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Cultural Taxation: Its Toll Inside and Outside of Academia

By Bella Pratt, Blue Sky Graduate Assistant, MBA Candidate

October 8th, 2019: We’ve set the stage for the panel, “Embracing D&I in Idaho: A Look Into Personal Narratives Within the Community”, for Blue Sky Institute’s Fifth Annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit. We have all the mics ready, podiums where needed, chairs and tables set up in a way that feels as open as possible.

We’d set up a meeting beforehand with all of the panelists to get to know one another and us, while also getting a feel for the overall dynamic and preparing some possible topics. Our goal was to help the panelists be as well-prepared and comfortable as possible to share their raw stories and perspectives about what diversity and inclusion looks like in Idaho.

One thing we didn’t prepare for, though? Cultural taxation.

There were many central themes that came out of this panel, but this was one concept in particular that caused us to take a hard look at diversity and inclusion work–especially our own. In the traditional sense, cultural taxation has focused on faculty of color and the higher burden that these faculty experience when they undertake diversity-related problems within their specific department and the university as a whole (Banks, 1984; Hirshfield & Joseph, 2011; Padilla, 1994, as cited in Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017, p. 232). This may come in the form of faculty of color sitting on diversity and inclusion committees, giving lectures on diversity, advising students of color, or being asked to speak for their race or other marginalized groups in meetings (Griffin et al., 2011, Hollenshead & Thomas, 2001; Shavers et al., 2014, as cited in Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017, p. 232).

Even with all of these frequently added tasks, these faculty are still often expected to teach the same number of classes and meet the same research commitments as those without those extra duties (Shavers et al., 2014, as cited in Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017, p. 232). Oftentimes, what this results in is a decline in mental and physical health, less friendliness and sociability for those in mostly white institutions, and colleagues questioning the faculties’ quality and stature (Hirshfield & Joseph, 2011; Padilla, 1994, as cited in Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, 2017, p. 232). All of this has a likelihood to potentially affect tenure, as stated by Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, which found that “non-marginalized faculty spent a disproportionate amount of their awake time on activities that count toward tenure and promotion while marginalized faculty spent more time on ‘invisible work’” (p. 240).

Beyond this idea of cultural taxation is a concept called identity taxation. It expands upon cultural taxation’s original definition to include other marginalized identities, such as gender and sexual orientation (Hirshfield & Joseph, 2011), highlighting that cultural taxation and the issues that tend to come with it do not always need to be firmly related to race.

During the panel at our summit, a few of our panelists brought up this concept of cultural taxation with regards to the panel itself: how draining it can be for them to be frequently involved in diversity work on campus or in the community and the extra burden that places on them as staff or community members. Often, they pointed out, they do this work without reimbursement of any kind.

Here at Blue Sky Institute, that conversation and the research we’d done helped shed light on the fact that cultural taxation doesn’t just apply to assistant or full professors of color, but can apply anywhere within academia–and even outside its walls, too. 

In effect then, as an institute that focuses on diversity and inclusion as one of its primary pillars, we felt it was our responsibility to learn more about cultural taxation. One way to do so was to reach out to understand a bit more about our effect on the panelists after the Diversity and Inclusion Summit.

Insert Mario Pile, the Assistant Director of Development at Boise State University. He has been at Boise State for around 9 months, helping raise money for scholarships across all different departments around campus. Beyond that, though, he was also a panelist for our Fifth Annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit.

I connected with Pile in the hopes that I could pick his brain to learn what the panel was like for him, his thoughts on cultural taxation in general, and any recommendations he had for us and other organizations on how to lower that burden in the future.

He was more than happy to oblige.

For him, there were two extremes to being on the panel: “On one extreme, it was very encouraging to sit with other people who were struggling, but, you know, trying to do the best with what they have,” he said about the overall experience. However, he went on to add: “It was also very draining… being emotionally exposed in sharing such vulnerability.”

Pile had no idea how much energy it would take, even telling a good friend that it took him two months to emotionally process being on the panel. Even so, he believes that feeling drained can be a good thing in some cases. “I think we’re supposed to release… whatever emotional baggage we are holding onto,” he said.

