Do non-white Americans pay a 'respectability tax'?

President Barack Obama speaks on the Trayvon Martin case during remarks in the White House briefing room July 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama said, "Trayvon Martin could've been me, 35 years ago."

"Respectability tax" is a term we invented. It refers to the extra lengths that some African-Americans, and other people of color go to, in order to telegraph that they are middle-class, successful, and respectable. Historians say the notion of "racial respectability" took root in U.S. culture after slavery ended.

"African-Americans were trying to figure out: how do we live up to the promise of America?" said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a sociologist from Northwestern University. "How do we make sure that we have the economic, the educational, the political and the social rights that we supposedly have now?"

It has persisted until today, says Lester Spence, a political scientist from Johns Hopkins University, because African-Americans are still trying to live up to that promise.

"At stake are a variety of zero-sum resources," Spence said. "Your ability to get a job. Your ability to get a raise. Your ability to maintain a job. The argument is if you do not carry yourself in a certain fashion, you are not going to get access to a variety of resources that you need to live."

When we asked the question -- on social media -- whether people of color feel they pay a "respectability tax," a lot of our listeners answered in the affirmative. They came from across the economic spectrum. Kelli White, an African-American high-school teacher from Saginaw, Mich., who grew up with Marketplace Wealth & Poverty producer John Ketchum, said her mother always warned her to look professional when speaking to potential employers -- even when she was in high school and simply stopping by a business to pick up a job application. Her mom would say, "People are already going to look at you and say, 'Okay, she's black. Let's find something else wrong with her.'"

"You've already got one strike against you, so you don't go out of the house putting a second strike on yourself," White said. For her, that means making sure her clothing is always neat and pressed.

JoAnn Holmes is an attorney and an executive at a beverage company. She is "probably in the top two percent of black income earners in the United States," and travels, with her teenage daughter to places like Tokyo, Hawaii and Vail, Colo. Often, she says, they are the only African-Americans present.

"I'm thoughtful about the way I speak," Holmes said. "I'm thoughtful about the way that I dress. And, generally, I'm mindful of being courteous and interacting in a way that helps people feel comfortable with me."

Laura Warren, who is Native American, told us on Facebook that she feels pressure to keep her yard looking nice, because she and her African-American husband are among the only people of color on their block. Richard Garcia, who is Hispanic, overheard a comment made by a nurse right after his son was born. She asked another nurse whether Garcia and his wife needed a translator. Since then, Garcia, whose first language is English, has felt compelled to be the most articulate person in the room. And Shauna Stuart's mom told her on her first day of college that she shouldn't play hip-hop music in the dorm or people would get the wrong idea about her.

President Obama commented to the press today that "35 years ago, Trayvon Martin could have been me." And he said that as a younger man, he was followed in department stores, saw people locking their car doors when he approached, or clutching their purses tighter when he stood next to them in an elevator. It's impossible to know how President Obama might respond to a question about whether he feels he's had to pay a respectability tax, but take a look at the comments from our listeners and you might get some idea. Tweet us @MarketplaceAPM or tell people about your "respectability tax" at our Facebook page.

About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.
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I would really like to hear your thoughts and reporting on how these issues are not related to race but to socioeconomic status. I say this because I grew up in poor rural white communities and I saw the same things happen via access, privilege, etc... but across a group of European-Americans. I fear that the real issue is one of poverty and lack of mobility but it becomes clouded by race and I would hope to see ideas that help lift all under enfranchised Americans prosper.

Thank you to all the white commentators that continue to prove why the discussion of how racism continues to be a factor in the everyday lives of minorities will never be understood by non-minorities. "We are also discriminated against for having to be PERFECT". " I am told that I am a privileged, we have a free pass....etc". Forgive me for not feeling compassion but those "racist" images are a lot different than, "he must be up to no good", "he must be doing something illegal to drive a luxury car" or sometimes even more devastating to our livelihood and mental well-being, "I don't have anything in common with those people" and "those people are lazy". If given a choice I would trade the negative images people have for brown/black people for one of having to be perfect, because, guess what, we are also judged on our credit score when we apply for a home loan. I think we are all aware that not all white people are doing well economically but how many of these struggling white communities have their sons/daughters harassed and/or murdered by vigilantes and thugs with badges(not referring to good cops) in the same numbers as in the black/brown communities. When we can have an open discussion and everyone will have the compassion to listen to what minorities are going through, then there will be real listening from everyone and it would be a start to eliminating ALL "hurtful" stereotypes.

