A black and white photo of a Black woman in heavy shadows.

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.

I went into finance after graduating from Amherst, first on Wall Street and then as a financial counselor for low-income women. In both roles I gained insight into the wealth gap—the unequal distribution of wealth (and therefore power), as determined by who has the access and ability to accumulate assets and who must predominantly turn to debt in order to survive. Assets increase wealth. Debt decreases wealth. Certain groups—Black people, women, young people, transgender and nonbinary people—are often denied access to accumulating assets but given many options to take on debt. The wealth gap is the most severe, pervasive, intractable and damaging inequality facing Black women today. In response, I started a nonprofit, BlackFem, in 2015 to teach girls of color in underserved communities the skills, habits and resources to build and sustain wealth.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from working to close the wealth gap is that money has two dimensions: the economic and the extraeconomic. The economic side is what we traditionally think about—how money works, how you trade stocks, how you budget. But it’s the extraeconomic side that dictates much of our behavioral, cognitive, psychological and motivational development. This extraeconomic side encompasses the experiences, memories—even trauma—that structure our relationships with money and wealth. It’s the lunchroom bully. It’s my parents’ divorce. Yet despite its importance, our cultural and educational institutions (if they teach financial literacy at all) fail to prioritize the extraeconomic side of money. This leaves us ill-equipped to process our feelings around money and wealth—feelings that come up, at one point or another, for everybody.

I’ve been established for five years as an expert in financial and wealth literacy. Financial literacy describes the skills and knowledge a person develops to feel more confident and competent in making financial decisions. Wealth literacy does much more, and most financial literacy programs for learners and educators fail to teach it.

Wealth literacy helps people develop financial literacy and understand how oppressive systems interlock to hinder our wealth-building capability. I’m considered an expert in wealth literacy because I’ve created a model that prepares people to navigate a financial system meant to work only for some. This model empowers school districts to implement wealth literacy five days a week as a core subject beginning in Pre-K. Additionally, I am certified in a number of areas in finance, hold teaching certifications, have a master’s in public administration and am completing my doctorate in social work research. Yet when I consider my own answers to the financial questions I posed early in this article, I become uncomfortable with some things.

First, the questions require that I come to terms with my training in finance, which taught me to use my expertise to control financial learners, in order to get them to see or feel what we, with our greater knowledge and understanding as professionals, know is good for them. The alternative to this would be helping others reconnect with their inner knowingand then supporting what they think is best for themselves. Equally, I have to remind myself that the narratives we make available through financial education, an outgrowth of our training as financial professionals, are born from our inherently racist, sexist and exclusionary financial system—one that currently serves to perpetuate what I have termed financial trauma.

A black and white photo of a Black woman in heavy shadows.

Financial trauma stems from chronic financial stress and abuse. It also stems from history. The effect of cumulative behavioral, motivational and emotional wounding on a person’s wealth-building capability and relationship with money, financial trauma is rooted in our historically toxic and violent financial system. This is a system that dehumanizes, oppresses, abuses, stresses and shames people based on their race, gender, net worth and socioeconomic and social status.

Only when I started to understand how historical trauma shows up in our relationships with money and wealth did I fully understand the violence of my profession’s behavior and practices. This knowledge has allowed me to peel back the layers of my contentious relationship with money, and to help others do the same. Black bodies and stolen indigenous land created all of the wealth in the Western world. This breathtaking truth means that my matriarchal ancestors birthed all of the wealth in the Western world. Yet the median net worth for a single Black woman in the United States, according to Federal Reserve data, is only $5. That in itself is a trauma—the knowledge that, centuries ago, my body would be a measurement of wealth and value, while my personhood, my dignity would have no value at all. This trauma lives in our bodies. This trauma lives in my body.

The devastating fact about Black women’s lack of wealth is a larger indicator that this trauma is going unhealed. There has been plenty of research about how historical trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next, which largely came out of psychological research after the Holocaust. What scholars haven’t done, until I started researching it, is to identify how our historical trauma influences our relationship with money. That is the focus of my current research. I hope it will help people heal from their own financial trauma and shame, and that this shift will begin to close the wealth gap.

Today, financial experts continue to use narratives and educational tactics that compel us to go on a pursuit for more—more money, more wealth—above all else, and to equate our net worth with our inherent personal worth. This toxic value system unsurprisingly originated during slavery. It affects us all. It affects Black women the most.

I was trained in how to create a portfolio for a client that considers certain economic and personal circumstances. But I was never trained to help people heal from financial trauma, particularly those carrying historical trauma exacerbated by modern-day policies that continue to do financial harm. Offering such help is the nature of my work today. And, selfishly, I got to this point because I started asking certain questions of myself.

I have a contentious relationship with money because, unfortunately, our governmental and cultural institutions have not redesigned a system for someone who looks like me to have a healthy relationship with money. My personal experiences growing up intensified this reality. What I’ve learned about myself, and what I now research, is that it’s not enough to simply know how to manage money and build wealth. Instead, our society requires wealth justice. Wealth justice demands more than just a fair distribution of wealth and power to the most disadvantaged. It also describes the capacity to organize with others struggling against wealth inequality, and therefore with the effects of financial trauma, to accomplish systemic change that benefits everyone.

Fighting for wealth justice, now more so than ever, requires that we focus less on linear instruction in financial literacy and more on the multidimensionality of the terms value, money and wealth. For me, in addition to shaping my work with financial learners, and in addition to pursuing my research on financial trauma, this focus means I will continue to ask myself questions about money. New questions. Hard questions. I do this to further challenge systemic financial issues, and also to heal myself and our communities.

Chloe McKenzie ’14 works at the intersection of education, finance, social justice and the visual and performing arts. She is a Ph.D. candidate in social work research at the University of Kentucky and the leading researcher in financial trauma, abuse and shame. An LJST major at Amherst, she has a graduate certificate in financial planning and services from Boston University and a master’s in public administration from New York University.

Photographs by Justin Wu