Most Black people have taken a moment to ask themselves, “When did I first realize I was Black?” I think we do this because it compels us to consider why we feel like we can’t catch our breath. We ask the question on our own. Sometimes we ask it in groups. In my life, the question has led me to other questions, all asked in the context of my multidimensional identity. Perhaps the most frustrating and exciting of these is, “How can I be considered a financial expert yet have a contentious relationship with money and wealth?” I first asked this question a year and a half ago, but in some form, I’ve been answering it for much of my life.
I grew up in Prince George’s County, Md. It’s a wonderful, incredibly unusual place, because Black families there have more wealth and higher incomes than white families. For context, this is the case in only seven counties in the United States. I never worried about where my meals would come from. In fact, I’m quite sure I got everything I asked for—that is, everything that one could pay for. As an adult, I reflected on my childhood’s influence on my relationship with money. I realized that I first came to understand money’s power when I was experiencing abuse, shame or trauma as a child.
Ask yourself: “When was the first time I experienced the power of money?” I do not mean when you first understood what money is and how it is used. Rather, I am asking you to recall the first moment you experienced an intense feeling in your body, probably one loaded with information and energy, and money was the thing that provoked that feeling. For me, there are two distinct memories.
In fifth grade, I was called the n-word for the first time. Oddly enough it was at lunch after a sex education class. We had discussed breasts in that class, and one of my classmates thought it would be funny to say that Black girls have nipples like orangutans. Nobody laughed. I told my classmate that he was the dumbest person in the class. He responded by calling me the n-word, to which I responded that my family would always have more money than his, because his father worked at a gas station. The intense feeling that arose from being called such a dehumanizing word, and from realizing that my retort had stopped him immediately, was difficult to unpack. All I knew was that my bringing up the financial privilege he lacked did something to him. It saved me from having to experience more of his racism for that day. That’s the first time I experienced the power of money.
The second was when my parents were getting divorced. Growing up, there was an inverse relationship between my age and how much love existed in the household. As I got older I was exposed to and experienced increasing abuse. My parents’ divorce was nasty. I saw one parent open several credit cards in the other’s name and run up the account. (I got anything I asked for, so I felt like I was living the dream.) I saw another parent hide assets and try to harm the other by attempting to leave them with nothing. Whenever I was upset, I was given money to spend. This period in my life taught me that money can be used to communicate what is important (or not), and as a weapon to harm and violate others.
Certainly, these two experiences could be enough to explain my contentious relationship with money. But the reality is more complicated.