The Black Tax Is an Unfair Burden, but I Benefit From It
What do I owe my family members? And what do they owe me?
The contention that Black people are a monolith is a problematic and unfair descriptor that conflates individual experiences as the Universal Black Experience. In spite of this, there are some cultural similarities across the shores and the diaspora that seemingly bind us.
One such cultural phenomenon is the Black tax.
Originating from South Africa, the Black tax refers to the sometimes unspoken obligations thrust upon successful family members to support other family members financially. It isn't a stretch to say that this is the bane of most African and African American people’s existence and a major stressor in our lives. And I am no different.
I Noticed My Family Taking Advantage of My Father
Growing up, this psychosocial ideology was ingrained in me. I instinctively knew that should I become financially successful, I was obligated to support my siblings, parents and/or extended family if need be. The aim of this monetary assistance is to create an environment that is conducive to imminent success for those who rely on it.
In essence, you never turn your back on your family members, especially when you can lend a hand financially. This was the norm in my family, with my father serving as an example. I watched as he, the most financially successful of his siblings, footed the bills of his parents, brothers and sisters. And he did so diligently, going as far as building homes for them, funding their business ideas and their children’s education.
My father worked tirelessly to make sure his family would never go hungry or homeless at the expense of his physical and mental health. Whenever confronted about scaling back or stopping, he would stubbornly refuse. Like a man possessed, he felt morally obligated to ensure the family was well taken care of. Strangely enough, though a heavy burden, it was an obligation he took great pride in.
While honorable and empowering in many ways, his decision to be the financial cushion for the extended family caused deep resentment and a sense of entitlement in my uncles, aunts and me.
It didn’t take long to begin noticing the uncomfortable entitlement that comes when you are at the beck and call of people constantly in need. I watched as his siblings took advantage of this kindness—asking, expecting more and, in extreme cases, vying for his assets. With no shame or pride, they expected my father to always be there for them financially while not bothering to improve their circumstances.
Witnessing this hastened my decision to separate myself from the world of the Black tax. Call it selfish but I didn’t want any part of it; not as a benefactor nor a beneficiary. I was determined to stand on my own. My greatest fear was ending up like my uncles and aunts, who were, by all intents and purposes, comfortable leeches. But life had other plans.
I Felt Like a Burden When I Relied on Financial Support
Now I benefit from the Black tax I once despised.
Between losing my job and experiencing debilitating depressive episodes before and during the pandemic, keeping a stable job was an almost impossible feat. In this void of hopelessness, the Black tax became my saving grace.
I found myself at the mercy of my successful siblings, who provided financial assistance with the rent and the piling bills. I became wholly dependent on them. And as happy as they were to help, it still didn’t take away from the immense guilt and shame I felt. My temporary inability to stand on my own made me fully aware of the unfair balance of power and the immense responsibility placed on their shoulders.
I saw their wealth and capacity to grow their finances diminish and felt their frustration at the situation. In a way, I was robbing them of their ability to build wealth. Slowly, it felt like our once-close familial relationship was being reduced to a transactional one.
I knew deep down that I had a responsibility to get better to ease the burdens off them. And I did, with time and patience.
The Black Tax Is Loaded With Pros and Cons
As much as I loathe the Black tax, without the financial support of my family, I would be in a precarious situation. Their financial support meant I had a roof over my head and I didn’t go hungry. Most importantly, I was able to get back on my feet.
Despite my personal prejudice, there is no denying that the Black tax can be a powerful and necessary investment in uplifting people who may not have the opportunity to do so. Having experienced the gift of the Black tax, I am encouraged to be open to the possibilities of offering financial help to my family back home who do not have the opportunities that I have.
It isn’t a decision that comes easily. By taking on this responsibility, I am keenly aware of the additional stress I will be adding to my plate. With that said, I believe it is a worthwhile decision. In my own way, I am uplifting other people like I was uplifted.
While I can't control the variables that would most likely lead to their quick success, I can ensure that I am not taken advantage of as my father was. I know better than to put my mental and physical health at risk.