Black Lives Matter banner held above protest, photo from Pacific Presscommunity

How the Personal Finance Sphere Upholds Systemic Racism

“If those of us with the most free time and freedom from financial insecurity can’t change the world, who can? (Hint: It’s us. And we can.)”
— Conclusion of Work Optional

When times are good, or at least seem that way to those not paying real attention, it’s easy to ignore bad advice and bad ideas. Everyone’s a brilliant investor in a bull market, and we’ve let bad financial ideas go unquestioned for a long time in the FIRE community. Similarly, when you don’t see anger over racial inequality and police brutality manifesting as widespread protests, it’s easy to decide not to call out racist microagressions.

Today’s post is a call to action to all of us to stop looking the other way. To get as uncomfortable as we must to push back against the toxic ideas in our midst in the personal finance sphere, because whether we intend it or not, this community upholds the systemic racism of the U.S., Canada and certainly other countries. Now that more of us are paying attention to what’s been happening since the birth of our nation, I hope you’ll be able to see it, too.

Let me be clear before we talk about how exactly this community upholds systemic racism that I do not believe it’s intentional. But that doesn’t excuse it. The biggest thing we have to come to terms with is that, just because we don’t consciously intend something, doesn’t mean it’s not real. You don’t have to be consciously, intentionally racist to uphold or even strengthen a racist system. But staying silent is violence, especially because we can see, clearer than ever before thanks to more cameras, exactly how violent the system is toward Black people in America.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s a tough truth to swallow, that we are part of the problem, but it’s the truth nonetheless. And if the personal finance world truly cares about helping people, as we say we do, that means we need to do some real and hard introspection to examine our words and actions, and become actively anti-racist. The good news is that it’s entirely within our power to change things, but that won’t happen unless we take this seriously and do the work.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, spoke about the work we need to do on KQED, San Francisco’s NPR affiliate, and this excerpt is helpful (*note: the book link is to Bookshop.org, which supports local bookstores, and is non-affiliate, so I don’t get a kickback if you buy it):

In no other capacity is a problem solved by not talking about it,” Kendi said. “And yes, it’s extremely hard to treat racism. It’s extremely painful. Just like it’s extremely hard to treat cancer.”

He argues that, like his cancer, racism exists in every part of the American system. The country was founded upon racism and its effects can be seen in everything from housing to economic inequality to education. He says the “treatment” for racism is similar to the one he received for cancer. Scan the body to see where the tumors (or racist policies) are, surgically remove them, then flood the whole body with medicine to make sure even the invisible tumors are treated. That systemic treatment prevents a recurrence of the cancer. Then watch the body closely for signs of new tumors and treat quickly if there are signs the cancer is returning.

Americans want to heal America of racism without pain. That’s impossible,” Kendi said. He fought his cancer diagnosis despite feeling despair. Now Americans must fight racism by becoming what he terms “antiracists.”

He contends that white supremacists have won the rhetorical battle by successfully positioning the term “racist” as a personal attack, that being racist makes you a bad person.

He’d like to move the conversation about racism away from being perpetrator and intent-focused to being victim and outcome-focused. He’s less concerned about who is saying the racist comment than on the fact that the comment is being made at all.

“When we stop being so intent- and perpetrator-focused, and start being more outcome- and victim-centered, then we are able to decenter whiteness,” Kendi said. “Then we are able to put the victims of racism at the center of our analysis.”

It boils down to this: If one thinks the fundamental racist problem in society is “those bad people,” then one can essentially do nothing. But if racism is bad policies, then “you need a collective effort to change those policies.”

“Once we get over our denial, and once we admit the ways in which we’ve consumed racist ideas, then we next try to adopt antiracist ideas,” Kendi said. “There’s nothing wrong with any racial groups.”

A crucial point he makes in How to Be An Antiracist is that eradicating racism requires action. By eliminating the space between racist and antiracist, he’s calling on everyone who considers themselves to be antiracist to back up those ideas with actions that change policy. For educators, that means taking a hard look at the policies and systems that perpetuate the decades-long opportunity gap that exists for different groups of students.

And for us in the personal finance community, it means reconsidering what we talk about and how we talk about it, how those things signal to readers who is welcome here and who isn’t, and who has power to change their financial situation and who doesn’t.

