The Black Tax Article
How helping our families might be killing us.
Sometimes, when the merits of African society are being discussed (especially in contrast with the Western), I hear people gush about our communal way of living. It’s a thing of pride for us, this ubuntu. We like to highlight this quality because it is one of the few things we do better than the rest of the world. And it matters. We should be our brother’s keeper, and we should raise the children together and take care of the old (unlike those bloody caucasians who leave them in care homes—just kidding). We should ensure the well-being of each other. It’s what makes us who we are. However, a certain insidiousness lies underneath this aversion to individualism. It takes the form of black tax, a concept that is a cause of concern in the lives of many.
The internet defines black tax as money that Black workers, especially professionals and others with higher income, give to their parents, siblings, or other family members, often out of obligation or a deeply ingrained sense of familial responsibility. I think “higher” as used here is relative, and this definition places many of us under the umbrella of beneficiaries, or payers of black tax.
Take, for instance, my father, who has been his extended family’s primary support even before my birth. Or my uncle, Dede who calls me baby sister, despite the decades spanning between us, and looping above the line where my mother rightfully occupies this position in his life. These people have taken care of everyone because they were taken care of, too, and it’s a sign of responsibility for them. To love is to provide.
And yet, being the financial messiah becomes too heavy a burden sometimes, especially when your life is just beginning, and there are a hundred and one things you need and want in order to survive and even thrive. You might not voice it out, but staying afloat would be a lot easier if you weren’t being called for every little thing that happens at home, like the person in this tweet:
Speaking of tweets, in July 2022, Tennis Legend and four-time Grand Slam singles champion, Naomi Osaka, made a tweet that generated a lot of controversy.
Critics immediately swooped in to give their two cents. Many called her ungrateful, and spoiled, and made references to how much money they thought she made. While I have my reservations regarding the tweet from a PR perspective (girl get a burner!) I sympathize/d deeply with her. When someone lies on you with all their weight, sometimes shouting is the only way to let them know that it really hurts! Not to talk of an entire family leaning on you at the tender age of 24.
A few months ago, Mikel Obi, the popular Nigerian Chelsea footballer, also shared his experience navigating black tax in an interview. “You have all these relatives, cousins, and your sisters, they go off and they get married to some guy who just wants to get married into John Obi Mikel’s family because my life is sorted. And then you start looking after this guy. Before you know it, you’re looking at them. They keep having so many kids, and you look at it, ‘okay, you’re having these many kids, who’s going to look after them?’ It’s you.”
He referred also, to the sense of entitlement that sometimes emanates from the beneficiaries of black tax. “For them, you owe them that. So, sometimes you have to be strong and say, ‘you know what, guys, enough is enough, I don’t care.’ They give you this thing whereby, if you don’t do it, they’re going to go to the press. ‘Oh, wow! After all that I have done for you guys.’ But this happens a lot. In Africa, I’m telling you, not everybody comes out and speaks about it because we’re thinking, how are we going to talk about this?”
Mikel’s experience mirrors the experiences of others who are able to gain some success and wealth, especially after experiencing poverty. They become community ATMs and have to deal with the entitlement, guilt, and exhaustion that stems from navigating people, feelings and requests.
Interestingly, the Non-Naomis and Non-Mikels of our world are not exempt, either. I reached out to a few friends to learn how black tax affects their daily lives. Their experiences leave a lot to consider.
Sekhani (23) is the first of four siblings (two in university, one in secondary school), and she shares how being responsible for her family has affected her life. “I think everyone has left it to me. I pay school fees, house rent, hostel fees, and any other little need, even sometimes on short notice. It is exhausting. Some days I feel happy to help, but on other days I feel like it is exhausting. Nobody is asking me ‘are you okay?’ ‘what can we do to help?”
For Alameen (26), black tax is a source of joy. “Part of why I’ve always wanted to have a great job is to be able to take care of my family and so “black tax” will never strike me as something negative. I also realize I’m speaking from a place of privilege but I think as a man and as a first child, to be able to cater for my people, is a super warm feeling. Afterall, isn’t the Nigerian dream to be blown to an extent that they can’t start family meetings without you?”
