The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost … he simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American … ” — W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
I was recently jolted back to reality while listening to eNCA and doing some mundane activity. I was aware of the headlines coming on and then there was a feature on “black tax”. It explained the phenomenon known to many young, black professionals (especially those who are first-generation, university graduates). I was stunned because it attempted to explain something my friends and I had only spoken about in private or mentioned in emails — the woes of being an adult and paying “black tax”.
For those who are privileged enough not to experience or know about “black tax”, it is the lived experience of many young professionals who have to share their salary with their family and extended family. This could mean supporting a younger sibling by paying their school fees in order to lessen the burden for the parents, extending the family home and buying new furniture and in the event of a sudden death in the family, covering some of the expenses that arise. The list is endless. These are a few examples of how young, black professionals have to share their salary. There are other forms of “black tax” such as black professionals having to work twice as hard in order to prove themselves in many corporate spaces (a conversation for another day). But some have argued that “black tax” is rather a case of the “real financial and social implications of being a member of one or more of those groups [with] people who are deliberately and systemically denied opportunities”.
While listening to the eNCA feature I thought about the collective experience of supporting our families as young professionals while those who are more privileged have holidays abroad, live without car instalments and can buy property at a young age or simply live with the ease with which an unburdened income might allow (some might be surprised to know this group includes black people). On a superficial level I feel exposed when the issue of “black tax” is spoken about. I thought talking about “black tax” was something we did in our private spaces while talking to friends. The public is not supposed to know about this “burden” we bear as young professionals because people might feel sorry for us or worse, laugh at us.
The truth is, our generation is not the first to experience “black tax”. When my mother started working in the 1970s she recalls handing over her measly teacher’s salary to her mother without question. I think she expected a similar courtesy from my sisters and me. In our efforts to gain financial independence we decided to give my mother a fraction of our salaries, often begrudgingly. Unlike us, I think my mother handed over her salary with a little more pride as the first professional in her family. Instead of viewing our roles as providers and helpers in our families with pride, we use the language of taxation: someone taking something from you with little willingness from you. I suspect that part of the burden of “black tax” is that our financial independence is not fully recognised and we cannot live the lives our education promised us.
The issue of “black tax” makes me uncomfortable not because I feel like the black experience is being exposed and perhaps misconstrued (in the name of making news rather than thinking through the complexities of black life). I am uncomfortable because it is also incorrectly defined. I would argue that “black tax” is a question of class rather than of race. As it is pointed out by Eusebius McKaiser and Ayabonga Cawe in the feature mentioned above, “black tax” is also about a cultural dynamic in black families where families are larger than the nuclear family and therefore one has more people “counting on you” in the form of financial support. Of course in South Africa people whose life experience is defined by this are overwhelmingly young, black people.
The unintended consequences are complex and even hurtful. By highlighting “black tax” those who we support are painted as people that are lazy rather than people living in an economic, political and social climate that renders them unemployed and often unemployable. The discourse of “black tax” also diminishes the effects apartheid has had on black families. It’s not a mistake that many black parents cannot pay for their children’s tuition, it’s not a mistake that some of our parents do not have retirement annuity funds and savings or any kind of financial safety nets.
Cheap labour during apartheid made it nearly impossible for many parents to consider the financial future of their children and for themselves. Unlike more privileged young professionals who have a “starter pack” in the form of a car, university fees paid for and rent covered by parents, many black professionals don’t start with a positive bank balance. Their salary is already accounted for by others in the family who will benefit from their financial success. And unfortunately, for many working-class families, this is still the case. Therefore, black life, yet again, is a problem that needs to be solved.
What does “black tax” mean for black life? It seems black people are at the centre of the economic question yet again. More importantly, as black people, what are we doing about our subjectivity in this issue? How do we ensure that we make the proverbial circle bigger for those who need help in our families but also make sure that we remain critical of our history and current experience without becoming victims of the economy once again?