Measuring our worth by how “productive” we are is an ideology rooted in white supremacist and capitalist values that do not serve us.

-Jae Nichelle

By Jae Nichelle

We have all seen some version of the same thing on social media: praise for someone who is “self-made,” any iteration of the phrase “we all have the same 24 hours” or someone promoting their personal brand.

Society normalizes the idea that “success” only comes from breaking our backs day in and day out, subsisting off of coffee, never getting help from anyone and never resting. Most of us were taught from childhood that if we work, work and work harder we will one day be rewarded.

I watched the adults around me push themselves until they ceased to really exist, all to reach an end goal that I never understood. Twenty years later, and I’m doing the same.

Black people have been working like this since being enslaved, and I hear the same justification in every generation: “Even if I don’t see the fruits of my labor, my children or grandchildren might.” But the truth is that decades on top of decades have already passed—and the trees are still bare.

White supremacy claims that one must pay their dues to society before they can see comfortability. But by this logic, enslaved Africans (the backbone of US society) have paid enough so that none of their descendants should ever have to work again. Yet here we are.

Measuring our worth by how “productive” we are is an ideology rooted in white supremacist and capitalist values that do not serve us. We cannot continue to pretend that this is what we deserve. This is not to say that all hard work is in vain. But working within this anti-Black capitalist system just might be.

It’s easy for us to adopt these same values unintentionally, as they are literally forced upon us. These values, outlined by Tema Okun in the Dismantling Racism workbook, include perfectionism, quantity over quality, individualism, and the belief that expansion is equal to success. We not only subscribe to these values in our work, but we are taught to measure our self-worth by them.

Because this is an unnatural way to work for us, it adds even more stress. Black culture is community-centered. We help each other, live with or in close proximity to extended family, and often put our family before our individual needs. We take our time.

There’s a running joke that Black people don’t respect time. We are late to everything, we don’t know when to leave, and it might be two or three hours before dinner is ready. White supremacist culture teaches us that the quicker we can do something the better, and we should pride ourselves on how much we can do in a day. This joke highlights that this way of operating is just not us, and it doesn’t have to be the norm.

White supremacist culture will make you forget your natural ways of existing. Below are 3 things I have learned to remind myself everyday:

  1. It’s okay to help others and ask others for help.

There are a lot of awards and accolades for being a leader in xyz field or becoming the face of some great venture. Just yesterday, I read two articles on Facebook about becoming your own boss and building your personal brand. We are so pressured to have our own thing going on and be better than everyone else doing the same thing that we forget how to help each other and how to ask for help.

During my last year in undergrad, I applied for a scholarship dedicated to rewarding students for creating and executing a project in their community. Five of us were chosen, and none of us knew what anyone else was doing until the end of the year presentations when we found out that three of us had done similar projects relating to gardening/farming. We had been encouraged and rewarded for building something ourselves, but if we had all worked together or shared resources, we wouldn’t have each had to reinvent the wheel.

The truth is, another Black person’s gain is also your gain. People who do the same thing as you don’t have to be your enemies, but potential allies.

And on that note, it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. White supremacist work culture tries to discredit those who need help, and pushes us to believe the “do it on your own” narrative. This is a lie that disadvantages Black people because, guess what? White people help each other all the time, they just call it by another name.

  1.   It’s okay to take breaks

In almost every Black family movie, and in many of our lives, there is at least one adult figure known and honored for never taking a break. You might hear some reverent saying like “my daddy worked until his hands were only calluses” or “my grandmother worked non-stop until the day she died to get us this house.”

We cannot continue to romanticize our people having to suffer physically and mentally just to keep food on the table. We have to break the systems that make this our reality.

We also have to remind ourselves that it is honorable to work hard to get what you need, but it is also completely normal to need breaks and to take them.

  1.  You define your own success.

Capitalist and white supremacist success is based on having money, power, fame or some combination of the three. It forces us to believe that this is the only definition. But success for you could be anything from simply doing what makes you happy to finishing one project on your list. Success can be ongoing, not necessarily some end goal.

As a writer and performer, a lot of people have tried to define my success for me by asking me questions like how many pieces have you published? or how many shows have you booked? I usually just respond with “enough,” but later I find myself wondering whether or not it really is. Measuring success by quantity is a value we have to let go of.

It is okay to work on something for as long as you need to work on it. You don’t have to measure yourself by your ability to meet made up deadlines or create endlessly. These are often very unrealistic expectations of ourselves, and they set us up to fail.


All of these things are easier said than done, of course. There are systems in place to keep Black people working tirelessly but getting nowhere like we’re on a hamster wheel. But ceasing to conform to white standards and values is one important step to resistance. Because if we don’t try to redefine success and determine our own worth, we will continuously be playing an unfair game of catch up.
Suggested Reading:

The Dismantling Racism Workbook

How Black Women Describe Navigating Race and Gender in the Workplace” by Maura Cheeks

Appropriating Blackness by E. Patrick Johnson (2003)

Jae Nichelle is a spoken word artist pursuing an M.S. in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Georgia State University. Her work has appeared in Black Youth Project 100, Blavity, Vinyl Poetry and Prose, and other literary magazines.