Due to external and historical pressures, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are especially vulnerable to falling into the sly trap of overworking to the point of emotional harm. Expectations make hustle culture the norm, but the grind shouldn’t come before wellbeing.
What is hustle culture?
Hustle culture is the idea that one must continuously work hard in order to achieve success.
The existing conversation around hustle culture largely reflects its physical consequences, including high blood pressure, increased drinking, and cardiovascular disease. Studies have also been conducted, showing negative attitudes toward hustle in the workplace.
But for BIPOC, the unseen hand of hustle culture both results from and results in a host of adverse mental health outcomes as well.
What makes hustle culture so unavoidable for BIPOC?
People impose various stereotypes on marginalized communities surrounding their ability to succeed. Asian-Americans, frequently of East-Asian descent, often face the presumption that they are studious, logical-minded, and adept in a school environment. Black Americans and other communities of color may face preconceived beliefs on the opposite end of the spectrum, driving compensatory hustling.
It’s not surprising that people of color feel a need to work harder to create a successful image for themselves. A study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Australian National University, and University of Michigan found Black and Native American teenagers were almost ten times more likely to be classified as “lazy” than their white counterparts – regardless of their actual work ethic. Black and Hispanic/Latinx teenagers were also around one and a half to two times more likely to be labelled “violence-prone” and characterized as “unintelligent” than white adults and teens.
It’s no wonder that for POC across the board, stereotypes create a huge pressure to work oneself to the bone.
1. The pressure of stereotypes
The bottom line is there is no good stereotype. The weight of any expectation is a burden.
“The stereotype that Asian students are naturally gifted and studious has been at the root of the stress and pressure I feel to exceed expectations academically. I feel a heightened sense of fear of failure at school and have suffered immense taxation on my mental health. I and other Asian-American students have been reduced to our academic performance and held to unreasonable standards because of these stereotypes.” – Trang, 18
Expectations create pressure to succeed at any cost. Whether you’re trying to meet or defy expectations, the game distracts from your actual goals. The pressure to hustle out of stereotypes can make you forget what you actually care about.
Stereotypes also inflame fear of failure, resulting in a significant mental burden. This results in a runaway cycle of hustling and crashing, with no clear end.
2. Invalidation of achievements
The debate surrounding affirmative action is complex, but the emotional effect it has on minority groups is clear. Last fall, my eyes were opened to the systemic invalidation of BIPOC accomplishments as I went through the college admissions process – specifically in the context of affirmative action.
Affirmative action involves the implementation of policies that aim to increase opportunities for historically underrepresented groups. In regards to race, these groups include Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students.
As college decision days occurred throughout the fall and spring, I witnessed a comment thread where an applicant insisted his rejection was due to diversity quotas. He was convinced the university was required to meet these quotas and let in undeserving students of color, which cost him his “deserved” spot. Needless to say, numerous replies informed the poster: that’s not how it works.
This kind of blame, though, is the reality that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color face. Our success is constantly invalidated, often as a result of policies whose original purpose was to solve our communities’ marginalization.
One clear and inevitable consequence of such invalidation is an unhealthy obsession with work. As the success of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students is reduced to diversity quotas or anti-discrimination policies, these students’ need to maintain a hard-working image intensifies. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students who feel invalidated in their accomplishments may develop an understandable, nagging need to prove others wrong.
Working to achieve a goal is a challenge, but working to prove you are able to achieve that goal is emotionally draining. The need to prove oneself proves harmful to the mind, causing historically underestimated groups to suffer in an attempt to be taken more seriously.
3. Guilt and paying back those who came before us
Many who fall under the label “BIPOC,” Black, Indigenous, and people of color, have in common relatives within history who have made sacrifices. From enduring abuse, immigrating, not finishing school, or even working unfavorable hours, the efforts made by many parents and past relatives of the present generation of minorities are immense.
With the recognition of these efforts often comes a sense of guilt, and sometimes even a need to succeed as much as possible to pay back the hard work that has been put in in years past.
“I feel a lot of guilt when I don’t accomplish something or am lazy because it was a big decision to leave our home country, and it was made with my future in mind. I feel a constant need to succeed in school because my parents made the huge decision to move across the world and give me more opportunities.” – Sophia, 18
A perspective many first and second-generation immigrants have is that they must seize all the opportunities in the United States. Those with any minority background are likely aware of the limited access to some of the resources the U.S. has in other countries, often because relatives live or have lived in such countries. This generates a large amount of pressure to do everything great this country has to offer: get good grades, do all the extracurriculars, get into an amazing college, and develop an impressive career.
To do this, young adult minorities often juggle everything possible on their plate. By spending every hour working in some capacity, whether it be schoolwork or an activity that strengthens a college application or resume, BIPOC can avoid the guilt of not living up to the hardworking lives led by those before them.
