A few days ago, a letter written by a certain Mr Ifeanyi Onukwubiri, made the rounds on social media.
Mr Onukwubiri, in the letter addressed to his father, declared that his position as the first son had exacerbates his family problems. In his words, “the position is a total liability to me, a setback, and a thorn in my flesh” and without beating about the bush, he subsequently renounced his position as the first son of the family. He further relinquished all his entitlements and heritage as the first son to his younger brothers. Whilst the letter made for good comic relief, its import was not lost on me.
For many Nigerians, Black Africans, Black Africans in the diaspora, and people of African descent- African Americans, Caribbeans, etc, there is nothing new here. Everyone knows the expectations that parents have of their children and these are often not up for discussion.
In many homes, once you finish schooling and get your first job, you assume your new role as “Assistant Family Supporter” and assume a share of the family’s responsibilities. For example, gas finishes or the electricity meter needs to be topped up, you pay for it. Your parents have so graciously decided to educate a distant relative, you are asked for your contribution.
Grandpa, in the village, falls and breaks his hip while riding his bike to the farm, he has to be admitted for surgery, you do a transfer. Your younger sibling is getting married and as the eldest child, you are allotted a lion’s share of the budget, you take a loan. Your mother’s car has been acting up for a while; the mechanic has replaced the radiator, bought new spark plugs, and ringed the engine, now she wants a new car, you begin saving.
For many people, “send money” is probably the most consistent message they get from relatives, more so for those who are abroad. It is the number one message that communicates their relevance in the family. Africans in the diaspora know this too well as they have probably bought numerous clothes, paid countless exam fees, and settled innumerable hospital bills, not counting all the other white elephant projects they are compelled to pay for. Some even wonder whether their mission abroad is to fund their family’s lifestyle.
The burden of taking care of family members is largely occasioned by culture but not everyone carries this much burden. For those who have weak family ties and those who come from modest or affluent families, responsibilities would most likely be limited to just parents and siblings, if at all, seeing as the parents are probably capable of taking care of their family’s needs.
This culture of assuming responsibility for the family once children start earning income has been termed “the black tax” and it is explained as the obligations that black professionals (working-class individuals, career professionals, and business owners) are expected to meet by providing financial support for their parents, dependants, and extended families.
In many cases, these expectations are not just limited to parents and siblings as close and distant relatives, and “almost relatives” (people you have known for a long while but have no familial relationship with) are ever-present to make demands. Whilst some of these obligations are understandable: sending younger ones to school, and taking care of parents and infirm family members, some others could be a stretch like embarking on capital projects such as building houses, buying cars, and paying for travel and holidays. Some others could be even downright unreasonable such as funding exorbitant lifestyles.
While many have come to terms with these expectations for reasons such as managing cultural expectations and appreciating sacrifices that parents have made, a good number have, however, had these expectations drummed into their heads since they were children and are already programmed to align. When your parents constantly announce how eagerly they look forward to retirement so you can start taking care of them, it can only mean one thing.
So, why do we have the black tax? From what I understand:
- We are largely communal and we are expected to look out for one another. The dividends of our successful lives are expected to be shared with less fortunate family members because it took “a village” to raise us
- Many parents devote their lives and resources to giving their kids a leg up and because they have made these sacrifices during their best years, they may not be able to plan properly for their future, thus they expect that their children will “return the favour” and take care of them once they start earning income
- As the cost of living has progressively increased over the years, many parents find it challenging to provide the basics for their children and thus lean on other family members for support
Many people may be successful: they could have very good, well-paying jobs but find it hard to plan for their future because they are supporting an extended family. And if one isn’t so successful but at least has a source of income, the expectation from others will always be there, after all, “you are doing better than the rest of us”.
If you spend most of your resources on people other than your immediate family (spouse, children, and parents), you could constantly be stretched thin as fending for one’s family is challenging enough as it is. The demands could also lead you to work extra hard to ensure you have enough funds to meet the ever-growing needs of those who rely on you. Also, whilst you may be able to provide the essentials for your immediate family (food, clothing, shelter, etc), you may not have enough left over for family investments, pleasure trips, or the little extra. This could place a strain on your family and if the demands are on just one’s spouse, it could introduce some resentment into the relationship.
The “black tax” isn’t going anywhere any time soon so what can we do to manage expectations? The most important thing is to realise that we cannot meet everyone’s needs because we are not omnipotent.
Yes, we are blessed to be blessings to others but we also need to consider ourselves as well. The reality is that if people approach you and you cannot afford to help, they will find other options. Once the gravy train is gone, all the dependants will move on as well. We must also teach people to fish instead of giving them fish all the time; empowering people is more beneficial in the long run.
Your present and your future are as important as those of the people you decide to be responsible for. As you support other people, you need to support your own goals as well otherwise you may not be able to support anyone in the future, and this is the way I see things today.