Productivity culture and its capitalist mama do not love you, will never love you and will never grant you rest—especially if you are Black.
CW: This piece discusses drug use and addiction
By Sabine Bradley
I’m not sure that I’ll ever be excellent.
In a white supremacist capitalist world, excellence is only reached, only recognized, through a vow to remain inexhaustible. You must maintain, if nothing else, the appearance of bottomless endurance and an infinite capacity to achieve more. Western society has spent its existence, carefully romanticizing a culture of constant work. From the elusive promise of the “American Dream” to the rise of social media influencers who manage to always get it done, productivity culture, or grind culture, has successfully seduced us into a draining and loveless marriage. Because the truth is, productivity culture and its capitalist mama do not love you, will never love you and will never grant you rest—especially if you are Black.
To be Black and to subscribe to the cult of productivity raises unique hurdles, specifically, the exacerbation of one’s duty to exude “Black Excellence” at all times in the face of anti-Black institutions. Our workplaces, our social media presence, our neighbors and friends, all often embody in one way or another the racist and ableist lens through which our value is decided for us. And we know this. Black people have always been hyper-aware that, in the eyes of those in power, our humanity is constantly up for revocation.
So we grind. We go into every day, every building, job, and social setting, with the knowledge that our best is not the same as theirs. It is not measured equally. If productivity culture has soaked all parts of western society, Black people in this society are drowning. It’s because of this awareness, that the general understanding of Black Excellence revolves around one irrevocable requirement: that it is comparable to, if not directly in contest with, whiteness.
I know first hand how the marathon of grind culture coupled with the duty of Black Excellence can feed off of each other, making burn out inescapable. It was in my desperate attempts to keep up in a rigged race, to cope with burnout while appearing unphased, while remaining excellent, that I became an addict.
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I began experimenting with drugs as a means to sustain my productivity as an undergraduate. Though college wasn’t my introduction to drugs (I’d smoked weed and tried psychedelics in high school), it did provide my first encounter with illicit uppers. As a working college student, my life left no room for rest. When I was not in class, I was working. When I got back to my dorm from work, it was past midnight and I had assignments to finish. On days when I didn’t work, I had art submissions to send out. I had club meetings and events to attend. While these latter activities seem less essential, they were vital to creating and maintaining a reputation of success. Every moment of my life was dedicated to personifying Black Excellence, very much in spite of the PWI I attended and the conservative town where it’s located. Sun up to sun down was spent proving that I deserved to be there. At a point, things began to fall through the cracks. So rather than admit I couldn’t continue past my capacity, I found a way to push harder.
To me, cocaine was the perfect solution to burnout. Cocaine helped me keep producing, keep showing up, keep competing, far past a healthy limit. And for the most part, cocaine gave me the energy to make it look effortless to outsiders, an important part of the posturing that goes into productivity culture. I occasionally used other psychostimulants, like Adderall or Ecstasy, for their similar effects of increased energy and concentration. But cocaine was my preference, as it didn’t leave me with numbing insomnia or an uncomfortable comedown like other uppers often did.
In the antebellum South, it was these exact qualities that popularized the distribution of cocaine from white slavers to enslaved peoples in an effort to increase productivity. This practice continued post Civil War in the Jim Crow south, when white employers would supply Black laborers with the drug for the belief that it would provide them with the ability to work in harsher conditions.However by the 1890s, racist hysteria over the “cocaine crazed negro” began to spread. Newspapers and physicians claimed that cocaine use drove Black men to sexually assault White women, and caused Black people in general to become hyper aggressive. This would be the beginning of the demonization of Black drug users, and the image of the Black “Cocaine Fiend”. This progression is mirrored in how psychostimulant addiction is or is not tolerated today, based largely on an individual’s orientation to privilege.
The most insidious thing about the abuse of uppers is that, in the right (or wrong) circles, its detriment is understated so long as the person abusing them can keep emanating the appearance of success, so long as they are perceived to be a beneficial member of the capitalist system. We see this in how society simultaneously glamorizes and trivializes the abuse of uppers in the Wall Street archetype, and others who are projected to embody profit through their work. This is to say, finding someone to take my addiction seriously was virtually impossible as long as my grades remained high and my personal “brand” excellent.
Before my junior year, family tragedy led me to leave school. I was no longer a student, no longer a BSU rep, no longer the image of excellence. No longer did my cocaine use signify my dedication to academia, but rather my failure. I found myself stripped of an identity that relied on constant achievements, and left with a consuming addiction. It didn’t matter how many jobs I worked, or that I spent my free time (high) reading the textbooks I would have been assigned had I still been in classes. What mattered was that I was no longer a symbol of respectability.
Recovery for me has revolved mostly around healing my relationship with rest—around unlearning the internalized contempt for my Black body when it is not at work, divesting from toxic productivity culture, and throwing off the yoke of “Black Excellence ”. It has reminded me of the liberation that lies in the right to choose mediocrity—to revel in the simplicity of averageness.
I don’t know if I will ever again be Excellent.
But I do know, freedom is good enough.
Sabine Bradley is a writer, performer, and mental health and harm reduction advocate in western New York.
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