Unsustainable mental health consequences of hustle culture
Many Black, Indigenous, and people of color feel trapped in a world of forced productivity. Even when signs of over-work arise, we POC tend to feel like there’s a lot more to lose than there is to gain by taking a break. But what do we lose to this lifestyle? What are the consequences of hustle culture?
1. Inability to rest
The concept of hustle culture universally entails devoting as many hours in the day as possible to work, and we can see how this disproportionately affects minority race groups. An impact of such a work ethic is the inability to take a break. The pressure to meet a stereotype, prove one’s worth, or even make relatives proud creates a value of work over rest.
“I was working a full-time job while also being a full-time student in college, and I was still scared I wasn’t doing enough. I constantly worried about whether I was doing too little and frequently asked myself, ‘Should I be doing more?’ It made it extremely hard for me to know when it was okay to relax.” – Alex, 22
Knowing when to stop is difficult for those who believe success is unattainable with breaks. This helps explain why so many teenagers stay up late on school nights to finish assignments and accomplish academic goals. A result of this sacrifice of sleep for school, however, is a mental toll.
Neurological studies show a night full of rest helps develop mental and emotional strength, whereas a persistent lack of sleep provides a foundation for negative thoughts and emotional vulnerability. As BIPOC specifically get caught up in the whirlwind of hustle culture for numerous reasons, the lack of sleep that often accompanies it ultimately results in an even unhealthier mind and body.
As time goes on, this mind will find it increasingly difficult to push the limits every day. The effects of devoting hours every day solely to work are strong; they are strong enough for work to have priority over recreation, sleep, and health. A harmful habit forms when one refuses to take a break, which is a drastic consequence of this mindset.
2. A drive to be overly competitive
So, it’s pretty safe to say hustle culture traps a lot of minorities. The unfortunate problem with that, though, is it almost creates an arena of people who all hope to win the same trophy.
Because everyone immersed in the act of working constantly, with various motivations and intense productivity, has the common end goal of success, this often results in a competitive atmosphere that can further harm those involved.
This can be seen in students who engage in the hustle, who then see others engaging in it to a different extent, ultimately resulting in the initial students pushing themselves even more just to match the level they believe other students to be on. For Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other students of color, the potential comparisons have far more variations and deeper meanings.
The model minority stereotype sparks comparison within Asian-Americans, leading to rigorous competition. The negative stereotypes surrounding the work ethic of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities spark comparisons. Different minority groups can experience comparisons as well—after all, if you have a “model” minority, what do you call the others?—driving competition of its own.
All scenarios ultimately lead to a sense of competition among students already experiencing stress. Students who worry enough about their own actions, and now find themselves worrying about what everyone else is doing as well. The cycle here is dangerous; the addition of comparison, the notorious thief of joy, to a lifestyle that already limits the leisure in one’s life, is draining.
3. Heightened anxiety
The emotional and mental strain of a lifestyle led by the hustle creates a very tainted image when it comes to approaching tasks.
In some of the hardest classes I’ve taken, I found my teeth chattering and my body covered in chills at the thought of an assessment. I think the issue became obvious when I realized doing hours of preparation for these assessments somehow made this anxiety worse.
I sacrificed taking care of myself, time with friends, and relaxing, in order to do well, which put pressure on assessments and generated a massive amount of fear. If I didn’t do well, I was left without success and without various emotional needs met. And if that happens, I’m left to wonder—what were those sacrifices for?
Many BIPOC may label this as a fear of failure.
“Because of how much I wanna succeed [in order] to repay my parents, I overwork myself way too much, and I hate bad grades. I honestly have a fear of failure.” – Sophia, 18
Yes, hustle culture can cause one to push themselves to continuously study, work, and thrive. But this also sets up an expectation for that person in their mind; they have to succeed. The work and the sacrifices all lead up to one end goal, so the fear of “failing” to achieve that goal is real.
It cultivates an intense amount of anxiety and stress, which is a common theme in the cycle of hustle culture. It is a culture that thrives upon anxiousness, is maintained by anxiousness, that results in even more anxiousness.
Running up an emotional debt
The familiar dread among BIPOC of being unsuccessful has long-lasting effects mentally and emotionally. The stress this dread causes can manifest itself in a dread towards starting new tasks. Because avoiding beginning tasks, almost procrastinating, avoids the possibility of failing to succeed altogether.
Many minorities engaging in hustle culture find themselves slipping out of its hold in a way, but not necessarily for the right reasons. It is not to promote health and wellbeing, or to take a break, but because telling oneself that they are simply putting a task off for later helps to avoid realizing what is actually taking place: burnout.
