In an essay for Topic called “The Color of Money” — part of a series on how a financial windfall can change your life — Ijeoma Oluo writes about receiving her first large royalty check for her book, So You Want to Talk About Race. Oluo tells a fellow black writer that she wants to use the $70,000 to buy her mother a home, but her mom isn’t as excited about that dream as she is.
“Your mom’s white, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, still not getting it.
He nodded like I just answered my own question. “White people don’t buy their parents homes. They put their parents in homes.”
I laughed. Of course that wasn’t true. I had white friends who took care of their aging parents. Plenty of them. Furthermore, I was pretty sure that after 37 years, I had already encountered all of the different nuances of my mom’s whiteness.
But his words lingered in my head, and I began to understand what was at the heart of what he was saying. My mom wanted my siblings and me to be proud of our blackness, and she tried to make sure that we were not lacking in black culture because we had a white mom. We saw every movie with a black character, went to every black and West African community event, listened to all the most popular black musicians. So it is no surprise that my dream of walking my mom into a new home I had just bought was a scene straight from countless movies and hip-hop videos. Black success was a black family’s success. A black community’s success. You’d help your brother, your sister, your cousins—but first and foremost, you’d help your momma.
I didn’t get the same messaging about success from white American culture. What I learned about white success was that those who earned enough to be comfortable became not only independent, but isolated. They’d move to another town and set up their own families away from their old ones. They’d visit on holidays. They’d never borrow money, and the only money they’d share would be in the form of a loan to younger relatives to help them on their way to financial independence. (Eventually, when those younger relatives found success, they could fully pay you back and move away to their own home.)
I thought about whether any of my white friends were proud to be able to help their families financially. Few were. Many were embarrassed for themselves and their parents.