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Review of You Get What You Pay For by

You Get What You Pay For

by Morgan Parker

Amid the calumnious pushback in the United States against so-called “critical race theory” (it’s not) in schools remains the single truth: you don’t learn the true history of the US in school. The same goes for Canada, where we learn about the enslavement of African people in the US, but we don’t learn about slavery in Canada or our own history of anti-Black racism following abolition. So I do my best to read and learn, especially from Black women. In You Get What You Pay For, Morgan Parker engages with the legacy of slavery and nearly four centuries of anti-Blackness on this continent. Her tone is brutally forthright, holding nothing back as she looks at how the shape of American society has influenced her life. In an era that has too long billed itself post-racial or colour-blind, Parker insists that, yes, you need to see her race in order to see the arc of her life so far. I received an eARC from NetGalley and Penguin Random House in exchange for a review.

This is an essay collection loosely masquerading as memoir and following a rough chronology of Parker’s life. She returns to a few regular motifs throughout: her next therapist, the slave ship as a metaphor for living under white supremacy in the US, the impossibility of survival for so many Black people as a result of police brutality. Many of the essays engage with seminal moments of the American zeitgeist in the past couple decades: the ascension of Serena and Venus Williams, Ye’s infamous remark about George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the trial of Bill Cosby.

Parker acknowledges the complexity of her subject while writing with an appealing simplicity. Some of her discussions of her therapists reminded me of It’s Always Been Ours, by Jessica Wilson. Both books were illuminating. We white women often fail to consider race as a factor in our professional interactions, whether it’s therapy, treatment for eating disorders, or in my case, teaching. Which is not to say that race is the only factor in finding a good fit with a professional. But as Parker makes clear in this book, it wasn’t until she found a Black female therapist that she was finally able to connect in a way that was authentic and useful for her. Her white therapists prior lacked the experience and ancestors required to see all of Parker.

That’s what we are talking about here. Seeing. Seeing the weight of intergenerational trauma. Seeing resilience not as a buzzword (“oh, you are so strong”) but as a rebellion against being put into a box. Seeing and understanding that racism isn’t simply, “Oh, people are mean to you because of your skin colour?”—racism is a kaleoidoscope of Rubik’s cubes of dominoes that fall every single day. It’s a behemoth, visible and invisible at the same time.

You Get What You Pay For is dolorous at times. It lacks the rah-rah inspirational tone that we have come to demand from racialized writers. This is my first time reading anything by Parker that I can recall, so my point of comparison is to Roxane Gay, who is likewise unapologetic in her take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards her opinions. This is something we unthinkingly praise in white writers but often see as too adversarial or cynical in Black writers. While Parker has obviously met with a fair amount of success, she opens up and discusses how that hasn’t always translated into better mental health. This reminds me of Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey’s Harvard Business Review article, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome”. Before I read that article, I probably would have labelled Parker’s description of her experiences as imposter syndrome. Now I know better. Now I know that the driving force is systemic, misogynoir.

At the same time, I think it’s important to emphasize that this collection is not hopeless. It’s just honest. You won’t exit it with a warm, fuzzy feeling, and you aren’t meant to. Now, that might not be what you want on your reading schedule right now—and I don’t blame you; I won’t pretend that I revelled in reading this. At the same time, I did fly through it, for as bleak as this book feels sometimes, Parker’s writing is also compelling.

Intergenerational trauma is no joke. White supremacy is alive and well in the US, as well as here in Canada. You Get What You Pay For brings a powerful voice to the conversation. Above all else, Parker insists that survival is not enough. She wants her life to be hers, as she should. Freedom on paper is not freedom in reality. Not yet.


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