Choosing to Talk About Ugly Stuff

I am 22 years old. I grew up owning-class, have a trust fund, and I also stand to inherit wealth, some in the form of a family foundation. All of my grandparents were first-generation Americans and grew up in poor or working-class families, with the exception of my maternal grandmother, who I think had more of a middle-class upbringing (piano lessons? I think it’s the piano lessons that make me say that). Three of my grandparents were youth or labor organizers, and moderated politically with age. My mom got a job in the South just before I was born, so I grew up far away from our northern family networks. The money in my family comes from my maternal grandfather, and I’m not entirely clear on how he “made” it, except in the usual capitalistic way of investment and accumulation. I guess the narrative I’ve gotten is that he was a combination of brilliant and lucky, landed an important job as head of an urban development/real estate law firm (Is that right? Do those exist?), started making money, and was very “smart” about investing.
For me, my mom’s family’s money story is a lot about silence: about speaking the immigrant bootstraps and organizing stories, but never about becoming rich, as though wealth was accumulated accidentally and peripherally to those narratives. My story recently is about talking. I’m trying to talk about it. The target audience for this article is other young radicals from wealthy families. So: this is me trying to talk to people like me about something that in my life—perhaps in our lives—has been kept quiet.
Here is a beginning of a list of things that my money story “has to do with” in some especially complicated or challenging way, in an order that makes sense to me, considering how they evoke each other: whiteness, Jewishness, immigration, American-ness, safety, state violence, liberalism, intellectualism, art, creativity, nature tourism, vacations…
My parents are Liberal intellectuals. They value things called “quality,” “authenticity,” “truth,” “art,” “critical thought,” and “excellence.” These are things that in their imagination, and in popular imagination, are mysteriously able to float along high above the dirty, complicated, hardscrabble world of people who think about money – and to my immediate family I think that includes both beggars and stockbrokers.
If poor and working-class people have to do the work of absorbing (and resisting) state and corporate violence and producing massive amounts of wealth for owning-class families like ours, stockbrokers (and my one uncle who’s interested in business, and the people we hire to manage the family funds) do the dirty work of accumulating and hoarding that wealth—actually engaging finance capitalism and the ways it works in our favor. In my immediate family, neither of those worlds was ever discussed. We hire people to manage our wealth, so we don’t have to see that process happen or understand it. When I finally spoke with our family’s financial lawyer (I was 20 and had just learned what a trust fund was and that I had one), he asked, “Are you allergic to this stuff? ‘Cause your parents are allergic to this stuff!” In various ways he sent the message that I didn’t know what I was doing and wasn’t ready for any financial responsibility. He recommended that I continue to let him handle things unless I was seriously interested in money management—unlike my parents.
Allergic is a nice way of putting it. Since opening conversations with other young people from wealthy families, I’ve realized that silence is one major norm. Much like white people in a room together will marvel that none of them can answer the question, “What messages did your family send about race?” because in white liberal families race is often taboo or invisible, kids of rich families have a lot of stories about silence: awkward silence, instructed silence (don’t tell your friends, or they might resent you), and weird years-long silence punctuated by papers to sign or periodic bank deposits. In my family I think the visible, almost aesthetic conflict between the world of money-making and the world of my parents’ “values” meant that they were really loathe to talk about it. And the thing is, when you have privilege you can often choose to never talk about it. They even said that: “The good thing about having money is not having to think about money.” We can be scholars. We can be artists. We can have maximum choice and maximum freedom. We don’t have to worry about the money running out. In fact, we never have to think or talk about money at all.
That was a convenient “out” because I actually think my immediate family is pretty disgusted by having so much more than we need in this world, and that all of us carry shame. If my parents were to read this and object to the strong language, I’m pretty sure I’d stand by it. I think I’ve seen, over and over again, the emotional strategies we’ve all developed as we struggle with real, painful internal conflicts about having inherited wealth. Silence was one of those strategies, and it was a response to deep fears—to intense unfreedom, the evil twin of all the things money was supposed to give us. You don’t have to be a self-identified radical to feel how deeply wrong it all is—and trapped inside it nonetheless.
Here is a short list of some of those deep fears I think people in my family have, more or less consciously, related to money:

  • That our relationships are not genuine, because if we don’t share our money story we are hiding something, but if we do share our money story then people will either befriend us for the wrong reasons or reject us.
  • That if they reject us it will be for the right reasons; that is, that there is truth to the notion that having money taints your moral character and means that you are lazy and entitled and eternally childish, or that you come from swindling, greedy, cold and calculating ancestors (like the stereotypes of Jews).
  • That the money is all we have protecting us from both vigilante violence (“crime,” our notion of which is always classist and racist) and state violence. It bears noting that because some of us are invested in Jewishness as an always-and-unpredictably threatened identity, the idea that Protestant Western societies might again turn against us can justify hoarding wealth as an imagined safety net, as providing the opportunity for self-protection or escape. And in the meantime, of course, it helps us attain whiteness and American-ness—the ultimate in safety
  • That because we come from this amount of money, we would not survive if we risked life without it, or even substantially less of it: we are effeminate (I’m totally using that word on purpose), intellectual types with few “practical” skills and no developed resilience to hardship.
  • That although in our case there is obviously too much and this is spiritually and ethically distressing, there is also somehow not enough. (Remember, these are just our fears.) This one I find we share with almost everyone else from wealthy families that I’ve talked to, because in this society we all learn scarcity from day one—that there is not enough, and if you loosen your grip or look the other way or are too generous for too long, it is going to run out.