However, he also added what made the draining more negative in this scenario: “I was, like, congratulated and patted on the back and told all these so-called encouraging things and then… there was no follow-through from anybody who patted me on the back.”

No one engaging afterward or reaching out to ask for further help with diversity and inclusion throughout the community was a bit challenging for Pile. “It was almost, like, thanks for giving us something free and we’re glad you shared your story, but that was it.”

Still, he was quick to mention how Blue Sky has worked on that aspect. “I’m thankful now I’m able to partner with the Blue Sky Institute,” he said, “so I feel like at least the Blue Sky Institute is trying to help fill that gap.”

When it came to cultural taxation itself, he felt that the concept was really polarizing. “Culture should be something that feeds us,” Pile said. “And when culture takes from us, that to me is when it becomes the negative side… And so cultural taxation to me would be the essence of being pulled apart, and then not being–being able to find ways to be fed.”

He went on to say how cultural taxation involves not only faculty, but also staff and administration, and how this taxation comes into play when there aren’t adequate resources. “On this campus, there is nowhere for a black staff to go talk to a black counselor about what’s going on, or a black HR person,” he said.

In Pile’s time outside of the Diversity and Inclusion Summit, he has experienced cultural taxation when he’s asked about sensitive topics in the workplace. “Not allowing [those answers] to be Mario’s perspective,” he said, “but I have to be this perspective of the whole culture of people that I don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis.”

He feels that the cultural taxation he has experienced on a whole has affected his ability to move up, and that this taxation is not just a problem in the world of academia, but also in the nonprofit world where he worked before.

Over and over again, one of the themes that he kept returning to in our conversation was needing more representation for all marginalized groups, citing a recent social networking group he went to that had a panel of all-white businessmen. “You don’t have to change the nature of the dynamic,” he said. “But when you go to make those decisions, collaborating with different cultures to say: okay, who out of your culture do you think would be interested in being in this panel?”

As he brought this up, though, I was quick to ask his opinion on how to best do this while also being wary of the cultural taxation that would likely occur. He had a few suggestions:

  1. Have a person of color speak on a topic that has to do with business, higher education, politics–anything that doesn’t have to do with diversity and inclusion.
  2. Don’t just pick one person to be the unofficial spokesperson for anything diversity-related. In Pile’s words: “I want to share the wealth with my brothers and sisters. I know a lot of talented young black men and women who I want to give recognition to and see them do things equally.”
  3. Don’t label those people of color as “resources”, he said, but “label them as humans like everyone else.”
  4. Address the cultural taxation: “It’s like biases,” Pile said. “Let’s acknowledge that it exists. It’s complex.”

“Those, to me, are very doable things that we could do today, and it would remove some of the stigma,” he said. “It would remove some of that cultural taxation that exists.”

Towards the end of the interview, Pile brought up the difficulty in changing such a big and ever-shifting culture. “This is going to take time, but it takes small, incremental changes that I do think the few are attempting to make.”

He brought up how a new association, the Black Faculty and Staff Association, just started at Boise State. That seemed to give him a bit of hope for the future of diversity and inclusion work and the burden that cultural taxation can have on those most heavily involved. “The campus supporting those kind of groups, like ours that is starting, that has never existed here on this campus, those are the small, incremental [changes] that will turn this thing eventually.”

Looking to Mario Pile’s suggestions as a good starting guide, turn this thing we will: At Blue Sky Institute, thanks to Pile and other panelists’ comments, our awareness of cultural taxation has increased. We are committing to addressing it in our future programming, like paying our panelists at next year’s Diversity and Inclusion Summit.

And so, it begins, one small, incremental change at a time.


Hirshfield, L. E., & Joseph, T. D. (2012). ‘We need a woman, we need a black woman’: Gender, race, and identity taxation in the academy. Gender and Education, 24(2), p, 213.

Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group, (2017). The burden of invisible work in academia: Social inequalities and time use in five university departments. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 39(39), p. 232, 240.