Black Tax: The Paradox of Being Black and Affluent10/02/2015
By Kel Daroe “How much does this cost?” the middle-aged white woman asked as I was standing on the...
By Kel Daroe
“How much does this cost?” the middle-aged white woman asked as I was standing on the main floor of a luxury brand clothier in Midtown Manhattan. I looked around, thinking I would find one of the nice sales associates who was supposed to be nearby. Only half of the store was on sale, and the signs didn’t clarify if 40% off actually applied to clearance. I needed it to apply to clearance; I had a hot date. I took a step, literally bumping into the same woman, who was just a little too close for comfort. This time she got more insistent. “HOW MUCH DOES THIS COST?” I recognized the tone instantly. It was the same tone my mother used with the infamous “DO YOU HEAR ME TALKING TO YOU?” of my adolescence. I was being chastised for not doing my job.
The only problem being that I was, in fact, not at work. Nope. I work in an office, complete with cubicle villages and florescent lighting. I type fast; I speak fast. I create policies; I write reports. If this woman would have tried, she would have gotten that pretty quickly. The context clues were all there. I was holding four items of clothing draped over my arm. I had a smart phone and a YSL lipgloss in my hand. I had on a coat and my purse was slung over my shoulder. That didn’t matter to her. She saw one thing and one thing only: Black body = accommodating servant.
I stood in place and waited for her to figure it out. The realization dawned on her, but she started staring, too, so steadfast in her conviction that embarrassment was beneath her. We stood there for an eternity, frozen in a tableau that could have taken place any time between the Reconstruction and three minutes ago. She only hurried along when a harried retail worker scurried past. I turned around to sympathetically look at the person who was going to receive wrath comprised of equal parts white privilege and poor manners.
She looked just like me.
Whenever these moments happen, I am wracked with simultaneous emotions—a bitter mix of fear and disgust. The one emotion that stays longer than the rest, however, is always, always guilt. I got as far away from that woman as I possibly could, but that’s because my privilege afforded me the ability to do so. That was literally not my job. But I knew she was being visited upon another Black woman who had to be the accommodating servant countless times a day in a system that literally would not allow her to rest. I didn’t leave with the cute dress, just the feeling that I had undeservingly escaped an alternate universe by the skin of my teeth.
I abhor the system that causes race and class to be inextricably linked – the system that has geographically concentrated poverty and rigged the American Dream of home ownership, divested from inner city public schools, and profited off the prison industrial complex. Anti-blackness is America’s favorite investment strategy. And every day, as a middle class resident, I struggle against it and benefit from it at the same damn time. It’s the sharpest of all double edged swords. I get the job over another person of color because I am “articulate.” I find out the white guy I am dating has no problem showing me off to his friends and colleagues but never to his parents.
I have been both gentrified and a gentrifier. The real estate agent subtly hides his amazement at my decent credit score. I move into a building filled with my people, but they have been there for generations. They welcome me, and I am happy. I walk my small dog and wear leggings and drink ice coffee and buy tacos. Other people who share my interests but not my facial features move in with increasing rapidity. Suddenly there is a tipping point. My rent reaches that magical 50% of my income which means I cannot live and eat and buy toilet paper all at the same time. I am not needed anymore. I was never preferred anyway—the real estate equivalent of the token person of color that always gets killed in the first 25 minutes of the slasher flick. I exist solely to advance the plot. My future can’t be stabilized because my rent isn’t.
Yet I am grateful. As a youngster, I imagined that I procured all accomplishments myself with some uncanny combination of wit and superhuman skill. The truth is far more sinister. There is almost nothing separating me and the retail sales associate trying to make it on a less than livable wage. I work hard, but I am not morally superior or special. It’s a fact that is sometimes hard for me to reconcile, but a fact nonetheless. Oppression will continue to equate our bodies with burden; I will always be mistaken for the maid, secretary, or sales clerk. I reject the system that creates that assertion, but it gives me a sense of empathy. I am she and she is me.
Ultimately, I can accomplish nothing without her.
Kel Daroe is a health equity warrior and communications specialist. She lives in Brooklyn with her dog Bernie. Follow her on IG and Twitter @keldaroe.