I see the opposite. I see white males having to be PERFECT to fit into the corporate world. Credit, record, work history, education, white people are discriminated against if they do not have absolutely everything going for them. An associates degree for an African American seems to be like a BA degree for others. Granted, coming out of poverty and bad conditions (created in large part by their own communities) is commendable and they should be rewarded. But it seems like every person who comes out of the city, pulls their pants up, and actually tries to get into a field, can do so.. So I say to African Americans, take advantage of the way things are. You don't have to have great credit, or a blemish free record, you only need to dress somewhat normal and speak English, and maybe get a certificate or an associates degree. For white guys? It's a masters degree or "What's wrong with you?" That is what I see with my eyes. I'm trying to be honest. It's time to understand that not all white guys are perfect, nor should they be. Sometimes white guys are good people that need to get their life back on track too. It seems like white folks have to pay the "respectabliity tax."

I believe respectability tax is a real and inevitable cost to play, by which I mean living. As long as you inhabit the physical form, there is a always some kind of perception tax. For example, men are usually expect to pay for first dates, asians are to subscribe to the model minority, and hispanic are seen as cheap laborers.

As a tall white CIS male I told I'm so privileged and I'm constantly oppressing people everywhere I go; What am I do to? I'm very sorry for my burdening oppression, please forgive me. Together we can bring down the patriarchy I'm told benefits me so much.

It's time to address the outrageous images of black men as perpetrated by media/so-called news/movies.

Such a monstrous percentage of the images portray them as scary beyond scary. Movie after movie.
Yes, we did have Dr. Huxtable and Martin Luther King, Jr....but that's about it.

It's high time for blacks to boycott ridiculous movie images of them.
Hispanics can join them, as appropriate.
And everyone, simply don't buy the stuff advertised on such racially biased portrayals.

As for 'news,' read it or use radio--television news is simply perverse in over use of images....and so very much of local news is simply police blotter stuff

"At stake are a variety of zero-sum resources," Spence said. "Your ability to get a job. Your ability to get a raise. Your ability to maintain a job. The argument is if you do not carry yourself in a certain fashion, you are not going to get access to a variety of resources that you need to live."

All people of all nations, religion, gender, and social status seem to be feeling this. The real question is...what is the global community doing about it?

This is an interesting topic, but it is inherently problematic as these conversations only serve to cultivate a self-fulfilling prophecy of an inferiority conscience; they are psychological residing mainly in the minds of those who presume themselves affected. Here is my decidedly brief response to it... to truly be part of a system, one must feel empowered to lead it; if one only feels part of the system because one follows its code then I'm afraid that you are simply following/supporting the system not truly part of it. Hence it is up to blacks [i.e. all non-whites] to participate in defining the system - just remember that you exercise that right with the choices you make, the goods and services you choose to consume, the people, the places and the behaviours you promote... the rest is history...

The idea that all whites get a free pass for everything is as offensive as it is silly. Not since Eddie Murphy's SNL film where he goes undercover as a Mr. White and discovered everyone giving him stuff have I seen this notion presented with such unflinching seriousness.

It is not hard for virtually anyone to name some time when they were not taken seriously, passed up, or outright mistreated because of their appearance by someone who judged them unfairly. Height, weight, hair, accent, etc., anyone but perhaps movie stars, has had to pay a tax as you say to overcome some prejudice. Every white person likewise feels the burden in distancing themself from the negative stereotype that is to blame for all this. That is the white tax. It seems many believe it is justified to punish white individuals to even up the score. However, persons are individuals. That really should be the point.

What about the "race tax"? That's a term I made up to describe the extra effort white people must go through to prove they're not racists. Never mind the fact that most blacks today, who are under 40 years of age, have not experienced any greater degree of ridicule about their appearance than does a fat person or someone with crossed-eyes or someone who is too short or ... They're living on the racial wrongs of their parents, claiming their parents' victimhood as their own, in order to always be "in the right", looking for an apology for imagined offenses from those (whites) who have never given them because they too grew up without the racial prejudices of their parents. So, we have a new generation of blacks, whining about imagined wrongs, because all they are doing is repeating the grievances of their parents, whose experience they have transmuted to themselves, never realizing they are living in an imaginary world of victimhood. It's made worse by young whites, who have never been guilty of prejudice, but adopting the imagined wrong of their black peers so that they can wear the badge of an "enlightened white" person.


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