Nigger Tax

As a Pasty White Boy from Nebraska, I was shocked to find out a few years ago that I am, indeed, a Nigger.

I was schooled in this several years ago by a young Black man in the Bronx, New York. He taught me why being perceived and labeled a “Nigger” doesn’t always have to do with the color of your skin but it has everything to do with power and an attempt to enforce obedience.


Adding the “Tax” rubs a little salt in the wound.

The people of New Orleans had a Federal “Nigger Tax” levied against them and they will continue to pay that tax for the rest of their lives. Many paid with their deaths.

The title of this post may be offensive to some people and those same people may find the following story offensive as well. If you are easily offended by words and ideas you should stop reading now.

You can’t get the tax unless you’re put in the Nigger box first, I discovered, and that boxing can be done subtly with an unmistakable gaze that immediately tries to set you in your place by looking right at you, but beyond you, at the same time.

The first instance happened when I was standing in a long line for pizza at a strip mall in the Bronx. The line was moving quickly and I noticed a young Black man — perhaps 14 years old, if that — standing off to the side of the line by the cash register. He was dressed in shiny black shoes, pressed putty-colored pants and a dark blue Izod shirt with the collar flipped up. His head was shaved bare.

As the line died person-by-person and I moved closer to the front, I saw the young man still standing there, serenely, holding two perfectly folded dollars in an outstretched fist. The young man kept staring at the man taking orders, hoping, it seemed, to catch his eye.

When it was my turn to order, a pale, older man, with a twitchy eye, barked from behind the counter and asked what I wanted. Instead of answering him, I turned to the young Black man and asked him if he had ordered yet.

“No,” he replied. “I’m waiting my turn.”

I knew something strange was up because 15 people had come and gone before him. “Whudda you want?” The man behind the counter was turning maroon. He gave the young Black man a twitchy gaze I had never seen before: He was dismissing him by looking right at him, but beyond him, at the same
time.

A direct gaze returned to me: “Look, if you can’t decide, pal, get outta the way!” the pizza man cried.

I took a step back and motioned for the young Black man to take my place in line.

“He was here before me,” I said.

I knifed the pizza man with my eyes and he shot me right back with a non-twitching glare that could kill.  The young man sidled over into my spot and ordered a single slice of cheese pizza.

Without breaking his glare on me, the pizza man took a slice off the metal tray, slapped it on a paper plate, shoved it at the young Black man and said, “Two bucks.”

The young man dropped the dollars on the counter, grabbed his pizza and
left the line.

The pizza guy then looked beyond me and said in a series of punctuated
twitches, “Next in line!”

I had been dismissed. That was fine. I lost my appetite anyway.

I found the young man outside eating his pizza as he walked. I caught up to him asked what just happened. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“It’s a Nigger Tax,” he said nonchalantly and without emotion.

I couldn’t believe I was hearing that word spoken aloud, let alone combining it with another word to make it an even more complex insult.

“What does that mean?”

“A Nigger Tax,” he said between a chew and a swallow, “Is that he’ll get to me when he gets to me. The White people come first. Then it’s my turn.”

“But that’s wrong!” I blustered. “Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you stand up for yourself and walk out?”

“Look, mister,” he said as he deftly caught a drop of pizza sauce before it dripped from his chin onto his polo shirt, “If I did what you say every time I got a Nigger Tax, I’d be crying all day and never get anything to eat at night.”

He paused to dab the corner of his mouth with a napkin, “You gotta choose your fights. That guy ain’t worth one. His pizza’s good, he makes me wait, but he doesn’t break me. He doesn’t even bend me a little.”

We walked in silence as we crossed a busy street and into the grassy commons of a towering apartment complex in a park.

He shoved his greasy paper plate and napkin into a garbage can and said, “Thanks for letting me in line today, but I’ll pay for it next time. He’ll make me wait twice as long as today as payback.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought I was helping you out.”

“It’s okay.” He turned away and jumped across a broken stone path and smiled back at me as he continued on his way home, “The Nigger Tax is everywhere. Some see it, some don’t. You’ll get yours. We all do.”

He stopped walking for a moment and looked right at me, “Some more than others.”

He waved over his shoulder and disappeared inside his building.

I turned around and walked home in a bit of a daze because I had never before been so thoroughly schooled in something I was not born into knowing or understanding.

A year or so later I would again learn the meaning of a Nigger Tax even if it only lasted for a few minutes.

