When you live in the West, there’s always that moment that comes in neon, to remind you that you are not home. Forget that you are in the colour minority or even language. It is not when you constantly convert the local currency to Kenya shillings and cringe at how much you are paying for stuff – that, you expect.
It is what you do not expect that gets you. Culture shock can, of course, happen when you move to a different part of the continent, or country, but it is more dramatic away from the beloved Dark Continent.
Mine happened when I learned that something we so naturally do at home has a name, and is often a very heated topic; black tax. My white friend and I often went shopping, more like window shopping, on London’s Bond Street. Bond Street is where the wealthy spend their money on overpriced stuff. Bond Street is where poor people go ‘celebrity spotting’, or walk from shop to shop, looking for free samples of makeup and perfume. I was not wealthy, and neither was my white friend, but we so loved to touch stuff that wealthy people had touched.
On this particular day, I saw something that looked within my spending power, although it cost half of my week’s wages. I wanted it, was even willing to give up a few luxuries so I could afford it, and I nearly paid for it, until I remembered that I needed to send some cash to my mother.
My white friend was aghast, and she said something to the effect that one of the reasons Africa was not catching up with the West, was black-tax. That our culture is unfair. I was insulted.
It did not make sense then, because I did not understand the term. Then I checked it out; google defines it as the financial burden borne by black people who have achieved a level of success, and who support less financially secure family members.
I hated, still do, that definition – the tone is negative right from the moment the word ‘burden’ appears. It connotes that black people would rather not have to pay black tax. The thing is, I cannot imagine not doing it. I cannot even imagine what I would be if the black tax did not exist. Nearly everyone I know is a product of black tax.
Africans, as diverse as they are, are bred, socialists. The West as a whole, as diverse as it is, is capitalist and sadly individualistic. A capitalist must have coined the black tax definition. I am not in any way suggesting that there are no black people who hate having to share their wealth with extended family members; I am in no way suggesting that it is always happily ever after – indeed, I know a few people whose families are bleeding them dry; some families have even broken up because of it, but those are the rare cases because no system is perfect. In general, the family is happy to take what the giver gives. And the giver is quite happy to do so.
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Besides, if a family is practising black tax, it means the person paying the tax is a result of black tax – uplifted by somebody else, because one would not need black tax unless they needed it.
In the West, being an adult means that you should be capable of taking care of yourself, and you start by moving out of home, or paying rent to your parents. It is a great plan, in ideal situations. Over there, the conditions are ideal because there are job opportunities for the young. Over here, even for the adults, jobs are scarce.
Black tax is one of the reasons we care for our old, as opposed to bundling them together in old people’s homes where they only get to see family for a couple of hours a month if they are lucky.
I don’t know about other black people, but black tax is not an obligation, in my opinion. It is an honour, to pass it forward.