PhDing While Black: the Academic Dream and ‘Black Tax’



So keDecember boss, the crazy festive season where we flock to the shops to spend what we don’t have, max out credit cards, get an overdraft, and accept that instant loan that your bank has been dangling in front of you all year.

This year I am in the Eastern Cape eQonce and meeting my in-laws who are based here. With the exception of my concern that I would not be able to get much work done here due to lack of access to fast internet, printing, scanning, faxing and stuff, I was actually excited to be coming this side. I was worried my husband and I would over spend in Johannesburg and that we would be better off in King Williams Town but here we are, many traditional ceremonies taking place, many expectations from me as a makoti who will work every day like crazy (no time to work on my PhD) and also my husband as the guy from the city of Gold, an accountant who obviously has lots and lots of money.

Except for the excessive drinking during this time of the year that I personally hate spending money enabling, I really wish I could do more for our families. During the year it is easier to go along with your day and you are just too busy to stress about the possibility of your family not having half of what you have. December forces you to see how much your family doesn’t have; it reminds you of all the dreams you had when you started your first qualification. The stuff about how your family would never be hungry again, how you would make sure they have the best Christmas ever, how you would build them a nice house (leya ine-upstairs), how your mom could do with GreenCross comfortable shoes after working so hard all these years in cheap uncomfortable shoes, how you would buy a washing machine and dryer so your mom never has to hand wash again, especially now that her arms are failing her, how you want your mom to go on an all expenses vacation and fly for the first time, so many dreams. But then here you are; three qualifications in and chasing hopefully the last one so that you can fulfill your academic dream. You are a broke PhD student relying on unreliable funding, wondering if your funding will come in first thing in January or if you will have to wait until April again. You are constantly checking out available student jobs that you can apply for, playing around with the idea of getting a full time adult job and convincing your heart that it is okay if you finish the PhD in 5 years’ time and not the 3 years you had hoped for because you really do not want you mom to be too old/sick to enjoy your money and some of the dreams you have.

It can be so easy to dismiss our parent’s needs, wants and desires as black tax. We make jokes about it and it is a conversation starter for us young working blacks. Surely everyone is allowed to have needs, wants, desires and dreams even if they are black, retired, without a pension/retirement fund and without tons of chilling generational wealth. Yes maybe our parents are terrible at using money and maybe they live beyond their means using you as insurance/well of never ending funds, maybe they don’t understand that my being a PhD student actually means that I am super broke most of the time and relying on my husband and part time lecturing and research gigs. The knowledge that my husband is an accountant gives off the perception that we are drowning in lots of cash and they do not understand that doing articles is entry level and you work crazy over time, making money for big corporate companies and taking home way less than you thought when you were in first year of your commerce degree. They may not understand that renting is not ideal, it is not fancy, it’s a waste of money and you would really like a house but you do not meet bond requirements because you’re a student, you are drowning in all sorts of debt because you are blacks and you are the insurance for everything.

BUT, being here, away from the noise in the city and the comfort of my own space has given me so much time to reflect. After really deep discussions with my mama and my mama in law, I am learning about how damaging the perception of black tax as a burden can be, because in essence, we are saying our parents are a burden. It has also reminded me that it is our responsibility to take care of our parents, even if we think they have made terrible decisions. It has also gotten me so confused about whether or not I should get a job and work with my husband in supporting our families because honestly, it would be great to make some of my dreams for our parents and their dreams come true.

We should totally work on changing the perception that after graduation you will come home and change everything for the better with your first salary, maybe we should also work on changing the perception that a graduate is ‘uZanemali’, maybe we should change the perception that when your child is a graduate, you can start spending recklessly. Maybe we should tell our parents that their expectations are hurting us and maybe we should realise that seeing them as burdensome is hurting them. Maybe we really need to start communicating with our parents. Maybe we should stop throwing random R100 notes, house furniture on credit, expensive gifts we can’t afford to our families and start thinking about more sustainable ways of investing in our families, ways that can continue being useful to them when we die. Maybe then it can go back to feeling like assisting our families with love and joy instead of the frustrating ‘black tax’ and maybe in the end, reaching the academic dream and assisting your family won’t feel like they are mutually exclusive.

Also, don’t get me started on wanting to be a great wife, who is good a helpmate to her husband (with no time after stressing about PhD all day and jumping from one piece job to the next), being broody for days, wanting to travel, wanting to have nice things, having doubts about my PhD program, and, and, and, Too many competing demands and stresses nje in life but we soldier on!, right

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