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

Justine van der Leun
Published in
6 min readAug 12, 2020

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Photo illustration. Source: DebraLee Wiseberg/Getty Images

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.

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