Not only is the FIRE contingent of the personal finance world notoriously seen as super white and super male (even though it actually isn’t, it’s just viewed that way because of who most often gets the microphone), meaning we’re not inclusive enough, the community does things – some subtle and some not – that signal to readers that they are not welcome here. Which, even when it’s not intended, is the same as refusing to serve certain customers. Racism isn’t only calling people the N word. It’s also expecting them to overlook language and content that’s violent toward them in ways large and small in order to get their needs met.

Related post: The False, Persistent Myth About FIRE and Tech Bros

I believe we can do better. Let’s talk about how.

The Words We Choose

For being an incredibly well-off group of people, whether in current reality or in aspiration, we use an awful lot of language of oppression to describe our extremely non-oppressed situations. This is pervasive across the space, but the most egregious and hurtful example is equating slavery, a horrible institution with a specific racial history in this country that has never included reparations, with everyday financial circumstances like being in debt or having to go to work to earn a paycheck, which are circumstances affecting virtually everyone who has ever lived. Even some of the most progressive thinkers in the personal finance space call having to go to work “wage slavery,” or proclaim “debt is slavery” with no apparent thought to how that might read to someone descended from slaves.

To put it in a less charged context, here’s a tweet and retweet using different words that help illustrate the point.

Amanda Know retweet of Lady Gaga. Gaga: Fame is prison. Amanda: I hear you, but... prison is prison.

Amanda Knox’s retweet of Lady Gaga

Surely Lady Gaga feels trapped by aspects of fame, and is using “prison” hyperbolically. But to someone who has actually been to prison, that reads as out of touch at best, invalidating at worst. Amanda Knox is overly gracious and gentle in her retweet, when she could rightly be angry to see Lady Gaga equating her fame and fortune with the loss of all personal agency involved in actual incarceration. You can’t jet off to the Maldives to escape prison the way you can to escape fame.

Words mean things, and debt and slavery are simply not comparable on any level. An enslaved person could not declare bankruptcy and escape slavery. A person in debt does not transfer that debt to their children and their children’s children the way all an enslaved person’s offspring were owned as chattel from birth. And with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, even escaping a slave state for a free state didn’t guarantee a former enslaved person’s freedom. They could be forcibly returned to their “owner” by the “good guys” in the abolitionist state. There is no world in which you can equate that to debt, something that can be paid off and eliminated and which does not deny you personal liberties beyond simply having to dedicate some of your income to its service. Does it limit you in some ways? Sure. Does it limit you in every way possible and subject you to violence and violence for your children and your children’s children? I would assume that doesn’t even warrant a response, but I’ve been quietly asking people in the community to stop equating slavery with debt and the need for income for years, and have received a shocking amount of pushback, so apparently it does need a response. And that response is: debt and slavery are almost nothing alike, and even with the similarities, they are not remotely large enough to warrant overruling the trauma that descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. still carry around every day. We are writers, and surely we can come up with more precise and less hurtful analogies.

Even if my argument here feels like an overreaction to you, remember that your feelings are not what matter here. What matters, if we care even the slightest bit about being inclusive and not upholding a racist system, is how Black people and other people of color feel when reading your words. And I have heard from many how hurtful the slavery comparison is. At book events and FI gatherings, people have whispered thanks to me for not using the slavery language, or for wearing my Black Lives Matter shirt, telling me how alone they feel in so much of the FI space in particular and personal finance space more broadly. The fact that they come as whispers is telling.

If you’ve never personally heard feedback that your word choice is problematic, it doesn’t make it any less true. Another feature of a racist society is that we put all the burden of stopping the oppression on those who are oppressed, and if you’re waiting for Black readers to call you out, you’re perpetuating that problem. A long-time blogger in the community who equates debt and slavery recently said to me, when I suggested they might stop using that language, that no person of color had ever complained about the language choice before, so therefore I was overreacting to it. This is flawed thinking, one, because it assumes that someone would bring this up in a society that does everything possible to silence them and tell them not to speak up, and two, it puts all the burden of changing things on the very people being oppressed rather than us as the ones in power actually questioning our actions and our words to examine how we can do better.

We should not need to be told that something bothers someone to understand how it could.

