If you are a black person in America, then you are probably familiar with the concept of the “Black Tax.” It’s the axiom that states black people must work harder than their counterparts to achieve similar outcomes. It might result from lower pay compared to coworkers in the same position. Perhaps your boss defers a long deserved promotion. Or, leadership delays recognition for a job well done. The Black Tax is the cost of doing business in America while black.
Learning from the past
I first learned about the Black Tax after studying black innovators of the past. My favorite, Garrett A. Morgan, invented the precursor to the modern gas mask and saved countless lives. No one wanted to buy his invention after discovering he was black, so he had a white man sell it while he pretended to be Native American. Another black inventor name Elijah McCoy (to whom the expression “the real McCoy” is traced), was also derided for being black as his peers referred to his locomotive lubricator as the “nigger cup.”
My father also taught me about how to cope with the Black Tax. As a machinist, he made sure to be the first to arrive at work, the last to leave, and insisted on learning anything about everything. Pops cautioned me against giving people an excuse to treat me differently because I was black. I internalized his wisdom, finding career success by pushing myself to work exceptionally hard. I believed I had no choice but to work longer and harder than everyone else to compensate for being a young black man from the ghetto. For me, every hour I spent off the clock pouring into my career was a necessary investment for my own survival.
A new twist on the Black Tax
Despite now working in a Silicon Valley meritocracy, I still pay the Black Tax, though it isn’t what it used to be. My employer assesses my engineering work with fairness. My technical accomplishments stand on their own. The performance review and compensation systems are mostly objective and help ensure fairness. My experience in tech is full of perks and privilege few rarely experience in their lifetime.
Empowered with resources, I use them to pave the way for other underrepresented groups. In fact, tech spends tons on providing inclusion programs and tools. There’s community outreach, anti-bias training, philanthropic investments, and early childhood STEM education. Companies often tap employees from underrepresented backgrounds to lead these programs. They spend a lot of time and energy to ensure they are successful. As their ancestors before them, they do it because they are passionate and eager to pay it forward.
This is where the Black Tax comes in. Inclusion work is a Catch-22. To hire and retain more minorities, Silicon Valley relies on their minority employees to drive the work of inclusion. Many of these employees are naturally motivated and hard-working. However, because there aren’t enough of them, they become overworked and often suffer burnout. Despite the appreciation of their peers, they lack the benefit of their sweat equity. This is the main reason why change is slow in coming to Silicon Valley. We need more minorities to reach more minorities, but don’t have enough in the pool to prevent losing them to burnout.
Spreading the load
If Silicon Valley wants to improve the velocity of inclusion work, it will need to do a better job of convincing everyone to join in the work. Minorities cannot bear this work alone to the detriment of their own careers. This obviously begins with leadership getting their hands dirty. However, allyship also plays a vital role as well. Real allyship is about more than heated and emotional rhetoric. It is more than a bumper sticker. Allyship is about empathy that translates into meaningful action.
I often tell people that I would give up my seat if it meant having three talented, equally passionate minorities take my place. That is a sacrifice I am willing to make—not one I should have to make. If you believe in this work, show your appreciation by making yourself available to serve others.
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