I don’t know how many other young radicals with wealth stress about this, but one major repeated challenge for me is answering that question about why I care. You know, when someone asks, “why do you want to do social justice work?” or something like that. And we fear—or I do, anyway—that the person asking has every right to be suspicious. Why would I, a white woman from an owning-class family, able-bodied, passing for straight, want to put myself out there as in favor of undermining the very systems that protect me? Systems that funnel resources into my hands? Do I understand that poor people and people of color are terrorized for voicing the kinds of subversive ideas that I get to speak, write, research, publish, shout from the rooftops? What am I doing saying I want to help build a transformative, liberatory movement? Do I have a right to stand where I do?
That list of fears is what I keep coming back to. We are not free! I want to live in a way that is interdependent with the rest of the life on this planet with me, not dependent upon its exploitation. But as things stand, that’s not really a choice—I can’t extract myself or escape from exploitative systems and live “outside” of them. When I open to the pain of injustice, I allow myself to feel that everyone targeted by capitalist and state violence is absolutely as human as I am. I also feel desperate about environmental destruction. I’m not comforted—in fact, I’m horrified—knowing that I might protect myself from toxicity and ecological damage when others cannot. Attempts to escape the shame and rage that come up once we open up to suffering just don’t work: they rely on the possibility of isolation, but we are relentlessly connected. We only “buy our way out” at enormous psychological and spiritual cost. We are not free.
That list of fears is also necessary to understand this part of what we’re up against. They are one set of cogs in the capitalist machine: the one that creates rich people who will hold on to what they don’t need instead of open to radical transformation. That’s the part of the machine that deals out desensitization, insecurity, mistrust, ignorance, isolation and silence along with wealth, upward mobility, assimilation. That’s the list of fears I need to keep in mind when I try to approach myself and my family with love and insistence.
So my struggle is to wake up every morning and choose, again, to resist exploitative systems and work to create new ones. Safety and comfort for me and mine at the expense of others is not what I am in the world to seek or to cultivate. And when I see myself and my family in the light of honesty, I know that safety and comfort for us and ours at the expense of others is not what makes us well or whole. And because for someone with my privileges, it’s a choice to really look straight at the ugly stuff like wealth accumulation and how it depends on exploitation, and because it’s a choice that must be made again every day, I need other people to remind me of the path we are on and hold me accountable to my own commitment to justice.
I have a trust fund that I think is worth about $800,000.00. I’ve just started giving this year, and my parents don’t want me to “dig in to the principal”—that scary thing that means you’re really giving it away! I do a funny dance trying to find the line between “income” and “principal” (I’m not explaining exactly what that means mostly because I don’t understand it particularly well and because for my purposes it’s not that relevant). Basically I’ve decided to make yearly giving plans for about as much as the yearly income is supposed to be, until I can get to a point with my parents to talk about giving away more of it, and eventually dissolving the trust altogether. That will involve a lot of painful conversations over time.
Initially I gave myself a year (starting in August of 2010) to give away $20,000, which was the number my parents got from someone who manages the trust as all of the income since my 21st birthday. I’ve also made a promise to myself to pay at the top of sliding scales when I attend fundraisers, and there’s a lot of smaller donations I make when asked. Also, someone I don’t know very well owes me $900, and part of this process has been to decide not to pursue it because I know they are having a hard time financially and I don’t actually need the money. (And it wasn’t “mine” in the first place.) I want to be giving way more in the future. I still can’t legally take out money from the trust without my parents’ authorization, so this process will necessarily involve a political dialogue with my parents, and that matters immensely to me personally.
There are a lot of different strategies that come up as I think about how to give. I want to give money directly to organizations led by poor and working-class people. I do make choices based on a political analysis I’ve chosen/been gifted/co-created, but I don’t want endless debates about which work is “really radical” or “really revolutionary” or “really effective” or “really righteous” to hold up the process of letting go of hoarded resources. If I have doubts about not having done enough research before writing a check, I try to look at my own class privilege that assumes that my research and subsequent judgments can somehow reveal the truth about what’s best for the world. All concrete political, cultural and spiritual work is imperfect, but the money is doing more good in the hands of people doing concrete work than it is while invested in lord knows where. (Defense contractors? Strip mining?)
Initially I’ve started giving large chunks to two organizations working on land and housing justice. In retrospect I realized I could link that to the idea of community reparations, since my grandfather’s money came from real estate development. Again, though, I don’t think it’s really about what’s most meaningful to me or what kind of giving fits neatly into my theoretical analysis. It’s mostly about just finding ways—whatever works for me—to facilitate letting go of the wealth that was never “mine,” acting according to the principle that redistributing those resources is a part of my role, as an owning-class person, in making change.
I started by giving smaller amounts and then they started to get bigger and bigger. It felt like jumping off the high dive. The more you do it, the less you hesitate to do it again. Sometimes it feels so easy and freeing to give it away that I start to get suspicious, and I do think there are things to watch out for. When I feel incompetent or like my privilege has rendered me at best useless and at worst destructive to people’s struggles (yeah, I know I’m not the only one who gets that awful feeling), sometimes I think, “Well, at least I can give away money.” But giving away money is not a substitute for being involved emotionally, organizationally and spiritually with collective work, and I have to constantly work with myself to truly believe that it’s not the only thing I have to offer. If I tie my self-worth to giving, then I tie it to having—and I will be afraid to give until I can’t anymore.