And just think about the mechanics of that. If you read something offensive on a blog, do you stick around, read a whole bunch more, and then take a big chunk of time and emotional energy out of your life to write that person a heartfelt note about how something feels, even though they’ve already signaled that they’re indifferent at best and callous at worst toward your feelings? No, of course not. You just conclude it’s not for you, maybe draw larger conclusions like that the whole genre or community doesn’t want you there, and log off. One little offhand remark that means nothing to you could mean that we lose the chance forever to help someone who’s already been deeply underserved by our society.

Remember that words mean things, even if they don’t mean those things to you. Learn to spot language of oppression, leave it out of talks of money and personal finance, and don’t put the burden on those already oppressed to point this stuff out to you. Do the work yourself.

UPDATE: I should have included this originally, but was focused predominantly on African-American folks, which meant I forgot to talk about our prevalent and problematic use in personal finance, frankly in so much of society, of the word “tribe.” “Tribe” carries different but important meanings to Indigeneous/First Nations and African peoples, scholars say the general misusage of it reaffirms negative stereotypes of primitiveness among Indigenous and African tribes, and there’s no need to appropriate it when we have plenty of excellent alternatives. We’re simply not an “FI tribe,” and finding community here isn’t about “finding your tribe.” Alternatives: community, group, club, movement, team, fellowship, league, etc. Use your imagination.

(It’s far less serious, and doesn’t come with so much racist baggage, but I’ve written before about why I also dislike all the talk about “freedom” when most people pursuing a work-optional life aren’t lacking in any freedoms whatsoever. If you’re talking about a particular marginalized or disenfranchised community, it’s one thing, but speaking as a non-oppressed person seeking freedom is incredibly out of touch.)

The Topics We Forbid

There is a persistent refrain in much of American society right now, but we feel it strongly in personal finance: “Don’t make things political!”

There is a strong bias in personal finance to avoid talking about politics, which in itself is a logical instinct: let’s avoid discussing the divisive stuff and focus on the common ground we all share. I get that reflex.

The problem is that we live in a world and at a time when virtually everything can be viewed through a political lens. I haven’t heard this personally, because I haven’t left the house in months (immunocompromised), but I’ve heard from countless friends that they’ve been called all kinds of denigrating names for taking the bold political action of… wearing a face mask to the store. When people insist on politicizing others’ desire to just, like, NOT DIE, then it’s clear that the “don’t make it political” cry is really an attempt at silencing any discussion that might lead to change.

“Don’t make it political” is the rallying cry of the status quo.

(Another example: When I write, “we always want to have health insurance in retirement,” I get comments and letters about how I’m “making it political.” That’s without so much as mentioning the Affordable Care Act or making any mentions of lawmakers or legislation. Just stating that I want to be able to go to the doctor means I’m talking out of school, according to this way of thinking. Which is ridiculous.)

So it’s not that I think every personal finance blog needs to be a partisan diatribe, because I don’t. But when any topic can be called political, especially topics that disproportionally affect people of color, women, disabled people, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized communities, then we need to recognize that this “don’t be political” rule is less about politics, and more about limiting discussion only to things that won’t rock the boat.

The social pressure to avoid the great many topics that are often tagged “political” is strong in the personal finance sphere. There are articles like this one by Steve Adcock on Think Save Retire (“Why the 2016 presidential election doesn’t matter”), which I hope, in hindsight, Steve agrees was deeply wrong and uninformed. And there are actual rules, like the one at FinCon — by far the largest gathering of personal finance bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, authors and other financial media — that specifically bars any content that could be viewed as political. That’s not to say FinCon is to blame for people feeling that anything possibly political is off-limits, but as the 900 pound gorilla, FinCon’s rule sets the tone for the community as the whole, which then gets misconstrued by media as major as the Washington Post as meaning that the community doesn’t care to engage on politics, which of course isn’t true. There’s just strong pressure not to.

So how does all of this uphold systemic racism? Because it taints facts like the existence of a racial wage and wealth gap, with the veneer of “political.” If you so much as bring up the existence of the gap, or talk about generational wealth – all factual matters that can easily be backed up by objective data – you will quickly be shouted down for making it about politics, or get called an SJW (because apparently wanting social justice is bad and this is supposed to hurt feelings to be associated with something so abhorrent as justice), or be accused of “virtue signaling.” (I have a Twitter thread on virtue signaling here, if you’d like to dive into it. Bottom line: accusing someone of virtue signaling is virtue signaling in itself, and it’s nearly always used to silence someone rather than engage substantively with their ideas.)

