I was never taught about money.
Not how to save it, not what it means to have it, and certainly not how to get it. I went to a wealthy liberal arts school on a merit scholarship, and even though my family was struggling, often living paycheck-to-paycheck, I didn’t feel the weight of that struggle, and I never actually felt like I was going without.
The fact that I should be worried about money didn’t fully register until I left the house.
Part of the reason that I didn’t learn is that every Black person in my immediate vicinity was just as poor and clueless as I was, and asking my rich, privileged White classmates how their parents managed to build their wealth into small empires inspired so much disgust in me.
In the United States, money is used to deepen racial divides.
It is treated as an inherent right, a right that Black people simply don’t have. Attitudes about wealth are different for us. Poverty is the default state for most Black Americans, and if your family has managed to rise to the coveted ranks of the middle class, you still struggle because most likely, other extended family members are still impoverished, and the money is still very first-generation. That means it is temporary.
Black high-earners rarely hold onto that money for generations because income doesn’t translate into net worth. It is actually impossible for Black people to build wealth like White people because the Jim Crow laws that prevented us from doing so post-slavery have been replaced by even more rigid structures like tax codes that punish the poor and criminal justice systems that persecute African-Americans even more effectively than any slave-catcher ever did.
For every $100 a White family holds in wealth, Black families earn just $5.04. That means that White families make over 86% more than Black families every year.
It is estimated that by 2053, the net worth of most Black households will still be 0 since spending habits will only increase even as avenues to wealth are barred for the poor.
It’s a grim present and a devastating future, and we all know it. We all feel it.
My family copes by not talking about it. I need to talk about it. I need to find some way out of the poverty cage that I have been placed in simply because I am Black, but I don’t know how.
And neither does anyone else.
A lot of Black parents do little more than teach their children that money is scarce, placing the onus of learning how to make and build capital on the child. For me, money was a scary subject that I couldn’t broach because it was on the list of things that made my aunt and uncle uncomfortable, right up at the top with sex and mental illness.
We don’t talk about things that they are ashamed of. I suspect there are a lot of mixed feelings.
Anger that all the progress made to pull ourselves up from poverty is pointless. Shame that friends of different races seem immune to this problem. We are still scraping by, enslaved to credit systems that weren’t created for us, yet we are told we must have. Enslaved by laws that crack across our backs like whips and are enforced by justice systems that send 1 in 3 of our Black males to prison.
This is what we think about every day, this is what we live, and it is terrifying for Black parents.
I was shamed for asking questions.
I was expected to see that my White classmates lived a certain way, and I lived a different way – a far more difficult, less rewarding way – and accept that that difference was indisputable. White people get more. Black people get less.
I had to live in two worlds.
It was exhausting. It was infuriating. It was so confusing, and I’m still confused about where I fit and how I’m supposed to magically start climbing the financial ladder. Our ladders are old and splintered, missing rungs, reaching up toward a white cloud of privilege while rooted in the sucking mud of slavery.
We need to stop telling our children that financial struggle needs to be part of their reality. We are already born into the conflict because of our skin color; there is absolutely no need to add more burdens to our backs. The current isn’t shifting, and the money tree is not going to shake some dollars at us any time soon.
Instead of shaming them into silence, Black parents need to educate their children and themselves about how to build wealth in a country that doesn’t want them to have it.