In 1994, Amado Padilla coined the term “cultural taxation” in reference to the greater burdens that minoritized faculty must carry in service to their university. He noted that cultural taxation may take on many forms, and minoritized faculty “frequently find ourselves having to respond to situations that are imposed on us by the administration.” He goes on to say that this imposition “assumes that we are best suited for specific tasks because of our race/ethnicity or our presumed knowledge of cultural differences.”
Thirty years later, minoritized faculty members like us still find ourselves on the receiving end of an array of scenarios that require our retelling of such shared lived experiences. Throughout our experiences as Black women educators in K-12 and higher education spaces, we have been regularly called up to help ensure that students from diverse backgrounds at our institutions feel seen and valued.
One of us, Jálin, has introduced the experience, context and perspective framework in addressing “how educators within higher education can best connect with” their students, in addition to hearing and acknowledging them and their respective narratives. That framework acknowledges that we must take time to “consider our respective levels of awareness as it relates to the needs and lived experiences” of others.
Black women’s lived experiences, intellectual wealth and presumed knowledge of cultural differences are routinely summoned to help educate and support minoritized students. The corollary impact of those scenarios is the resulting emotional currency withdrawn from Black women educators. During the many identified instances of cultural taxation we experience in higher education institutions—and in our daily efforts to support and uplift those seeking our guidance, collaboration and support— there is a consequential transaction that is often unseen and uncompensated. Yet, at the same time, the collective journey of Black women educators in higher education has often been deemed and treated as less valuable to the broader learning platform.
Additionally, our experiences have been co-opted by others within the academy, who may not share our cultural and ethnic backgrounds, resulting in the silencing of our voices. As authors, for example, we have participated in roundtables where we have shared our culturally relevant ideas only for those ideas to be overlooked. We have then seen those very ideas reiterated and portrayed as new information by colleagues who are not Black women—without any acknowledgment or credit—and who do not share our same lived experiences.
Understanding that some people within higher ed do, in fact, wish to value and amplify our voices, help mitigate the impact of cultural taxation and lessen the withdrawal of emotional currency, we have compiled eight initial action steps that allow for learning and unlearning in this space to begin.
- Acknowledge our lived experiences. This work begins with acknowledging that cultural taxation for Black women is real. Black women have long expressed being overqualified, overcredentialed and overtaxed for the additional work being added to their labors, often without proper compensation. Black women in academe have expressed that this is a corollary side effect of this premise. As you interact with Black women colleagues, begin by honoring and valuing our contributions.
- Concede the privilege you carry. Privilege can be based on many factors: gender, race, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, language and country of origin, among others. While privilege does not mean you haven’t encountered difficulties, it does acknowledge that you have a gratuitous advantage in society over other groups based on one’s identity. Understanding that members of minoritized communities can also possess privilege, it is also important to note that asking someone to be aware of their privilege isn’t an attack but rather presents an opportunity. Comprehension of the systemic oppression that perpetuates anti-Blackness and misogynoir (both of which impact Black women) allows others to seek and implement ways to combat it.
- Embrace discomfort. When you feel discomfort, don’t ignore it. Begin by doing the work of attuning to the various emotions, thoughts and feelings that you have when in spaces with your Black colleagues. Once aware, embrace that discomfort by taking the risk of having a conversation with Black women colleagues who allow the space for you to do so. Consider your similarities and differences.
- Escalate voices of Black women. It is antithetical to pronounce solidarity with Black women colleagues while remaining guarded and exclusionary. Create spaces for collaboration where Black women’s voices can be heard and we can share our lived experiences. Acknowledge the invisible labor we take on and the emotional currency we exert, due largely to our cultural and ethnic backgrounds. And when we are not at the table, take action to ensure that our perspectives are included when decisions are being made.
- Generate space for mentorship. Higher education will benefit from developing mentorship opportunities for Black women who are new to the academy. Begin by examining how mentors are assigned. Are the varied needs of Black women, based on their lived experiences, being considered during this process? Explore whether the process promotes mentorship that is justice oriented, equity driven and culturally relevant and comes from a humanized perspective.
- Invest as a co-conspirator. Bettina Love has been known to express that “we do not need any more allies, [but rather] we need co-conspirators.” As an ally, you have done the required reading, watched documentaries, posted on social media and affixed a “Black Lives Matter” sign on your lawn at home. While those are great first steps in creating awareness, they are passive when, in fact, action is warranted. Further, allies do not have to question their privilege, be in solidarity with Black folx or take risks—thus, they are often performative and self-glorifying. The burden of removing systemic barriers is the responsibility of the dominant group and as such, Black women need co-conspirators. What will you do when you are in a meeting and you see that a Black woman is being cut off midsentence or not allowed to speak? An ally comes to the Black women, acknowledging how disappointed they are. A co-conspirator will use their privilege and power positionality to act in real time to ensure that the Black woman is allowed to speak and be heard.
- Promote conditions that foster self-care. As a consequence of the “strong Black woman (SBW)” narrative that was an attempt to push back against the negative mammy, Jezebel and welfare queen stereotypes, Black women have often carried a load that has repeatedly led to significant declines to our mental and physical health. Thriving, and not just surviving, is imperative. Helping Black women to prioritize rest and self-care helps to push back on a system that has historically seen and treated Black bodies as chattel and revolutionizes current workplace practices.
- Partner in silence. Committing to amplifying the voice of Black women as a co-conspirator means doing so without expectations of fanfare. Acknowledge your privilege. Embrace the opportunity to put words into action and dismantle systems of oppression without needing to announce it on social media or to other colleagues. Such declarations may take the focus away from Black women and center you as part of the privileged majority—thereby diminishing your original intention. Be a partner rather than an unintentional adversary.
The action steps listed here are but a beginning. And the work that must be done by our collaborators and co-conspirators starts with a level of awareness that requires a balance of discomfort and care.