By Dawn Washington
Last year I made $43K. I often wonder if everyone went to their jobs tomorrow and did what I just did, that is, told everyone in the office how much they made, would there still be a wage gap in this country? In the American workplace, it is generally discouraged to discuss salary. I have learned in life that anything that is asked to be kept secret becomes an opportunity for lies, deceit, abuse, exploitation, etc. If inequity is shrouded in darkness, no one will challenge it. If everyone discussed their salaries openly, wouldn’t management have to give an account for why Tom makes more than Tyrone and why Becky makes more than Brenda?
Secrets are also opportunities for shame.
Too few will admit that the ideology surrounding earnings in this country is overrated. The logic is, how much you make says something about the type of person or worker you are. So since I make under 40K, I’m uneducated ( I received my masters with distinction years ago), that I’m unmotivated or unambitious (I have taken salary cuts in my career to pursue what I want to do, not how much I want to make), that I’m not a good worker (my rapport is long and strong with my former and current employers).
It’s true that salary says something about the type of person you are. Sometimes it can mean that you are talented, have desirable skills, and that you manage those gifts in professional and ethical ways.
But this might be the exception.
We rarely discuss the fact that how much you make can mean that you have poor character and that you will do anything at the expense of others to get ahead.
One fact racism has taught me is that having money doesn’t automatically make one admirable or noble. In fact, racism has taught me that having money doesn’t offer much insight on one’s wholesome attributes.
When free labor or slavery was the economical norm, the richest people in this country didn’t pay their employees, they exploited them. This system of labor and power still exists in culturally tolerable ways. As our cultural mindsets have shifted, so have the ways we see and define exploitation. Today we may denounce slavery with our speech, but we find it perfectly permissible to politic in the workplace.
The power structures of the past have shifted to the so called “equitable” and “inclusive” workplace. Workers who treat others poorly, abuse their power, and exploit people in ways that are subtle or overt still exist. And this behavior is affirmed and reinforced in language such as, she’s a “go-getter,” he’s “ambitious,” and she has “professional drive.” And frankly, most times when I’ve encountered a person who has been perceived as a “go-getter,” they have been horrible people.
Nine times out of ten there are people in your office who have been ignored, dismissed, and silenced just because they make less.
Meanwhile success continues to be associated with “good” attributes. And most of us fall prey to the unchallenged association. If someone makes “a lot of money,” it is assumed that they did “the right things” and was appropriately rewarded for doing so. And yet criminals end up on the “30 Richest People” list all the time.
When I watch people hand over their professional respect and admiration to people who are not deserving, I sometimes think of the housing crisis of 2008 and every level of business it took to make it fall apart. Everyone from the top execs at Fannie Mae to Annie May, the office assistant, sold a bit of their souls to make that collapse happen.
Look in your own office and see how this dynamic plays out.
Today, the shame I once felt for my salary is almost non-existent. The shame lessens every day when I consider how people achieve “success” and the arbitrary nature of salaries.
Lately my admiration is with the poor and working poor. They get up every day in a country that doesn’t acknowledge them or their experiences. And they keep living and saying with their presence, I exist.
So, when someone presents themselves as someone who “makes a lot of money,” my initial reaction is to be slightly suspect. Don’t get me wrong, I know people who make sizable salaries and have done so honorably. However, I know just as many people who barely make enough to feed their children who work just as honorably.
There’s a scripture that says, “What profits a man to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” I used to think this scripture was intended for the rich. But it just might speak to all of us who work to gain wealth at the expense of others.
So, I will keep my $40K a year and trust that my needs will be met. I will do so and keep that part of my soul.