OO (33), tells me that he hasn’t gone a week without sending money home. “Even when I have plans for the money, I have to push back my plans to help others.” When I ask him whether it makes him feel good, he says that it doesn’t but he has to. “To an extent, I am a product of that same system. Most of what I did was funded by my siblings and my aunt. I just feel like it is my time to pay back. Sometimes I start the week with 400,000 naira and end the week with 5000 naira.”
While very different, these people all harbour this sense of wanting to help while desiring to live better, more stable lives.
So where do we go from here?
As both beneficiary and payer of black tax, I have seen the water from the other side and I have a few simple suggestions that might help us navigate this sociocultural phenomenon as adeptly as we possibly can. I use the word might intentionally. My mentor, Peace Itimi tells me that the best solution for black tax is to level up, and I agree. The more money you make the less it would potentially hurt.
For the payers of black tax, something I have learned intuitively is to encourage my beneficiaries to learn a money-paying skill, especially when they are young. Being able to spread the burden, and even completely lift it, is a very good feeling, and with siblings (or other beneficiaries) who are ambitious, and willing, black tax does not have to be a permanent fissure to your life.
Something else I learned from Peace regarding black tax is that having a budget can be really helpful. With a monthly set figure, it’s a lot easier to say, “sorry, money av finish” when it’s exceeded. This way, you can have a sense of control over your finances, and you can feel less guilty about saying no because you have already communicated what your boundaries are.
Of course, there is the elementary trick of not being hyper-specific regarding how much you earn or how much money comes in. Leave it up in the air, let everyone make vague assertions. They will all be fine.
Finally, develop a strong heart. Learn to say no. Don’t pick up calls from certain people, and turn a blind eye from time to time. If you were not in the picture, they would find a way. You don’t have to be the altar and the lamb. This applies, especially in your dealings with extended relatives.
For the beneficiaries of black tax, there are a few things you can do to lessen the burden. For one, you will be doing your helper a great service by not being entitled to their help, especially when it’s not their primary responsibility.
Toyosi (26) tells me, “It’s relieving to have a family that's grateful, graceful, and not entitled. We all recognize the position that this puts me, the burden, and how hard it can get most of the time. They make me feel better by being these three things - grateful, graceful, and not entitled.” Like Toyosi’s family, please be grateful, and please manage what you’re given. Times are hard.
Then, of course, learn a skill, and find something to do for yourself to lessen the burden. Having your own money is such a sweet feeling. If you’re able to help yourself, you will even reduce the ‘see finish’ your helpers show you, and they will pick your calls a lot more frequently because you’re not always calling with bad news.
In conclusion, I think what makes black tax truly insidious is how easily patterns of generational poverty remain when we feed them. All that money we earn is invested back into the family and very little is used to do the things that truly push us forward and change our lives, like furthering education, traveling, getting a Master’s degree, buying a house. Instead, we sit still, and we help, and we face the guilt, the entitlement, the fear, and all the other million and one little things that impede us from living our lives to the fullest.
At the end of the day, this poem by Zimbabwean poet Wadzanai Tadhuvana pulls into being my thoughts and feelings on the subject:
I am because they are
It took a whole village to raise me
Now, they will become because I am
Now that I am
I will raise the whole village in return
The shirt on my back, I will give
The coins in my wallet, I will pay bills
The food on my plate, I will share
The rooms in my house, they will live
For if they do not become
The whole village will forever be on my back
And they will ask, we raised you, why not raise us and our generations in return?
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Media I consumed this week:
Listening: I have been listening to The National. My new favourite song is on The 20 Something Playlist.
Reading: I am starting the year reading Poetry. Currently Reading one of my favourite collections of all time, Ariel by Sylvia Plath.
Watching: My Company Law textbooks (dfkm).
Wishing you the most amazing week! Also, please leave a comment if this topic is one that you can relate to. It’s clearly a very dicey one.