“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.