Twice at IKEA this year, a person has approached me, not making eye contact, demanding my immediate assistance. Twice, I have smiled in that moment, feeling my chest begin to tighten, and readied my voice for an unpleasant interaction. “Gee,” I said, the most recent time. “I wonder why you assumed I work here.”
I didn’t break stride or make eye contact. “You look like you know what you’re doing,” she said. Still fishing for a reason, any reason but the truth, she added, just as the person a few months before had: “You’re carrying stuff.” I like to let the beat build for a second before I throw over my shoulder: “Everyone’s carrying stuff.” It is IKEA after all. Watching their faces twitch, voices fall silent as they process my response would be more fun if I weren’t always on the verge of vomiting from the casual violence of it.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, an employee at IKEA or CVS or any of the countless corporate merchants where a person, almost always white, has mistaken me for an employee. I don’t own any of the uniforms besides the one that matters in New York as much as anywhere in this troubled country: my Black body.
Where do I belong? Where do any of us belong in this city and on this planet which authoritarian capitalism continues to make uninhabitable? These are the questions underneath the question, Do you work here? These days, it seems like folks have even done away with the pleasantry of asking, simply taking it as a given that I do not belong here except to serve.
Don’t belong shopping at this IKEA. Don’t belong studying at this library on Columbia’s campus. Don’t belong on this corner in Staten Island. Don’t belong walking through this neighborhood in a hoodie. I can imagine another scenario where, out in the IKEA parking lot, the same blinds I was hoping to put up in my home, the ones that the person inside the store could not fathom I was carrying for myself, were mistaken for something else, something that could stop my heart not simply cause it to race.
But lately I’ve been thinking about how my response to the racist assumption of Black and Latinx people belonging in service work in this late capitalist city touches on a larger dilemma within capitalism, which is about the dignity and value and hierarchies of work. What does it mean for me, a person of color who has never worked in service, who is not an employee at IKEA or CVS, but a participant and patron of an exploitative system all the same — what does it mean for me to respond with exasperation or annoyance at being asked if I work here? Isn’t my anger a trap, another way racism seeks to create—in our imaginations—hierarchies of value?
Do I work here? I sure could.
I am a college graduate with a Masters degree in Fine Arts who has, for the last handful of years taught college writing as my primary source of income, cobbling a meager salary from several part-time positions. Were I to teach what is considered a full professorial load of 4-5 courses a year at the pay rate which the City University of New York adjuncts are fighting for ($7,000 per course), my salary would be roughly equivalent to that of someone working full-time at $15 per hour, which of course is the federal minimum wage that progressive politicians are fighting for this election—a wage that is still $25,000 lower than what HUD now considers “low-income” for the metro area.
In other words, I am a minimum wage worker, a low-income New Yorker. Chances are good that a full-time employee at IKEA made more money last year than I did as a full-time adjunct at CUNY.
The fight for a $15 federal minimum wage and the fight for CUNY adjuncts to receive $7,000 per course are one and the same. It is the fight to respect and value work—not in rhetoric or real estate ad copy or corporate-speak about family and unity— but in the words and work of those fighting to resist the capitalist destruction of land and labor exploitation and the mounting inequalities of access and care of this unsettling moment in our city.
There is nothing wrong with working here or anywhere—nothing wrong with preparing food for a person who wants it, or reaching up for a pack of tissues for someone. The problem lies, rather, in American history, in an exploitative economic system rooted for so long in racial caste that denies dignity and a sense of belonging to all, equally. The problem lies in the disparity between the kind of work we value and the kind of work we only give lip service to saying we do, a problem that always extends beyond the social realm to the sphere of the literature and what we deem beautiful work.
The essays, poems, and short fiction we are proud to publish in this new issue of The Grate all speak to this climactic moment for our city in their distinct and compelling ways: whether it is Maulana Dorce lifting up the work of Black doulas in “Delivering Death” or Jacob Penn reflecting on his time dealing with tourists at the World Trade Center in “Graveyard” or Andre Clarke’s character in “Thrift” combing through second-hand clothes in gentrifying Brooklyn.
With these eleven timely and potent pieces, our second issue of The Grate is a chorus of voices singing beautifully, unforgettably for more than just attention–but for a new way of being, another way forward in this city. As every issue of The Grate is, this one is a city unto itself, reminding us that any profound act of creation is always an act against destruction.