Racial Wealth Gap, 1983 vs. 2016

Some objective racial wealth gap data, if you’re curious

As a result, most of us in personal finance shy away from any topic that might trigger these types of responses. We avoid talking about racial financial gaps, discrimination, and the myriad other factors that impact someone’s ability to get out of debt, grow their income and build wealth. And not talking about these things means not changing them. Silence is violence.

“White men in tech really started the movement, and they’re an important part of the community’s history, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the conclusion. And so in order to get more people involved, we really have to amplify different kinds of stories, and not get married to one way of doing FI.”

— Kiersten Saunders of Rich & Regular, speaking on The Fairer Cents podcast

The Philosophy We Misconstrue

The FIRE contingent of personal finance in particular seems deeply enamored of Stoic philosophy, or at least the self-serving parts of it. The core of Stoic philosophy is centering ethics and morality in your life, which has two components that follow from that, in the words of my friend and brilliant thinker Matt Lane: “1.) We learn to minimize negative emotions and desires to develop inner calm, which allows us to 2.) pursue justice for others, courage and wisdom.” We love to talk about the first, but almost never the second, which misses the whole point.

Take Tim Ferriss, the guru of productivity bros everywhere, and a self-proclaimed student of stoicism. Here’s an excerpt of an interview he did with the Daily Stoic, talking about the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, with some suggestions about how to do that:

The last exercise or category of exercise that I would recommend are comfort challenges. These are simple exercises that you can do on a regular basis, to expand your comfortable sphere of action. I’ve heard it said before, I certainly didn’t come up with the expression, “Everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.” Why don’t you proactively develop an ability to widen that comfort zone?

There are some very simple ways to do that. For instance, you can go into various places like a Starbucks, and practice doing the lay down challenge. This is laying down on the floor without saying anything to anyone, not telling them you’re doing an exercise, lay down on the floor for 10 seconds. If they ask if you’re all right, you say “yes I’m totally fine.” And then you get back up like nothing happened and continue on with waiting in line or whatever you were doing. The downside is very minimal. Of course don’t do this in traffic. Use some common sense. Don’t do it anywhere people are going to trip over you but in a place where you can expose yourself to potential embarrassment and shame. This is very much along the lines of what Cato used to do with wearing tunics of unpopular colors and walking barefoot. He was training himself to be ashamed of only those things truly worth being ashamed of, and you can do the same.

Another option would be doing what my friend Noah Kagan calls the coffee challenge. Going into any type of coffee shop, if you don’t like coffee it could be tea, it could be water, it doesn’t matter. When you get to the end of the line and you’re placing your order, you ask for 10 percent off. Again, you don’t tell them you’re doing an exercise, you don’t tell them Tim Ferriss sent you, or Seneca made you do it, you just have to bite your lip and bear it. The entire point is to risk rejection and discomfort, but asking for 10 percent off your coffee is a second example of many examples in this category of comfort challenges. I would suggest slating at least one per week for yourself.

It’s notable that Tim Ferriss has had nothing to say about everything going on in the world. He’s said nothing about racial justice or inequality, nothing to condemn police violence against Black Americans. He’s willing to get uncomfortable laying on the floor or asking for a discount, but not for something that actually matters.

For a community that loves to talk about challenging our assumptions and making ourselves uncomfortable, we are downright terrible at challenging the assumptions and taking part in the uncomfortable conversations that threaten to undo our privilege. What does it matter if you can lay down in a Starbucks and let people look at you funny if you can’t use your platform to try to change hearts and minds, or to push for long-overdue progress?

Tim is also the champion of the “low-information diet,” which I strongly argue against, and which is the antithesis of being a part of society. If you care about the world and the people in it, you can’t completely unplug. You can be judicious in how much you allow the news to affect your mental health, but there’s nothing stoic about doing some silly exercises to amuse yourself and then disappear when people are actually suffering.

If you consider yourself to be influenced by stoic philosophy, then embrace all of it. Focus not just on mental calm for yourself, but justice for everyone. Be a part of the positive change that the Greeks and Romans who created the philosophy intended. Be courageous when it actually matters, not just when it’s easy and inconsequential, because that’s not courage at all.

