Beyond work-life balance

Racial and social inequality at work is alienating a “pushed out” workforce
January 1, 2016

We are raised to believe when we finish school we will get a job or profession and that with this job we will be able to provide for ourselves and for our families. It is assumed, as a sign of success, we will want to leave our parents' home and make our own way in the world. There is a tacit understanding that our lives should unfold relatively smoothly and that, maybe, we might even be happy.  

But if the ubiquitous “we” in that paragraph is assumed to be white, heterosexual, middle class and able-bodied, what is the experience of schooling and work for those outside the dominant culture? How is happiness defined and measured for them?  

As someone who is not a member of the dominant culture, my experience of working life thus far has been mainly one of alienation: from self (body, mind, spirit), from community and from culture. This experience stems from our society's belief that work is a neutral space where we are among equals. Current buzzwords such as “diversity” and “work-life balance” only superficially address how power and privilege manifest in the workplace.  

Arguably, education at the primary and secondary levels teaches us, among other things, how to sit still, how to listen, how to do certain (often mundane and repetitive) tasks, and how to at least fit in, if not get along, with others. These are all very transferable skills for when we enter the world of work.

What about those of us who never learned how to sit still or to listen? We were bored stiff with the mundane and repetitive tasks and often felt awkward, like we never quite fit in. We chafed throughout our education, especially during those four or five years of high school. (Often, our subsequent experience of the working world would feel similarly off.) I did not master most of these skills until my early teens. It meant that, until that point, I spent quite a bit of time on the “Thinking Chair” at the back of the class, or at the principal’s office, for infractions big and small.

I look back at my childhood self now and see that my “acting out” was about a kid trying to make sense of massive changes that she was experiencing, the major one being a reunification with my parents in Canada when I was six after being raised by my extended family in Jamaica. I now also understand that many of those big and small infractions were a reaction to my invisibility as a poor, black immigrant kid. By high school, the “Thinking Chair” and principal's office were no longer my reality. I still often felt like I didn’t fit in, but instead of acting out I became disengaged and, in my junior years, skipped the classes where I felt the most unseen and unheard.

In university I and others began to give voice to our experiences. My classmates in the early- and mid-1990s, and some of our professors, were using words such as privilege, power, white supremacy, patriarchy, classism and heterosexism. Students were demanding that our course readings better represent the student body. I began to learn about “the hidden curriculum,” about cultural capital and how socioeconomic status is a major determinant of a person’s future outcomes.

These were not easy conversations. Many of my peers still believed their parents were successful because they “worked hard,” not because of unearned privileges or their social location. But these conversations ended once I entered the workforce. There seemed to be an unspoken belief that we were now all on a level playing field—that we were now members of the same group: working people.

I worked throughout my 20s, at one point leaving university to take a job with a national youth organization. Most of my employment then was with small non-profits. In these first “real” jobs I began to observe the unspoken ways that power and privilege functioned, how some co-workers were able to “volunteer” their time or work unpaid overtime, and how despite modest wages a few others were able to go on vacations or purchase expensive name brands. This was possible not because they were frugal or good savers, but because they were still being financially supported by their parents (which was only revealed to me much later). The rest of us had no choice but to live within our means and again to wonder what we were doing wrong.

After completing a bachelor’s degree, I applied to teachers college with an explicit desire to work from an anti-oppressive, inclusive framework. However, I was very surprised by the conservative attitudes of many of my peers there. Many believed “not seeing colour” was a positive approach when working with racialized students. Their idea of an anti-oppressive, inclusive classroom was to treat all students “the same.” Class stratification and discrimination was barely considered.

Although I was extremely frustrated by these attitudes, I didn’t give much thought to my relationships with my future colleagues or what my experience would be like as an employee. I knew we would not all be “on the same page.” But I imagined that once I started teaching I could close my classroom door and impart the lessons in the way I saw fit. I was 30 when I completed my teaching degree and was hired as a full-time teacher not long afterward. I passed the two-year probationary period and became a full-time permanent teacher with the Toronto District School Board.

Yet with each passing year I became more and more unhappy. During each break (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.), I would almost always, with the rare exception, come down with a nasty cold or flu. Often I’d come home from a hard day at school and, after a quick dinner (and marking and/or prepping for the next day), plop down on the couch in front of the TV and not get up again until after the 11 o’clock news. If you asked me what was wrong I don’t think I would have been able to name it.

I knew I did not want to rush all the time. I wanted to sleep until I felt rested (at least some days). I wanted to sometimes feel sunshine on my face in the park in the middle of the afternoon. I wanted Sundays not to be filled with dread. I wanted to shop for groceries, cook, do laundry and spend time with my friends and family without feeling like they were using up precious time I needed for marking, lesson planning and preparing for the workweek.

I only realized once I left my full-time teaching job that I also needed much more: a workplace where I saw my lived experiences, and those of other marginalized people, represented and reflected in meaningful, respectful, deep (versus superficial), non-exploitive, non-appropriative ways. Ideally, I did not want to be the only queer and/or black and/or formerly working class staff member in my school. I wanted celebration and representation of black culture to go beyond Black History Month or Kwanzaa. I wanted the understanding that there was much more at stake in my relationship with students, parents and the larger community as an “out” queer black teacher, and that being “out” or coming out in school was not just a matter of pride or a “teachable moment.”

After paying off my student loans, I decided to take an unpaid leave from full-time teaching. I worked for one semester and took the second semester off. I did this for two years and then took a full year of unpaid leave. At some level resigning from the profession felt drastic, but it also felt liberating. School had become a place where I had to put on armour. Each morning before I left home, I felt I had to gird myself for the day. This protection and my ultimate “choice” to leave was a form of survival.

The term “pushed out” was coined by researchers to describe the experience of mainly poor and/or racialized students who leave school (drop out) because they feel they do not fit with the values or expectations or mechanisms of mainstream education. As adults we have more agency than students, but I feel the term also works for those of us on the other side of the desk who “choose” to switch to part-time work, or to leave our profession altogether because our values, desires and expectations did not fit the system. Perhaps we, like those younger "dropouts," might still be part of the system if there was a better “fit” for us. Until then, a system that assumes a white, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied norm will only reflect, privilege and perpetuate that norm.

Changing the culture of work is extremely difficult as work is the means by which each of us supports ourselves and our family. Anything that threatens our individual well-being or that of our family is always contentious, but discussions about power and privilege need to be had for the betterment of us all. The fact that the experiences and values of some members of society are represented, reflected and validated on an ongoing basis while those of others are marginalized makes us all that much poorer in the end.  


Dianah Smith is a writer and arts educator facilitating writing workshops in schools and community settings. She coordinates a community arts festival in Toronto and is an Occasional Teacher with the Toronto District School Board.

This article was published in the January/February 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.