As a rule, life is composed of ups and downs. There are good times, even great times, and there, invariably, will be bad times in every individual’s life. But, as is very aptly illustrated in this comic strip, some people will have substantial insulation against those bad times. Ideologies like ‘the American dream’ and ‘bootstrapping,’ or the idea that the onus is upon each individual to lift himself up the socioeconomic ladder through his own hard work, ingenuity and personal responsibility, abound in the collective psyche of the United States.
Whether it’s because you’re a POC, a first generation American, professional, graduate from high school, undergrad or graduate school, or from a low income background, these identities can work in silent and insidious ways to keep you from accessing your full potential.
It has been found that black people often have more difficulty surpassing their parents in terms of family income and wealth—this is due to a plethora of factors, but one thing has consistently been identified as an almost certain way to access upward socioeconomic mobility: education. The first step for a person inhabiting any of the above spaces of identity must accept and acknowledge the fact that these identities have an impact. From there, we must begin to look for solutions. How can I, a black, first generation and low income person overcome the way these identities might interact with each other and with society as a whole? The solution I found was education, and there might be any number of solutions that others might find. After Chamillionaire was spotted sitting courtside at an NBA Finals Game, social media went into a frenzy, wondering about his whereabouts and current endeavors. In a very nuanced and candid interview following that phenomenon, he explained that he’d used the capital he amassed from his music career and pivoted into the tech venture capital space. For him, following his passion, music, allowed him the success and financial resources to make incredible connections and begin an amazing new career. That was his solution. For me, and possibly for you, that ‘Big Bang’ passion, the one that creates an entirely new environment and set of possibilities for you, will lie in different spaces– for me, it’s law. Look for your Big Bang passion and once you find it, you will have your unique solution.
As a last plug for the importance of education as a starting point, however: According to a study on economic mobility over generations by the Pew Trust Foundation, “having a college degree makes a person more than three times more likely to rise from the bottom of the family income ladder all the way to the top, and makes a person more than four times likely to rise from the bottom of the family wealth ladder to the top.” Now that we’ve discussed the situation we face and one of the possible solutions, let’s get to one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenals. Our unique and intersecting identities. Once we accept and acknowledge that these identities can function as hindrances, it is even more important to sit down and begin thinking about how we can take our identities and harness them to catapult us closer to our dreams. Here is an example: if my firm takes on a large client with lots of Caribbean brands that wouldn’t be culturally relevant to the vast majority of the firm’s staff, I can then position myself as an internal resource. From then on, if there are questions about the brands and how we can service that client most efficiently with those brands in mind, I become a top of the mind resource to my peers and supervisors. This is the kind of thinking that we need to begin fostering. Don’t look at your marginalized identities as an albatross around your neck—look at them with an enterprising eye and see them for what they really are– guiding lights toward excellence in your field! Remember that each and every characteristic that you possess makes you unique and makes you who you are, enabling you to do what you’re meant to do. Take that knowledge and go begin leveraging your life story today!