Voices From Inside the System

‘Families Like Mine Rarely Realize Their Privilege’

A woman who comes from a family with dynastic wealth explains what it really feels like to profit from a profoundly unfair system

Voices From Inside the System is a new GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism and inequity. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

This anonymous 44-year-old white woman from Ohio, now living in Los Angeles, comes from a family with dynastic wealth. According to a 2018 study of the racial wealth gap in inheritances, 41% of white, college-educated families received inheritances of more than $10,000 compared with 13% of Black families with a similar background. The wealth of the Waltons, the richest family in America, increased more than 9,000% between 1982 and 2018. Our subject spoke with journalist Justine van der Leun about her experience.

My family is a big deal in our city. A relative created and ran an empire. We lived in massive homes filled with valuable art. Buildings were named after my family members. Busts of my ancestors dotted the spaces I inhabited as a child. I went to a wealthy private school for wealthy private children, and still, my family stood out — the stuff of capitalist dreams. When you grow up that way, it feels like your family is the most important in the room. You fall into that mythology of greatness, brilliance, genius. I remember speaking to peers in fifth grade with a superiority that came exclusively from a sense that my family had not only figured it out but had triumphed.

This mythologizing happens in all families like mine. There’s always a genius hero. Any opportunities that propelled him, and it’s almost always a “him,” are expelled from the story: That he was white, male, in America.

When you’re that rich and live publically, you don’t get negative feedback. People tell you you’re marvelous, vitally important, exceptional, and you celebrate yourself. It’s similar to a cult. Cult leaders, like tycoons, create violently disruptive and prohibitive systems, but within those systems, people are constantly telling that leader that he is God. The leader creates that narrative, but he’s also being fed it.

Because of the myth, people within families like mine rarely fully realize their privilege. For example, because of our philanthropy, my family had huge social clout and access to major thinkers. (We gave a lot of money to charity if you looked at the flat numbers, but to us, it was a negligible percentage of our total wealth.) A cousin once said to me: “We volunteer our time and money to help people. There are no privileges involved.” She had just met with a major leader of an important country to discuss poverty. She had never done anything groundbreaking herself; she was there because her expertise is that she was born wealthy. But she believed she was there because she was a philanthropic leader.

The inability to recognize privilege is also linked to people’s internal states. Wealth has everything to do with power, access, and comfort, and nothing to do with happiness, so the issue with understanding privilege is not only about politics, though politics are at its core. The issue is also innately about personal psychology. I know someone who was emotionally abused by her parents. She’s a multimillionaire, but wealth is not a match for her internal lived experience. Intellectually, she knows that she’s rich, but because she comes from misery, she does not think of herself as privileged and abundant.

Part of what helped me understand my privilege was that, as a teenager, I started going to radical rich-kid gatherings. It was political rich-kid therapy, and we would talk about what privilege meant to us, how to use it, whether or not we could employ our privileges toward social change. We were all white. This was over 20 years ago and we hardly touched on issues related to race. The truth is we did not have any meaningful relationships with Black people — even though most of us had been raised, in part, by Black women.

For me, this was one of the most special people in my life. But there’s this very fucked-up, weird dynamic where, when you’re with other wealthy white people, even the most progressive, the truth and meaning of those formative, fraught relationships is almost never a topic of conversation. Since that initial, if flawed, radical awakening, I have tried to broaden my viewpoint and to learn more, to be better, and do better. But I have never figured out how to strike the perfect balance.

I struggle with a radical progressive hope for the future and my current desire for pleasure. I know that I won the lottery in a profoundly unfair system. I live off of a trust, which I have because our tax laws are crafted to benefit the 1%, who can create enormous wealth in their lifetime and pass on the majority of that wealth without penalty to their offspring. My every pleasure is tethered to a deeply inequitable, disjointed system tilted toward the wealthy.

The truth is we did not have any meaningful relationships with Black people — even though most of us had been raised, in part, by Black women.

But you don’t see me giving it all away and living simply. I stopped believing in the fallacy that wealth is connected to worth, but I kept the money. I do know one wealthy person with my politics who gave it all away and didn’t regret it. But I wonder whether the people he’s denying himself in the name of — the working class and poor folks of this country — would look at him and say, “This person’s insane, because if I had what they had, I would have the best time ever.” So yes, I kept the money. I wanted to live a fun life and provide for my loved ones, and, frankly, I don’t know another way to live. I’ve never tried.

I give a large amount annually, anonymously, and my will is designed to leave everything to nonprofits. The question is: Do I suffer for it? Do I forego one single thing? No. The level of charitable giving I would have to do to give up something in my daily life would be immense. So why don’t I do that, then? Why not sacrifice? I would push the question back to everyone who is comfortable financially. Once we go down this rabbit hole, it gets tricky. The answer you hear most of the time is: “I want my kids to live as well as I live.” I don’t have children, so for me, it’s more basic. The rock bottom answer to why I don’t give up more money and live less well is that I don’t want to.

Instead, I vote to pay higher taxes — against my own interests, some would say. I believe I should be mandated to pay, not asked to make that decision out of the goodness of my heart. A while back, Bernie Sanders was getting criticism from the right because he was a millionaire from his book sales. At a town hall, Fox News noted that Sanders hadn’t given most of his money away to charity. Sanders said, and I’ll paraphrase: “You’re damn right. That’s why I need to be taxed.”

He won’t give most of it away. Neither will I. Chances are, almost no one will. I know from experience that what is mandated by the government is more effective than what is morally encouraged. The public good shouldn’t be dependent on the individual psychology of the 1%. We are no more well-adjusted, contented, or self-aware than anyone else in the population. You could make the argument that we are less.

Author, journalist. Nosy by nature.

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