By: Helen Egwu, Graduate Assistant Office for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
A unique concept that has been presented to me recently is the idea of the “Black and Brown Tax”. I had never heard of it until I had the privilege of learning from the Director of Student Services at College of Arts and Media, Daniel Segura. Daniel recently kicked off our office’s Hispanic Heritage Month program with our Soup and Substance event. He presented the idea of the Black and Brown Tax as being fatigue that people of color in professional roles often feel due to the unspoken expectations and demands required of them.
This fatigue is caused by having to work just as hard as one’s white counterparts to feel valued in the position. It is the practice of overexerting yourself in your role as a person of color, to prove that you belong in your current position. This often leads to the individual giving so much of themselves until they have nothing else to give.
Often, when we think of these ideas, we tend to believe that this concept only plagues working professionals. I would like to argue that the Black and Brown Tax impacts student leaders as well. As people of color in student leadership positions, we automatically wear this invisible armor, which to others, means we can take on anything that is thrown at us. As a Black woman, I already have the “strong black woman” cape to bear, but as a student leader, I also pay the Black Tax to the detriment of my mental health and to the benefit of the systems that keep white supremacy in place.
I had the honor of working as an Inclusion Assistant in the Residence Halls for three years of my undergraduate career. For those who are unaware, an Inclusion Assistant is a residence life undergraduate professional who lives in the residence halls and “serves as a source of support for students of minority orientation.” At least, that is what the job description read when I first applied for the position.
In this role, you have a duty to educate your residents, staff, and occasionally, your supervisor, on diversity-based topics. There were many highs in the position. Highs such as successful bulletin boards, programs that garnered large attendance, and the lifelong friends that were made along the way. But, with all this good, how then did I leave this position and develop an extreme case of social anxiety? The truth is, I wanted so desperately to be successful in this position that I gave myself away in the process.
This position became my identity. Many of my residents had very minimal interaction with people of color before meeting me. The only information many of them had about black women was often learned from the media. As the only person of color on staff for almost two out of the three years that I was in the position, I was battling stereotypes every day. Some that were vocalized from residents and some that were mentally engrained due to my own media consumption. To prove these ideas wrong, that meant never having a bad day, smiling even if I did not want to, and being extremely present in the hall.
There were many challenges I had to overcome in this position. I would have to listen as some of my residents spouted off comments based on discriminatory ideology. I would be the source of strength to the residents who came to me crying some nights because of racist encounters that they had in their day. I would have to choose the high road when people constantly made comments about my hairstyles, or alluded to the fact that my black skin automatically meant that I came from the “slums” and had a “hard life” full of disadvantage. I could never grow in my knowledge of diversity-based topics and had to always keep things light for fear of appearing to be self-serving. As an empath, I absorbed all of this naturally. Each time that I did, a small part of my fire would die.
I felt this unspoken duty to be strong, resilient, and a positive motivation to students. I felt that I had to maintain this position even when I was at my weakest points, purely because I felt I had so much to prove as a black woman. I did this while still battling the natural hardships that come with life, academics, and internships. I paid the Black and Brown Tax significantly. In the words of Interim Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, Stan Shingles, “I had paid so much that I became broke.” I still struggle with the mental health effects of the position to this day.
I do not regret my time in residence life. In fact, it was undoubtedly the best years of my life thus far. However, I regret not guarding my mind and protecting my mental health. As a people of color, we are always giving more than what is written in the job description. We do this while some individuals from the majority minimize our efforts or make us believe it is “in our heads”. The truth is, until everyone makes it their responsibility to actively serve diverse students and tackle issues of inequality in the workplace, the Black and Brown Tax will always need to be paid. Minorities can-not bear this work alone. Hiring diverse talent is the easy part. Creating environments where diverse talent can thrive, is the challenge.
We must all work together to share the load.