What the Minority Tax Goes Toward
The hyphen in my name works well as a bridge and a wall; the difference between being two things and being none. To cope with the chronic condition of an ethnically and racially ambiguous identity, I talk to people and read books. Recently, this condition has been made worse by my parents’ divorce, something that I thought would happen much earlier in my life or would not happen at all. But it happened anyhow. Now, more than ever, my hyphenated last name represents two distinct heritages, one a Brown man from Veracruz, Mexico and the other a White woman from Oakland, CA. Now I have two parents with two different names. What does that make me as a product of a dissolved union?
Regardless of recent events, learning and listening have always had to function medicinally for me, as a process of identity building. I have always been too white to be brown and forever too brown to be white, so I walk down roads paved by the far smarter and well-spoken people who came before me, writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Ta-Nehesi Coates, bell hooks, Sandra Cisneros. They have always helped.
These academic and emotional highways connect millions and were built by a “minority tax,” a mental toll that is an essential part of minority identity. When you are understood to be outside of the realm of normalcy, it is only reactionary to consider the meaning of your own “abnormal” identity and to consider the intricacies of the racial hierarchy. Fortunately, taxes aren’t only a burden. The function of taxes is to use community funds in order to pay for something that the individual cannot--each person contributes a little to create a lot.
Part of minority identity is work, and the popular, collective understanding of race is maintained and built by those who have to think about it. With that being said, not everyone pays taxes, not everyone contributes. As the fish doesn’t notice water, the white American isn’t required to think critically about race in terms of identity. This is not to say that the white Americans don’t care about race, but rather that there is little reason for them to think about race as a construction. If you are understood to be the picture of normality, where is the call to critique the system that has deemed you to be the inactive king of it? There is no incentive for road building or maintenance if you don’t need to go anywhere.
When I was young, the main explanation and justification for taxes was that it built roads. For me, this was not a sufficient justification. My main understanding of taxes was that on the rare occasion that I had a dollar to spend on what I wanted (candy), somehow I had to pay 8 more cents to a “government” in order to leave with Skittles. The roads have been built, so can’t we stop with the taxes?
This understanding mostly stayed the same until 2015 when I saw non-US roads for the first time. I was in the state of Veracruz, Mexico to visit my dad’s side of the family for the first time. The people were less cold, the climate was noticeably warmer, and the roads were awful. Potholes were the common topography and shoulders were nowhere to be seen. And now, I appreciate the Washington roads. They are well maintained, as they are paid for by the taxes of the thousands that use them as a thoroughfare. The parts of Veracruz that had poorly built roads were the rural roads that were not used frequently. Taxes, for the most part, work.
The “minority tax,” meanwhile, funds a well-traveled road. As a biracial student I ask myself “so what are you anyway” 50 times more than the well-intentioned but rude racial inquisitor. The amazing thing about being asked “what” I am, is that for a moment, just for a short moment, I really do hate, I cease to feel human. Being “me” isn’t enough to satisfy anyone else’s curiosity, and so I repeatedly internalize the demand for an explanation of my existence. The “tax” placed upon people of color is similar to the one used to build roads. Their published works add to a growing body of research, creating pathways between academics and the common layperson. In times of need, Anzaldúa and Cisneros helped me see La Virgen de Guadalupe as an indigenous figure, as a patron saint of multicultural Americans looking for spiritual guidance. bell hooks’s “Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education,” led me to think of assimilation as something negotiated, not something forced. Coates helped me learn the importance of recording what in the world is happening. In Between the World and Me (2015), Coates writes a letter to his son in an attempt to explain the violent existence of being Black in the United States. Coates’ cognition made the book possible, but it was the racism that made the book necessary.
It is racism that requires that the minority consider what it means to be a particular race. Racism is one of the main drivers for studies of race and cultural studies. So what does this mean for the group that has historically perpetrated racism and been the oppressor of the subjugated? The majority pays no such “tax,” is not mandated to think about whiteness in its purest form, and therefore contributes little to the collective body of work. There are fewer reasons for the White American to explore whiteness than to explore African American studies. To be white is to be normal--why study something as boring (or perhaps non-existent) as whiteness? It is entirely possible to be an advocate of civil rights, Black Lives Matter, and ethical immigration policies without having a crisis of identity.
In a January 10th interview with the New York Times, Representative Steve King of Iowa made it awfully clear what it means to talk about race without understanding it: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” It is not enough to say that there is not possibly a parallel universe with a more ignorant version of a man named Steve King (though it should be said). Rather, his understanding illustrates an extreme form of failing to legitimately confront the concept of his own whiteness. If King thinks claiming superiority on the basis of race is something other than “offensive,” if King cannot understand how White nationalism is only a slight rebranding of Nazisim, then it is clear he does not have to think.
Furthermore, in an era of colorblind racism, where White individuals and institutions assert the existence of a post-racial America, where skin color isn’t really an important part of identity because we are (apparently) all non-racists, why would a white person explore whiteness? If colorblind racism asserts that we live in a meritocracy, where status is earned through merit alone, what does white have to do with anything anyhow?
It is time for white Americans to think about race, not in terms of examining the other, by looking at what is “abnormal,” but by taking an introspective step toward a deep understanding of whiteness. We are not colorblind, we do not live in a post-racial society, and race still matters. I do not have the choice to stop thinking about what it means to be the marble bread son of divorced parents. Last week all my siblings and I visited my mom for a small family reunion. As we were taking a group photo I looked back at the six of us and thought about how confusing we must be to everyone else. But the time to gawk at abnormality is past, the lenses need to be flipped back on the White body. So think about it: What in the world does it mean to be white?
About the author: Charlie Lahud-Zahner is a Junior studying Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He is currently re-listening to Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and trying to make the perfect egg sandwich.