Repeal the Invisible Tax on Educators of Color

Black educators move through the profession carrying an extra burden that often pushes Black educators out of the profession. Director of the Center for Black Educator Development Sharif El-Mekki discusses this “Invisible Tax” and proposes solutions to keep educators of colors in the classroom.

By Sharif El-Mekki

The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. – Assata Shakur 

In the past few years, if not my whole career, I’ve watched Black educators carry a weight—a responsibility of serving as the schools’ Black child whisperer and the in-house racism, diversity, and equity expert who can train White educators and prepare Black children for a world of racism. It is a heavy responsibility to experience racism as individuals, serve as vanguards for Black children born into a racist system hellbent on alienating them, and work to fight against and subvert the everpresent oppression of the Black community. This weight underpins my teaching career, but the recent reminder of unlawful police brutality sinks the burdens a little deeper. 

I’m reminded of these extra burdens when White educators—eager to support their Black students and families—want to discuss racism and call on their Black colleagues to assist them. I’m reminded of these burdens when schools fail at educating all students after they sideline Black educators in discussions about culturally relevant teaching. I’m reminded of these extra burdens when I watch schools hire Black educators to handle Black students—especially the troubled Black students—and allow the White educators to continue the responsibilities of teaching and learning. 

The Invisible Tax on Black Teachers

These responsibilities are often spoken about and defined as an invisible tax on Black teachers. This invisible tax takes form every time a Black teacher is asked to discipline a Black student. It transforms from an amorphous concept to a tangible one every time Black educators clean up messes White educators leave behind in their incorrect attempts to address racism. It happens every time a White educator expects a Black educator to do anti-racist work in the absence of real school or district wide investment.

The invisible tax is why Black teachers leave the profession.

It is why when Black educators advocate for the hiring more Black teachers, we are also advocating for districts to work to retain Black teachers—which requires that districts listen to and respect Black teachers for their content knowledge, cultural knowledge, and emotional intelligence. 

Schools are White institutional spaces and while Black educators come to the profession to support the students, they’re professionals and will not work where they aren’t wanted or supported.

Why would they? Why would anyone?

“It’s become clear that we need an anti-racist approach to hiring teachers.” 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with talented Black educators who’ve shared with me that the only reason they didn’t leave the profession altogether is because they found a space where they were valued—their ideas, their experiences, their knowledge, and their passion. This should be the norm. Sadly, it is not.

However, even those “valued” educators are burnt out. Their individual work is valued, but they exist within a system that does not support Black teachers in a holistic way. 

For example, Mr. Malcolm Cawthorne—an educator at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts—struggles navigating a profession deeply sowed in inequitable systems. While Cawthorne’s district may say it’s committed to hiring more Black teachers, they struggle at creating a more diverse teaching body and continuously rely on Cawthorne to be the “race guy.” 

It’s not a role that Cawthorne relishes, but he understands that Black students and Black families rely on him to hold the district accountable. He sacrifices time and attention he needs to pay to other things and even his own mental health for the good of the school—but what cost does he pay by taking on a responsibility that should be shared by all educators at his school? 

Suppose the entire staff was committed to building their own cultural humility and fluency. Suppose his White colleagues spent time building relationships with Black students and other students of color. Cawthorne’s day-to-day work would look very differently.

But until that moment, Cawthorne understands that if he doesn’t sacrifice to support Black students and families and guide the school district to a more equitable future, then no one will. 

This burden—or invisible tax—is what can, and does, drive Black teachers from the classroom. In this moment, it’s become clear that we need an anti-racist approach to hiring teachers, who have always been dedicated to creating a more equitable education system. 

The Undue Burden on Black Educators

You may ask: Don’t Black educators want to be the go-to resource on race? Don’t they know how to deal with Black children best? Wouldn’t that make Black teachers feel valued by their school districts? How can that push them out of the classroom?

Trust me, Black educators understand the weight of their Blackness when they enter classrooms across the country. They feel it, and so we’ve always relied on Black educators to carry forward a desire for education in the Black community—and for as long as we remain in the classroom, Black educators will continue to do so. Many of us were inspired by our Black teachers who cared for us, guided us, and advocated on our behalf. That’s why we entered the teaching profession; to pay it forward.

However, our ability to reach and teach children is limited by those who only see our Blackness and not our humanity. If White educators only see Black educators as one dimensional, they limit our ability to be transformational in the lives of ALL children.

We do more than discipline Black children so don’t only approach us about race issues when a race issue is brought to your attention. Black children aren’t the only children who can benefit from our teaching and instruction. Lessons that are non-Eurocentric can happen across all content areas and can benefit all students, no matter their race or ethnicity.

How White Educators Can Strive to be Anti-Racist 

White educators can (and should) learn from Black educators and refer others to Black educators to have fruitful and informative discussions on anti-racist knowledge and philosophy. Anti-racism is a collective work, meant to be shared by all of us. It’s a collaborative work that forces us to recognize that anti-racism also means anti-poverty, racism, and militarism.

We must strive together to teach with these truths in mind and work together to apply these truths in how we educate and nurture children and serve families.

It is why the Center for Black Educator Development is leading an educational justice workshop series for all teachers to develop the skills it takes to master the kind of teaching that is culturally responsive, affirming, and sustaining.

The mixed methods of instructional presentation, dynamic discussion, intentional practice, and feedback loops will provide a safe space for us to learn how to be the educators we want to be—safe culturally, emotionally, and intellectually. It will provide safety to Black educators—something schools don’t provide enough.

We know that Black educators will always reaffirm the humanity of Black children and fight for racial justice both inside and outside the classroom. And we know that White educators must care about those things too without gentrifying the work or passing it off to Black educators.

We need White educators to not show up as passive vessels, waiting, nonchalantly, for Black educators to fill them with anti-racist knowledge and insights. We need White educators to start with their own mindsets and pair that with action. Action that will elevate and advance the fight for educational equity and justice. Commit to serving communities with a high level of cultural humility and be reflective, so that you can be more effective. 

Join us to do it right. Join us to do it well.