The Reality We Ignore

“In reality, there are people of color doing this. Maybe our voices are not as pushed to the forefront. I think in general, it’s also the wealth gap and the starting point for people of color. It might be a harder due to some systemic and generational issues of wealth, and so for them, maybe the concept of FI seems insurmountable. ‘What does that mean? I could never have enough money to never work again.’ So I think, one, it’s breaking down that barrier, and then reaching people where they are. So I love attacking it from, yes, it’s okay if you have debt, you can still start this journey. It’s okay if you don’t know anything, you can still start this journey. And I think when we approach it from the perspective of ‘Let’s meet you where you are, it doesn’t matter where you’re starting,’ then I think it can be more inclusive and have more people join in on it.”

— Jamila Souffrant, creator of Journey to Launch, speaking on The Fairer Cents podcast

We are all the champions of our own stories, and so there’s a strong tendency to tell your story in ways that make you the hero, that show the impact of your actions and that ignore the help you got along the way. This tendency explains part of the why personal finance narratives so often read as bootstraps tales, ones in which someone is entirely self-made and had no advantages.

I could tell my story that way. I could talk about growing up with a single, disabled parent on public assistance and still eventually making my way to financial independence. And that would be true, sort of. All the facts would be correct, but it would be leaving a lot out, details that make all the difference. It’s why I wrote my all-time most meaningful post, Of Boosts and Bootstraps: One Story, Two Ways.

When we talk only about our own actions, and don’t examine the help we got, the advantages we had or the privilege that was baked into all of it, we perpetuate the lie that “anyone can do this,” ignoring that some people face far more barriers than others, and therefore implicitly blames people who simply can’t achieve something as huge as financial independence.

If we’re going to change things, we need to do a better job of meeting people where they are. Of not judging them for having debt. Of not labeling everyone who spends as a “mindless consumer zombie.” Of not assuming that everyone can earn six figures without examining the data that show how deeply false that belief is. Of not calling ourselves “middle class” when we’re clearly not, shaming those who can’t save six figures a year when they don’t even earn that much. Of not assuming that everyone is saving only for their own family unit, and not for extended family or parts of their community, something that is a reality for many people of color and people within immigrant families.

If you ever find yourself writing or saying the words, “If I can do this, anyone can,” back up and find a different sentiment, because you simply don’t know what everyone else has faced and what’s possible for them.

Where We Go From Here

“Listen first, and be empathetic to the realities and history of certain people in this country. We all without question did not start on the same point. And some of us are still carrying the weight, the baggage and the trauma that makes our approach to some of these tactics that much more difficult. Some of us have to lift while we climb, some of us have to stop climbing to jump off and do other things in the process. It’s not as clear cut as just applying some of these practices. Listen first, be empathetic, and I think it will improve your understanding even outside of personal finance.”

— Julien Saunders of Rich & Regular, speaking on The Fairer Cents podcast

I asked Julien what we need to do to make the FIRE community more inclusive back at FinCon18 in Orlando, and that’s his answer above. Listen first. Be empathetic to people and their history. That means putting yourself in their shoes and trying to imagine what it would feel like to live in a world not built for you that tells you to assimilate and act a certain way but refuses to acknowledge even your basic humanity.

We aren’t doing enough listening, and we need to change that.

Start by examining who you follow. Who do you follow on social? What blogs do you read? What podcasts do you subscribe to? Is it a lot of people who look like you, who have circumstances similar to yours? If so, acknowledge that you’re in a bubble, and make a real effort to change that. Follow more Black people and other people of color. Read and listen to more of their content. Listen to more women, more disabled people, more LGBTQ+ people, more immigrants, more low-income people. Truly listen.

So many of our issues stem from us presuming that our own experience is universal.

It’s easy to go on believing that if you only expose yourself to people like you who share your world view. But staying in bubbles, not challenging our thinking, and therefore not speaking up on tough issues is how we uphold a racist system.

Wanting things to change is not enough.

We must refuse to stay comfortably silent and do the hard work. But if we step up and do that, we’ll truly make things better for our readers, and isn’t that why we’re here in the first place?

Resources

(Header image on post by Pacific Post, (c) 2016, found here)

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