In spite of these feelings, it has also been daunting. I have devoted so much time to academic study in preparation for the working world. I have spent additional time unpacking while unraveling my identity, and meeting the woman I have always known myself to be. I crave to see more of her. I yearn to understand her.
In this search, I have noticed those who are busy building their careers, who are living deep in hustle culture, will miss out on this opportunity. In my own healing, the obsession of labour has been an interference in understanding my identity and what I truly want. This has reiterated for me that work does not always provide people with the opportunity to discover themselves. Rather, in all its popularity, hustle culture encourages over-productivity – through the guise of “empowerment.” Individuals who are committed to the “hustle” indeed have an opportunity to develop entrepreneurship skills, but at what expense? Constant over-working and no concrete time to understand life, or cherish valuable moments that will never be able to be experienced again?
Hustle culture and the push to rise up has taken away from people’s own growth and self-realization. It encourages focusing on what one lacks rather than appreciating what one has. I believe that for many, it has taken away from finding pleasure in feelings of nostalgia in fear of confronting one’s past and a time of less productivity. Whether or not it is the intent, the end result is rarely living in the moment, and instead hunting for validation through the hyper focus of “hustle.”
As opposed to being present and at peace with one’s own journey, people actively compete in order to appeal to societal conventions. They find themselves focusing on what is current, as opposed to embracing the moment. It then becomes clear that capitalism is not a feasible system. Rather, the idea of hustle culture encourages an often unhealthy and constant state of productivity-inducing trauma.
It seems, at least when it comes down to female “hustlers,” this culture has become an extension of a commoditized and branded feminism. It encourages emotional duress and burn-out. Modern white feminists have introduced the idea of being a #girlboss – and the pink, shiny spoils it entails – rather than simply creating equitable work, especially for Black women. For example, in the cases of Refinery29 editor-in-chief Christene Barberich and Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine Cohen, both of whom were accused of ruling with their girlboss-entrenched egos to the detriment of their Black employees, and resigned in 2020, contributing to a recent racial reckoning.
What I have learned from this is that, as opposed to aspiring to be your own boss, what most Black women actually crave is simply to be valued, seen, heard, and to feel as though we are cared for. While it should be empowering that we now have access to more spaces that were once dominated by male privilege, and can “be the boss,” these aspirations seem less about real ambition and self-worth than obtaining a wage and a hollow sense of success. There is no room left for a truly unique identity.
Hustle culture instead focuses on the exterior. For example, mass consumption, which has the potential to establish feelings of imposter syndrome, as described by psychotherapist and author David Grant, and which can become traumatizing. As Boston-based Dr. Bessel van der Kolk further describes in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “Traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.” In fact, he adds, “Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones.” As a result, outside of maintaining appearances and impossible commitments to work, it becomes difficult to unravel our identities. Defining the self through a relentless productivity, then, is not about satisfying independent wants and needs, but meeting requirements of the working world – that might be dangerous.
As a new participant within this working climate, this means I must first self-assess. A Black woman’s identity has revolved around being a spectacle for white consumption, dating all the way back to Saartjie Baartman, who was exploited for her race and body, and treated as a “freak show” in the 1800s, her mere presence meant to serve as entertainment. She, and so much of the history that came since, has led to needing to advocate for ourselves and unpack harmful colonialist structures not only in our day-to-day lives, but in our workspaces, which requires level-headedness, strength, resilience, and numbing. My own personal experiences have included my safety being threatened as a result of extensive targeted harassment, and encountering individuals falsely claiming to have been allies to my experience.
In that sense, hustle culture has proven to be more traumatizing when it steals integrity and minimizes identity. In my view, it embodies the same morale as slavery in the way that it offers false promises of opportunities, and uses Black women for their skills, while shunning us and not appropriately valuing our work, despite often being the backbone of workplace culture and efficiency.
In this way, hustle culture encourages a new platform for systematic racism, and perpetuates white supremacy as it takes. This is because it has provided oppressors permissible grounds to violate Black women, including not paying us our worth, despite presenting as being “empowering.” Although we have come a long way from a time when (Black) women were not granted the right to work, the adversity we continue to be subjected to will never erase the fact that hustle culture encourages over-work in hopes of being awarded the simple privilege of a seat at the table, something our white counterparts are guaranteed by sometimes doing the bare minimum.
Macmillan Dictionary describes “a seat at the table” as “a position as a member of a group that makes decisions.” This language is symbolic of capitalistic elitism. People are only seen as worthy once they obtain a level of notoriety. It encapsulates everything it embodies to be seen as a product rather than a person; our existence as Black women needs to revolve around whether or not we are accepted by the upper echelon. It is unfathomable to simply find satisfaction within ourselves, then. Again, the worth of Black women ultimately comes down to how desirable we are to whiteness. As an extension of capitalism, one that is taught early in academia, it is ingrained into the subconscious minds of all students, whose talents, hobbies and interests are also only seen as valuable if there is monetary gain. This results in great emotional duress and intense pressure. I am told that I am only worthy if I provide a service.
Of course, decolonization cannot be achieved if I willingly participate in patterns that traumatized my ancestors, and so I have decided that I must consciously remove myself from capitalistic schemes like hustle culture. By distancing myself from the mass production and over-consumption, I have found and created spaces I resonate with, and where I have not been fetishized, excluded, or compartmentalized, where I can be held, valued, and appreciated. It is important for Black women especially to distance ourselves, because it is not conducive to our humanity.
This discovery has forced me to recognize that I am so much more than what can be obtained through capitalistic gain. I am worthy as I am, I do not owe this world a thing. However, I have a responsibility to extend love and support to the women in my community that I cherish, value, love, and respect. They, too, are worthy.
About the Author: Taheelah C. is a freelance writer. She is calm, vibrant, and has a bubbly personality. She is sensitive, bright, and grounded in her faith.