In the Bronx there were two supermarket chains that were tough competitors: C-Town and Edwards (Edwards later became “Stop & Shop”). I would frequent C-Town when we first moved to the Bronx because it was convenient, but I always had a feeling of unease being in the store.

I could never find anyone to help and if they did help it was only to point in a vague, dismissive, direction. The C-Town workers never appeared to take an interest in helping. I always brushed off my C-Town experiences as being cold-shouldered New York as the city can sometimes feel in the outer boroughs.

One day I mentioned to one of the people in my apartment building that every time I go into C-Town I get this vibe of hate. My Puerto Rican neighbor sneered at me as if I were five years old and said in a voice that should only be used with toddlers and small animals, “Aw, honey, C-Town is not for you. You’re White. You need to go to Edwards.”

“Huh?”

“C-Town is for Latinos. Spanish speakers work and shop there. Edwards is where the Blacks go to work and shop. Edwards will feel better because you share the language.”

I just looked at her. I couldn’t think of anything to say as I immediately wound back and then re-played all my C-Town experiences in my mind.

“You’ll be stuck on religious holidays, though. Edwards can’t find anyone willing to work on Christmas and Easter so they just close down.

C-Town is always open. Just run in and run out and you’ll be fine.”

I left before she could pat me on my head and send me on my way to kindergarten.

I didn’t know if my neighbor was kidding around with me or not. I didn’t know if she was stereotyping experiences and observations or if she was just sharing the facts of her life as she knew them.

I started to frequent Edwards instead of C-Town even though it was a longer walk and my neighbor was right. Edwards felt better.

I received smiles.

I could get help fast if I needed it. I was amazed how culturally inaccurate my internal sensors were when my C-Town chilling wasn’t correctly registering reality inside me.

Then, one Christmas Day, it happened.

Edwards was closed.

I needed a medication refilled.

The C-Town pharmacy was the only place open.

The pharmacist on duty quickly filled my prescription. The store was quiet.

When I approached the pharmacy cashier to pay, the chunky, middle-aged, Latina behind the counter sitting on a bar stool, would not acknowledge me.

She was reading a magazine and loudly flipped the pages as she obviously ignored me by using the magazine to separate us.

When I put my medication on the counter and tried to catch her eye, she glared at me over the top edge of the magazine and looked right at me, but beyond me, at the same time.

I had seen that look before at the pizza place!

My stomach turned as I felt myself being dropped in the Nigger box.

I was burning with recognition and flashbacks to the schooling the young Black man had given me a year ago. Waves of fury and despise cursed throughout my body as a nauseating injustice touched every cell within me.

A Latino man came up and stood next to me. The woman behind the counter looked up from her magazine, walked over to the cash register, greeted him in Spanish and rang up his order.

I had just been “Nigger Taxed.”

I stood there for a second wondering if I should say something when a young Latina woman stepped in line replacing the man who had just been processed by the cashier. A couple of other Latinos fed the line next to me and one-by-one they were all processed in Spanish and I just stood there and picked up my white sack of medication from the counter.

I thought to myself, “So this is what the Nigger Tax feels like.” I didn’t like it.

My throat was dry and throbbing with blood. I bit the inside of my lip and tasted the sour, red, result.

All the people were served.

Once again it was just me against the woman behind the counter.

She sauntered back to her bar stool and began flipping through her magazine again.

I stood there and stared at her.

Without breaking my gaze, I pulled out my $20 dollar co-pay from my pocket and I neatly creased the bill in half and held it out to her from a clenched fist.

Neither of us moved.

My hand trembled.

Being Nigger Taxed was awful in a strange way. I found a fraction of comfort in knowing what was happening. Every moment of it was awful, but I was able to separate my body from my mind. I looked down at the situation from a disconnected above and said to myself, “Okay. I get it.”

It didn’t make things better but at least I knew this wasn’t about me in particular. It was about general things like skin color or culture or a lack of Spanish-speaking skills.

I learned that Christmas Day in the Bronx you don’t have to be Black to be labeled, boxed and taxed as a Nigger and I now know in my bones you just have to be different from those framing you and a way of trying to keep you in your place is with an unspoken label and a disparaging gaze.

I dropped my $20 co-pay on the counter and left with my medication.

On the cold walk home I selfishly soothed myself with the biting knowledge I didn’t have to pay that tax every day of my life and I would never in my life pay it again and I haven’t.

But I also had to seethingly admit even though the cashier didn’t break me, she did bend me a little.