Written by: Dr. Helen Ofosu, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
The tax is only paid by Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
In certain circles, it’s understood that there’s an emotional tax on underrepresented people. This “tax” is the “combination of feeling different from peers… because of gender, race and ethnicity; being on guard for experiences of bias, and the associated effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive.” Informally, within Black communities, sometimes this is also called “the Black tax” because it’s such a familiar and typical experience.
Much has been written recently about the exodus of Black people out of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) roles around the third anniversary of George Floyd’s death. Most of those articles focus on a change in organizational priorities with vague mentions of burnout among EDI professionals (see these articles from Korn Ferry, Inside Higher Ed, or World at Work for more detailed examples).
There’s also another related but often hidden price that Black, Indigenous, other people of color, and other members of underrepresented groups pay. Until recently, it had no name, but “diverse” people know it when we see it. It’s called “cultural taxation” or a “cultural tax.” Cultural taxation is the extra work expected and often demanded of members of underrepresented or marginalized minority groups, often scholars of color.
Initially, the concept of cultural tax was used within academia, but it generalizes to many other contexts. Here’s an example of how it plays out.
When a Black, Indigenous, or another person of colour (BIPOC) person is the only or one of few within an organization, people naturally look to that person to provide their unique insights and perspective. On the surface, this looks reasonable, but it can go sideways quite easily and even dramatically.
Since I am a Canadian psychologist, I will use my profession as an example. The population of Canada is now 40 million people. As of August 2023, there are only 30 Black people working in Canada with a PhD or PsyD in psychology. This estimate is based on the data collected by the Section on Black Psychology within the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA).
Since there are so few Black psychologists, the few who exist are often asked to do all kinds of “extracurricular activities.” People want to “pick their brains” over coffee or lunch, have them sit on the boards of directors for nonprofit organizations in prestigious yet unpaid volunteer roles, moderate events and panels, deliver keynote speeches, and serve on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and anti-racism committees, provide mentorship, write letters of recommendation, give media interviews and provide quotes for reporters. You get the picture.
These are all worthwhile and meaningful activities (especially for the people who are asking), and, for the most part, we say yes because there are few others who can provide the same information and perspective.
But, often, these tasks are done in addition to our day jobs or our billable work.
Understandably (and thankfully), many members of underrepresented groups feel some loyalty and affiliation to their communities. For example, we often say yes, knowing that Black-serving and Black-led community organizations receive less than one percent of the support received by nonprofits that are aligned with non-racialized/dominant culture organizations. Given the economics at play, it’s understandable why we don’t always get our standard fees for these efforts. (You can see more details here: Unfunded: Black Communities Overlooked by Canadian Philanthropy).
Moral obligations versus boundaries
Most of us are well-intentioned, committed, and feel some loyalty to our communities of origin. We want to say yes when asked to help and contribute. Plus, again, we know that if not us, then who?
We also want to say yes since we hope that, over time, we will improve the representation within our professions so that these burdens can be shared. The expression about many hands making for lighter work often comes up.
When we are members of professional organizations (e.g., provincial professional colleges or national professional organizations), we are expected to support and contribute to EDI/anti-racism committees and initiatives.
Even when these organizations are well-established and well-funded, often, the expectation is that this work will be done on a volunteer basis under the guise that the professional organization is structured as a nonprofit. Yet, in our work or business roles, we know this work is time-consuming, emotionally challenging and exhausting. It is a very aggressive cultural tax. It should be noted that most organizations can pay consultants to do this EDI work but often prefer Black, Indigenous and persons of colour to do it voluntarily.
I don’t intend to single out and pick on my profession. Instead, I am using psychology as an example since it’s easier to write about what I know -- and because the shortage and the underrepresentation within psychology are so extreme (for more about the reasons behind this shortage, read this 2023 Canadian Psychology article). But the same analysis applies in other fields and professions.
From what I see, this cultural tax is an apparent downside and consequence of diversity that does not emphasize equity. It’s unreasonable and unsustainable for the few and the “onlys” to pay this cultural tax. It is simply too expensive.
Considerations when dealing with the cultural tax
Understand that as the first, one of few, or the only, you have unique responsibilities and perspectives — but you also are human, so there’s a limit to what you can do while honoring your own personal and professional obligations — and having enough time for rest and self-care.
It’s essential to set limits on the number of hours you contribute to prevent burnout.
Keep this analogy in mind: if someone you barely knew (or don’t know at all) asked you for $5K, $10K or more, you would have no trouble ignoring their request. Sometimes, for your survival, you will need to say no. Few people can afford to give away tens of thousands of dollars or more in time and energy when they are not financially independent and still need to work for a living.
Remember that when organizations value services, they find a way to pay for them. If it’s not important, it’s not worth paying for. And if it’s not worth paying for, it may not be worth your precious time. Admittedly, some organizations have smaller budgets and fewer resources because of systemic and other forms of racism and discrimination, so depending on your bandwidth and financial reserves, you might be able to provide limited pro bono services.
Also, remember that some of these organizations have more money than you have, yet they are asking for free services. Think carefully and consider negotiating for payment or charitable donation receipts that would match invoices you’d normally submit. If their answer is no, consider declining their request or their “offer” to provide you with “exposure.” Exposure won’t pay your mortgage, rent, kids’ tuition, etc.
If you are part of an organization working with one of these “onlys” be mindful of the extraordinary demands on their time. Try to protect them by keeping your requests as minimal as possible. Try to focus your asks on substance and minimize the administrative burden that could be addressed by someone else.
For clarity, I acknowledge that I do plenty of pro bono work, and much of it feels important and meaningful. I am grateful for the people I’ve met while doing some of this work; much of it has been a pleasure and a privilege. But that said, things fall apart if I don’t have enough time and energy to complete my billable work and get adequate rest. Consequently, I’ve had to get very good at saying no.
So, now you appreciate the hidden cultural tax experience that many of the few, first, and “onlys” have been experiencing for years. While absent from the typical narratives shared when opining on why people leave EDI work, this may be part of what’s driving people into other types of work. For those who have been paying this invisible cultural tax, now you can name it and resist paying too much.
Dr. Helen Ofosu, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Dr. Helen Ofosu has been practising Industrial / Organizational Psychology (also known as Work or Business Psychology) in the public and private sectors for almost 20 years. In addition to Career and Executive Coaching, her specialties include the assessment and development of leadership skills, and navigating the complex issues of workplace bullying, harassment, diversity and inclusion. Dr. Ofosu is one of the founding officers of the Section on Black Psychology, Canadian Psychological Association and she’s thrilled to have written a new book “How to be Resilient in Your Career: Facing Up to Barriers at Work” that was published by Routledge in February 2023.