Who should take on the burden of emotional labour?

We often forget that along with any form of work comes emotional strain. My work at the Cambridge Union has increasingly opened my eyes to this. It takes a lot of emotional energy for me to run events and think about how to actively foster an environment that’s diverse and welcoming to women and minorities in the process. Some people will have noticed I always pick women or BAME people first for questions and floor speeches or go out of my way to initiate conversations with people who are part of underrepresented groups at the Union. I do this because I’m passionate about making the Union a welcoming space for everyone, and it is something small yet tangible I can do alongside bigger structural changes. Saying this, it is hard not to get discouraged. It often feels like no matter what I do, people still feel the Union is not the place for them. Don’t get me wrong – this is not me attributing blame to individuals in those groups - rather, it is more that it has made me think about the amount of energy that I put into this place and whether it is actually possible to achieve effective activism and representation in such an institution.
It shouldn’t be the job of underrepresented groups to have to fight their corner and force themselves to be heard. Instead, people should be actively creating spaces for them and be aware of them in decision-making processes. As a BAME woman, I keep finding myself in a position where I have exhausted myself by investing so much emotional energy in attempting to create this space. Admittedly, I have come home from debates crying one too many times as a result. This isn’t really a point as much as something which I’ve increasingly tried to discuss with my peers – where does the onus of emotional energy expenditure lie in situations of inequality? With us – but then do we sacrifice all other goals or plans we might have in order to fight for our spaces? Numerous times Diversity and Women’s Officers at the union have just decided to leave because they don’t see the point – and I don’t blame them. I have also come to realize that your ability to ‘fight’ really depends on what kind of minority you are. I was speaking to Khadija, our Women’s Officer, about this. It seems that when I stand up and speak about these issues it is probably a lot more palatable to the white men we host because I am Union President and I am, therefore, I guess, respectable in their eyes. This comes largely from the fact that I do sound ‘English’ (without any sign of an ‘Asian’ accent) and look sufficiently ‘Western’ with my pale skin. Not everyone can access these physicalities. Indeed, it goes without saying, these should not be factors in the first place.
Following from this though, does the onus lie with the privileged? In some cases, they are not even aware of the complexities of how their decisions may be oppressive? Personally, I lean towards giving the responsibility to the privileged. Equally, this would only be sufficient if minorities were willing to play a significant part in making these individuals aware of their own privilege. Yet, here we face the same dilemma. Again, this is a task that is tiring and repetitive given the fact that many people refuse to acknowledge any lived experience that contradicts their own. It doesn’t seem like understanding people have different experiences of life would be hard, but apparently, it is. The innumerable conversations one has as a minority where you have to explain why it’s legitimate to feel the way you do, even if your counterpart has never personally experienced what you’re referring to, is astonishing. Worse, the more you have these conversations, the more it can feel like people who you really respect are not listening to you.
I initially wrote this as a response to the interview questions Marble sent me. However, it turned out I had a lot more to say. Trying to express this idea of emotional energy, I realised the extent to which I felt the emotional strain and the amount I had to say. I don’t intend for this to be a formal or even political piece (I am not running in any elections and I have no incentive to impress people), it’s more just a point that’s close to my heart and one I think we need to have more conversations about. I’d like to leave you with one thought. Although a seemingly established part of any institution the division of labour is not something that we should take as a given. For those of us whom it may not always favour, it is a tiring and what seems like an impossible structure to change. So we must all recognize the emotional energy it takes to diversify these spaces and share the burden.

Rachel tustin

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