#freelanceflailing part 2: If me valuing myself sounds like a threat, your power trip has already gone too far
By Benedict Nguyễn
This is the second part of “Forecasting the next stage of #freelanceflailing amid so many failed labor relations.” For “Part 1 - Interpersonal harm is a predictable horror of the art world,” see here.
To Past, Present, and Future Clients:
First of all, it is an honor for you to be able to work with me. I deign to accept your dollars.
Second, do not privilege the respectable way I can articulate this letter. Know that this is me dialed down. Know that I won’t always put in the energy to communicate in a way easiest for you to listen when I just need to be heard. Do you communicate with me with the same care?
You wring your hands and shrug as if to say, “We already did DEI training! What else can we do??!”
Let’s rewind: Before we even start talking about working together, ask yourself: Am I tokenizing Benedict? Too many of you have been tickled to have [insert my marginalized identities here] in your projects, only to realize having me means contending with what it actually means to have someone who’s [ __ ] on your project.
The way we communicate, the way we work may not share the same value systems. This list of white supremacist working culture characteristics articulates some forces bearing down on our labor relation. This list explains but it does not excuse. The way you decide what is urgent and when is not just stressful, it’s manipulative.
So inevitably, you mess up. You’ll say the wrong thing or someone you work with will. Tough! Any manager of a business (yes, that’s you) is hired to keep a business afloat. That your business is a non-profit means that your funding is not exceptional but rather, inextricable from capitalism’s worst violences. The state may have devised the 501(c) structure to fund the generic “social good,” but the revolution will not be funded. And still, you defend and protect the people committing the worst harms because you think they’ll save you with their $5000 donation. We’ve been here so many times before.
So many times, your default position has been to defend your institution’s choices instead of showing care to me. Sure, my 1099 makes up such a small percentage of your 990, but the bottom line is more than fiduciary. The bottom line also implies your core values. Beyond your institution’s feckless mission statement, what’s your bottom line as a person?
When I complain, listen and believe me. So many times, your default position has been to defend your institution’s choices instead of showing care to me. Sure, my 1099 makes up such a small percentage of your 990, but the but the bottom line you're contracted to protect is more than fiduciary. A bottom line also implies core values. Beyond your institution’s feckless mission statement, what’s your bottom line as a person? If it’s to protect an institution over a person, whew! You are perfect for the job they hired you for and terrible at everything that matters. What’s a guilty gatekeeper to do?
A genuine, timely apology could go a long way. Acknowledge that you messed up and the power dynamics of our labor relation have magnified the harm caused against me. But your promises of “mindful” “examinations” around your institution mean nothing without meaningful redistribution of your (institution’s) power and resources. What are you doing to undo hierarchy, the way people at the top wield power against those of us at the bottom? If your institution won’t disband now, I’m saying pay up. If you can’t take accountability and change your behavior, then quit your job and join me in #freelanceflailing. You think you’re having a tough time?
The last year has seen Nana Chinara’s letter to Gibney and Emily Johnson’s letter to Montclair State University, among others. Lately, the direct but private confrontation, the whisper network, and the impersonal public callout all feel like dead ends. Each of these channels allows you to shove me under the rug and move on. I insist that I am not something you can shove under the rug. You must ask me how I’d like to address this concern before we can move on.
For some of you, I’m tired and chose to move on. I've found new clients where I can approach working relationships with more clarity about what I need and often, more cynicism. I try to warn people working with past clients I’ve left behind.
But should we engage in this labor, if I should do this DEI work, do not mush this into “other duties as assigned.” If freelancers don’t get paid when we don’t produce, I won’t produce something outside our original scope of work without more pay. I could be generous, but I won’t do free labor to repair a labor relation that you messed up. If you hadn’t, I might be open to educating you on XYZ so that we could work together better. I might even give you a discount on my astronomical consulting rates.
In aligning myself with fellow #freelanceflailing workers across industries, I’ve been dreaming about labor relations that empower us, where the labor of producing and circulating art can have structure, but not depend on dreary institutions.
For more on the dynamics of building toward this, stay tuned.
In the meantime, “Fuck you pay me” / BBHMM,
benedict nguyễn is a dancer, writer, and curator based on occupied Lenape and Wappinger lands (South Bronx, NY). Their criticism has appeared in Vanity Fair, Into, Brooklyn Rail, Shondaland, and the Establishment, among others; their poetry, in AAWW’s the Margins, Flypaper, and PANK. They’ve performed in DapperQ Fashion week and in recent works by Sally Silvers, José Rivera, Jr., Monstah Black, and more. As the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room, they created the multidisciplinary performance platform “soft bodies in hard places.” They publish the newsletter “first quarter moon slush,” and when not online @xbennyboo, are working on their second novel. benedict-nguyen.com