Personal Finance

I’m a Black woman writing about money and race. Here’s what I see.

P.S. What I learned when I wrote about systemic racism in America

Dear Reader,

In the last moments of his life, George Floyd, pinned to the ground, cried out to his deceased “mama” — 11 times in a row — as a White police officer pushed the life out of him with his knee. Floyd’s killing and the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests made me realize that I could no longer stay silent.

Floyd, and the killing of other Black men and women, has forced much-needed conversations about police violence and race relations in America.

Systemic racism is real.

Sincerely, Michelle In a 10-part series, Michelle Singletary gets personal about common misconceptions involving race and inequality. Start reading at wapo.st/sincerely-michelle.

But so many people want to believe America is post-racial, that companies treat customers the same regardless of race. They do not. I’ve covered lending-bias settlements in the home and auto industry since the beginning of my journalism career. And I’m still writing about predatory and discriminatory lending practices today, two decades later. That’s a generation.

So, how do you convey — or, more accurately, even decide to convey — your private pain about racial injustices when you’ve been trained to be neutral?

I decided to use my platform — my column — to address in a very personal way some commonly held misconceptions about Black people.

Contrary to what some may believe, many Black people don’t like talking about race.

It’s risky.

I did not want to alienate readers who have come to trust my column for personal finance advice and news. I embraced the challenge nonetheless, writing 10 columns about the discrimination Black Americans experience.

And yet, many readers couldn’t stand to read even that much.

Several readers, who identified themselves as White, used profanity in communicating their displeasure with the topics: affirmative action, education, investing, homeownership, credit, reparations, the wealth gap, Black businesses, racial microaggressions and Black philanthropy.

One person wrote that I was “uppity,” which is an infamous qualifier to the n-word.

And how do you respond to this comment?: “Enslaved people often were treated better by their owners than they would have been living without ownership,” one reader from Germantown, Md., wrote.

Or this one?: “Did you ever consider if your ancestors hadn’t been brought to America you’d be living in a mud hut in Africa instead of having the privilege of living in America.”

When I wrote that the American government should pay reparations for being complicit in the enslavement and deaths of millions of Black people, some White readers wanted to talk about their own history. It was all about them:

My family never owned enslaved people.

My ancestors came here after slavery ended.

My parents worked hard and never asked for anything.

My life has been hard, too.

Reparations aren’t about you or your family history. Unless you or members of your family were legally enslaved in this country and then subjected to generations of legalized discrimination and inhumane treatment, then your experiences can’t compare or compete with slavery and its legacy, which continues to benefit White Americans to this day. Your ancestors immigrated by choice to a land where prosperity was possible, first because of free Black labor, and then because of the segregation and oppression of Black people that followed. Generations of Black citizens in America have been prevented by federal, state and local government policies and by corporate and private practices from enjoying the same prosperity and from seeking the same upward mobility that your lineage probably came to America to find.

One reader characterized my column on racial microaggressions as “hypervigilant paranoia or the proverbial chip on your shoulder.” He sought to minimize and mock my experiences through his White eyes. And the kicker? The man wrote that he earns a living facilitating presentations about race relations.

Just, wow.

“Feedback and comments from people who trivialize microaggressions can be mean and nasty,” said Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a leading expert on microaggressions. “They imply people of color are overly sensitive, weak and vulnerable. This is what I call a ‘clash of racial realities.’ Critics are not aware of the overwhelming research attesting to the harmful impact of these ‘small slights.’”

But for every piece of disrespectful and ignorant correspondence, I received many more emails from people — mostly White Americans — who helped drown out the bigots and give me hope.

An 81-year-old White woman who volunteers at the National Building Museum wrote: “The great hall is a giant playground for little children, wearing parents out running after them up and down, round and round! When nearing my desk, I frequently would tell the Black fathers something to the effect that it is so wonderful to see them playing with their children. I cannot recall saying the same to the White fathers and, if I did, it was not with the same frequency. Thank you, thank you for exposing this behavior for what it is. I will not do it again and, while I am embarrassed, I am also relieved to have been corrected.”

A 63-year-old White reader in Toronto wrote, “I now realize that what I had actually created was a fantasy world in which I believed most people were like me and only the ignorant few were racists who were scorned by civilized society.”

Overall, I appreciated your candor, even when you disagreed with my point of view. I understand better your frustration in trying to figure out what to do, and your desire not to offend.

There were sad, emotional days when, for example, an experience I had shared was dismissed as me having a “chip on my shoulder.” Other times, I pumped my fist in the air when a column helped validate another Black person’s experience or sparked some introspection from someone who recognized racism is still with us.

“Reading your work has been the first time I have felt completely understood as both a Black person and a young professional,” wrote Jack Anderson, a 19-year-old sophomore studying mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “I have always felt the need to represent the Black community in everything I do because for all of my life I have been the only Black person in a room and I know that the way my work and myself are presented will affect the way non-Black peers view African Americans.”

An email from Ron Vaughn, a 66-year-old from Albuquerque, made me cry, in a good way.

“I am clearly a product of male-White privilege,” he wrote. “My grandfather was an uneducated farmer who amassed a small fortune using the labor of the underclasses to make him rich. Sure, he may have worked hard, but certainly no harder than his field hands who toiled under a semitropical sun to tend and collect his harvests. His racism was his own badge of honor.”


How has your race or identity shaped your financial decision-making? Share your thoughts with us.


Vaughn’s reflections were refreshingly thoughtful.

Vaughn went on to write: “I never knew a Black person by name until I got to college and again in the U.S. Army. For the next 25 years, I rarely interacted with a person of color, either in graduate school or as a highly paid professional. Your column on reparations made a clear and obvious case for an idea that I had previously rejected out of hand. Racism by its very nature is theft. It steals opportunities from those who have the capacity but are denied a real chance at success.”

Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has written, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Half the battle for better race relations could be won if we all would simply listen, with an open mind and heart. I spoke, and you listened, and many of you understood. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Michelle


Read more from the “Sincerely, Michelle” series:

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