The Collegian
Wednesday, August 17, 2022

MARGINS: One perspective on financial culture shock

<p><em>Graphic by The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

In my freshman year, I attempted to befriend a student-athlete who I felt the need to repeatedly remind of his wealth. To play his part in the story of our budding friendship, he would brush off when my jokes about him living off of “Daddy’s money,” and asking how often they visited their timeshare. His well-rehearsed lines were as follows:

“My parents worked hard for what they have.” 

“We’re comfortable, y’know.” 

“I deserve to be where I am.” 

I bought into his story and started taking it easy on him. Who was I to say that he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth? I wasn’t there. I had no proof that his family had a two-car garage, heated driveway and granite countertops in their kitchen. I must have been in the wrong because he went to school in a “very dangerous neighborhood” and clearly understood urban poverty better than I did. I felt so guilty for having judged this Midwestern book by its blond cover — until one day when we were arguing about cars. 

We were both 18 years old, and neither of us had been driving by ourselves for more than two years. The topic of our impromptu debate was whether or not to bring a car to campus. He took pros. I took cons. All my classes were in the same area, so I could manage the walk. Besides, I didn’t know how soon I would be able to get a job and didn’t want to worry Ma for gas money. He proudly announced that he was bringing his new car to campus as soon as possible, but it had a few problems. It was a four-door truck, so finding room to park might be hard. The insurance went up because he was going out of state. And it wasn’t a nice color, which really riled him up considering that they paid upwards of $40,000 for it. It should have at least come in the right color! 

That was the part that made me blink. Forty thousand dollars. Forty. Thousand. Dollars. That’s how much my house cost. That’s how much my double-wide trailer cost in 2003, and we were still making payments on it. I’m sure they didn’t pay that much upfront and I’m sure that his family probably had better credit scores than mine. Still, that was when I decided to stop talking to him. What would we have talked about after that? My life was 10-hour shifts at 16 years old and waiting for my food stamps to refill so I could buy groceries. 

His family golfed. You understand?

We were almost friends, but after that conversation, I had no desire to further our acquaintance. Nor did I make much effort to get to know anybody else at school that year.

See, the great contrast between my family's income and that of people with actual tuition payment plans was the biggest culture shock I faced at UR. According to the New York Times, only 3.4% of UR students come from families that make about $20,000 or less per year. Meanwhile, 63% come from families that make $110,000 or more per year and 15% of students come from wealthy families which occupy the top one percent by making $630,000 or more each year.  In other words, very few of my peers have ever gotten free lunch. Their first jobs were paid internships that they had to wear button-downs for if they had ever worked at all. I watched kids read wikiHow articles on how to do laundry, just for them to go out in wrinkled clothes because they couldn’t iron either. My parent — singular — was fighting an uphill battle to get disability benefits, and I couldn’t go to the bathroom without overhearing someone on the phone with their CEO-CFO-lawyer-doctor-realtor type relatives. Knowing that there was only a 7.3% chance of my upward economic mobility, kept me up at night.

I was overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy and fell victim to imposter syndrome. No one in my family owned a business or took vacations. I had been well aware that I was different, but not wrong since I was in elementary school. My mom took great care in keeping me well dressed and clean with my hair straight and smooth. Every day was a pageant, and I knew to smile wide at the judges. As I got older, the act gradually lost its appeal, and by the time I turned 19, I was rubbing my face raw in the mirror, trying to wash off my grimy past. There's a place for everything and everything goes in its place. If I wasn't careful, if I slipped, laughed too hard, scuffed my shoes, roughed up my hair, then someone would realize I was in the wrong place.

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It has been drilled into the minds of every person of color that we have to work twice as hard to earn half as much. We can’t ever be ourselves alone; we represent entire communities and entire racial demographics in predominantly white institutions. I had good grades but no connections. What are we even going to do with a degree if our parents can’t get us an office job? The weight on our shoulders is that of generational trauma and expectations that, in one conversation, I realized my rich, white “peers” would never understand. 

I feel the need to acknowledge my experiences with poverty are not those commonly portrayed by the media or associated with people of color. I live in a rural area. If you don’t farm, you work at an auto shop, and if you don’t do that, then you must still be figuring things out. It’s a conservative, God-fearing place where everyone knows your business and knows not to talk about it. 

Rich where I'm from means you own a suit for more than wearing it to funerals. So no, I don’t respect my neighbors with Trump 2024 flags in their front yard, but I can go to bed knowing they're only barely better off than we are. I still see them picking up boxes from the church food drive, still see them taking extra shifts driving the school bus to make ends meet. At school, there was no escaping the name-brand clothes and white collar audacity that comes from owning a double-door refrigerator. 

I can now say with full certainty that my feelings then were legitimate and I deserved to feel the pain that I did. This space and others like it were not designed with working-class people of color in mind, and building a life in this country will always be an uphill battle. I don’t say this in support of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative. No, not at all. Instead, I want to give the reader permission to cry and scream because our life is hard. Our pain cannot be measured and weighed against another’s to see who deserves the most pity. Our individual stories are unique, yet share the common threads of discrimination, prejudice and fear in the places we want so badly to be our home. 

Three years later, things have improved. I never won the lottery or anything, but I did find people with whom I can commiserate about the commercial goods I consider red flags. Kitchen islands, heated driveways and cars that are a little too clean all raise the hair on the back of my neck in equal parts suspicion and envy. I wish you a more comfortable experience than mine on the campus that we call home eight months out of the year with the parting reminder to integrate, not assimilate.

Contact contributor Rosa Lovo at rosa.lovo@richmond.edu.

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