Racism in the Freelance Industry—Yes, It’s Happening

“Everyone is hustling, but everyone cannot hustle the same.” — Tressie McMillan Cottom

For the most part, it’s so easy to tell people to quit their jobs and go freelance. I know I have, especially to friends who hate their jobs and who aspire to have financial and work freedom. For many years, I failed to see the inequality and racism that has a presence in the freelance industry too. Perhaps because I thought: well, that’s just how it is.

Quitting the 9-to-5 system and transitioning to become a freelancer is not a luxury or privilege for many people. For some, specifically for white people, it can be a straightforward transition. For Black, Indigenous, and people of color, they have to buckle up and ensure they have huge savings on the side. Oftentimes when clients know that you’re Black, Indigenous, or a person of color, your chances of getting that project and closing that deal might get slimmer. Or, even worse, potential clients haggle you to accept a lower rate.

What inequality and racism looks like in the freelance industry

When you see inequality and racism in the freelance industry, you might not notice it. That’s how normalized inequality and racism is in our global society — in both the freelancing and corporate worlds. It’s happening and it’s very exhausting.

I’m a queer Filipino. With freelancing, many Asians experience being offered a much lower rate. The root cause of this varies — it can be because English is not their first language or it can be because they live in Asian countries where the cost of living is lower than in the US and other westernized countries. There are more root causes but those two definitely top the list.

In fact, there are many existing job boards designed only for Asian job seekers. In the Philippines, onlinejobs.ph is one of the most popular job boards. It’s designed specifically for international employers seeking Filipino freelancers. On the surface, it’s good because Filipinos will have less competition, unlike Upwork and other job boards. But if you scrutinize the situation, foreign entrepreneurs are seeking Filipino freelancers because they can offer them rates that are much lower than the going international rates.

Perhaps these foreign entrepreneurs don’t mean to discriminate. Maybe they just don’t have the budget and they need folks who can do the job at a lower cost. But that doesn’t erase the fact that this racial inequality is unhealthy, at the very least, and globally systemic.

Black and Latine communities also have experienced inequality and racism for centuries. During the rise of the gig economy, such inequalities were especially apparent — despite thoughts it would be less discriminating. In the gig economy, Fortunly reported that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74.6% of all contingent workers are white. Whether in a brick-and-mortar office or virtually, it’s undeniable that inequality and racism are a part of the freelancing industry. And just because a client or a company “didn’t mean to be racist” doesn’t mean it’s okay.

The power of paving your own path

How do you navigate through inequality and racism when simply trying to provide for yourself through your craft? There’s no end-all answer. However, some things freelancers can do is keep shining in your craft, remove problematic clients from your roster, and be clear on your values when considering potential clients. Find communities that support and accept you — where your skin color or your accent isn’t used as a way to “other” you. You have the agency and autonomy to choose to work with clients who respect you.

Countless times potential clients approach me on Facebook, LinkedIn, pretty much everywhere, asking if I’d consider working for them. Almost all of them question my rates and why it’s so high when I’m based in the Philippines. Almost all of them laugh when I say I don’t work on Filipino rates.

It takes courage to turn down projects even from clients like these, especially when you’re still starting out. But there is power in paving your own path and choosing to work with people who value you. The more you practice it, the more your future self will thank you for it!

It’s also smart to continuously remind yourself that you are worthy. You don’t have to settle for low rates or disrespectful clients because you’re not white or pandering to whiteness. Understand that there are clients looking for folks who can do the work at quality rates, and clients who are looking for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to work with because they have normalized that it’s okay to pay us cheaply. Run away from the latter!

It sucks that it can be more difficult for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to find good-paying clients compared to white people. It’s exhausting to think about the fact that companies assume they can pay us lower rates. This is why we need to keep having conversations about this and sharing our experiences with people who get us as well as are open to healthy discussions. We need to keep learning from each other and understand that at the end of the day, we’re here to build a freelance business that works for us.

Tammy Danan
Tammy Danan

Tammy Danan is a storyteller who reports on environmental and social issues. She also covers productivity, creative pursuits, and the future of work. Her words have appeared in VICE, Audubon.org, ZEKE Magazine, Shutterstock, Toggl, among others. You may find her on Instagram @SlowFreelancing.