The signs and effects of burnout
The burnout many BIPOC face is a state of exhaustion brought on by prolonged mental, emotional, and physical stress. The reality of this is often difficult for students of marginalized races who have been overworking for years to grasp, as it results in an extreme decrease in productivity and motivation.
Its physical signs range from frequent headaches to frequent illnesses. Its emotional effects range from a loss of motivation to feeling defeated. It can cause behaviors such as detaching from others and isolating from responsibilities.
The signs and symptoms of burnout are hard for BIPOC to acknowledge. Possessing the hustle culture mindset, in which always working is the only way to succeed, for such a long period of time makes it hard to realize the harm it’s causing. Recognizing the little regard for health this lifestyle has is one of the first steps to eliminating the belief that productivity equals priority.
Ways to reframe attitudes toward success
Being a minority among white peers is a large weight to carry that comes with a lot of baggage. This existence, along with doubts of success that arise for various reasons, work to construct a mindset among Black, Indigenous, and people of color that sustains hustle culture.
Jennifer LaFleur, Assistant Director of Student Academic Support at the University of Virginia, emphasizes this, stating “the reality is that for a lot of BIPOC students, they’re working within this predominantly white culture, and that’s just life, so they’re always working harder. They’re doing the schoolwork in the context of living life as a BIPOC person in this culture.”
Living in a society where we possess the label of “minorities,” the belief that we need to push ourselves is sly in its persistent existence.
1. Acknowledge the burden of pressure
Because the hustle culture mindset many BIPOC have is a result of various outside factors, there is no one-step solution, but there are ways to combat it.
LaFleur says, “there’s no magic fix for it; it’s a practice of continually checking in with yourself and acknowledging that you are carrying a greater psychological burden in many contexts than some of the people around you.” It’s important to be kind to ourselves; realizing there is a distinction between our capabilities and the cards stacked against us is key.
Accepting this helps emphasize it is not BIPOC’s job to overcompensate for the odds that fail to be in their favor. Living in a predominately white culture with racially motivated obstacles is a battle in itself that you should be proud to overcome daily; however, feeling this pride does not require hustling and working to prove your place in said culture. You deserve your spot in this society, and you don’t have to do the work others do not in order to prove it.
2. Listen to your mind and body
One of the mistakes many people make is ignoring the signs. LaFleur stresses the importance of listening to your body: “I would suggest, when it’s possible, that BIPOC students develop the ability to monitor their own level of exhaustion and self-talk and burnout so that you can sort of get ahead of the consequences.”
As we discussed, the impacts of hustle culture are physical, mental, and emotional. Often, people ignore or excuse these impacts, which is why there is a level of importance in monitoring your own health. While the regulation of responsibilities such as schoolwork is important, the regulation of your health is a need.
Without a healthy mind and healthy body, work will not be productive, enjoyable in any way, or even possible. “The more you can tune into the signs of burnout and exhaustion, then you can say ‘Hold up, I need to take a step back,’” says LaFleur. Once you spot the early signs of exhaustion, it will signal a need to rest that will allow you to safely carry out responsibilities in the future.
3. Surround yourself with the right people
“Find your people,” says Jennifer LaFleur of UVA. “It’s not always about finding people who have the same lived experiences [as] you, but it’s often a comfortable place to start to have community with people who have similar lived experiences to yourself.”
As BIPOC, the concept of hustle culture is so normalized, it can be hard to realize that we can each relate. We all struggle with similar causes, effects, and burdens of such a mindset, and realizing these similarities through conversation is helpful in feeling less alone. “Find people that you can be reasonably honest with and who will be reasonably honest with you about real thoughts and feelings and struggles.”
Whether it means putting the image of productivity aside and confessing how hard you thought a test was, or admitting you feel exhausted, LaFleur gives the golden advice of “[finding] the people you can say the quiet part out loud with.” Surrounding yourself with people who are understanding and relatable helps eliminate the idea that hard work is necessary to keep up with everyone else. A candid support system also helps to maintain a positive separation between work and life, perhaps even work and people.
4. Reflect on your habits
There are questions you can ask yourself to prioritize health as a BIPOC with responsibilities, whether you work a job, work as a student, etc. Jennifer LaFleur gives us this advice: “You have to just really pay attention. Are you healthy? What is working for you? What do you need to take care of yourself?”
These questions can help you directly face the impact of hustle culture on your wellbeing and happiness. From there, you can help eliminate these impacts by taking care of your mind and body and surrounding yourself with people who understand and therefore promote a healthier lifestyle.
Dismantling the belief that hustle culture is necessary is difficult, especially because of its deep roots for BIPOC living in a predominantly white culture. However, working towards acknowledging and reframing that mindset will help cultivate a lifestyle where stress is shortened and happiness is heightened.
Note: Names of interviewees have been changed to conceal their identities