Michelle Singletary is an author and award-winning personal finance columnist. She writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column “The Color of Money”, which appears in The Washington Post. She is a frequent contributor to various radio programs and has appeared on national talk shows and television networks.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- That the joy of this pandemic could be a lasting effect on people reaching out and helping their neighbors; that people tend to rise to the occasion in emergencies and realize that we are all in this together.
- That on a financial level, the pandemic has revealed the minimal possessions we really need and that human contact is what we’re craving.
- That we need to resist the urge to narrow down to single sources of news and instead keep our minds open to other points of view.
- That none of us are successful if our neighbors remain in poverty.
- That there are ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma for Black Americans, in addition to microaggressions, redlining, discrimination in hiring, and more.
- That you need to align your finances and resources to what you truly value.
Connect with Michelle
I’m hoping that what good will happen is that that memory muscle of what it was like in the pandemic will stick with us and we will continue to help our neighbors.
So hello, Michelle, and thanks for joining me for What Could Possibly Go Right? And you know, this is certainly the year to forget, right? People talk about the year to remember but this one has been so hard, that issues that have been simmering on the backburner are now frontburner. Whether it’s the wealth and race opportunity gap yawning wider; our healthcare system, which Americans think is the best in the world, is having some of the worst outcomes on the pandemic; our centuries of pouring carbon into the atmosphere is now raining back down on us as storms and fires. In this context, I am asking people I respect, that I look to for wisdom, my core question of: With all that’s going wrong, what could possibly go right? I want to give you an opportunity here, which you can take or not. We all know you as a wonderful financial columnist. Some people know that you have a financial ministry at your church, an awesome financial ministry, that you help people in prisons. So you have all of that behind you. But you don’t have to use any of that. Because basically, you have developed over a lifetime a capacity to look into the multiplicity of circumstance and come up with something to say. So in that context, what could possibly go right?
You know, as I look at the past year, and the pandemic and all the horrible things that have happened, what can go right is that people do tend to rise to the occasion when things like this happen. I’m so overjoyed at the people who have stepped up to help their neighbors and their friends. And consistently this has been, oftentimes when there’s a disaster or a hurricane or something like that, it hits, it’s horrible for a couple weeks, and then it’s gone and we all kind of go back to our lives. If I can say this, and it sounds outrageous, but the joy of this pandemic is that it has a lasting effect on people reaching out and helping. I think it was always there. But we were so busy living our busy lives, that we didn’t have time to say, Who can I help? I’m okay, I need to help someone else. And for me, what could go right is that it brings people back to the fact that you are your brother’s and your sister’s keeper. And that it is a long haul, it is not a one disaster kind of thing. I hope that that’s what happens with this pandemic, that we realize that the people who need help year long. So you know, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, people donate gifts and turkeys and things like that. People are hungry 365 days a year. Now we understand the sustainability of helping each other.
And the other thing that I think can go right is that finally, we realize that we are all in this together. We, especially in America, we are trained that it’s you, it’s your hard work, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. So if you’re successful, it was all about you. Well, none of us are successful if our neighbors and the people down the street and in the neighborhood we don’t even drive through, are not successful, are not able to have a standard of living that doesn’t dive them into poverty. I think that pandemic opened that door. I’m a woman of faith, I’ll put it this way. I believe that God said, I need to pause all of you, because you all are not thinking about each other. The epidemic, instituted a pause for all of us. If I can take it to a financial level, we’re so busy spending and running around and we got to have this and our kids got to have that. This pandemic has shown us the minimum of which we need. We don’t need all those clothes, your kids don’t need to go to all those birthday parties. You don’t even need a vacation. What do we crave right now is comfort. What we crave is to be able to put our arms around somebody that we love and respect. And that’s what good could happen from this, if that memory muscle stays after this is over because this too shall pass. But I’m hoping that what good will happen is that that memory muscle of what it was like the pandemic will stick with us, and we will continue to help our neighbors. We will continue to pay somebody rent who’s struggling. We continue to send people things when they don’t even ask for it, that our donation stays the same level, that we feed people all year round, not just Thanksgiving and Christmas. I think that’s what good could happen.
I would agree with you, 1,000%. And when the pandemic hit, that is absolutely how I felt. It’s just like every day, how can I help? How can I help? I’ve still got my feelers out there. But it’s also what is intruded in this time is basically that horrible election and post-election period. So there’s a revelation, up from the bowels of our consciousness about how not together we are, how polarized. In your experience, in your church or your work, I’m sure you encounter people of almost like both faiths, faiths in different news media, different news anchors, you know? I mean, in terms of what we put our faith in, in this society, it could not be more split, it could not be more together. So what do you see? Do you actually see that there’s two currents, like one that’s pulling us together and one that’s pulling us apart? And what do you notice in that sort of crosscurrent there?
Well, we were so polarized before the pandemic, even before the last administration was in there. We were already heading in that direction, where we only get one source of news and we listen to people who believe what we believe. Our minds are not open to other points of view. I’m an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, and so people will write to me and say, Well, I’m not going to read you anymore, because I said something that they didn’t like, or I said something about the Trump administration. I said, listen, that’s not what you should do. I want to be open to all points of view, I lean conservative. I’m actually a conservative in a lot of respects, liberal in other respects. You don’t have to be one thing. I think that’s where we went wrong. We’re all in our little isolated world and isolated neighborhoods, reading only opinions that concur with ours. We don’t open up our minds and our heart to other people.
I’m a Baptist. But you know, I go to Catholic churches. There’s something about Buddhism that is very appealing to me. You have to be open, you don’t have to believe necessarily, but you at least have to be open. I think what happened with the politics is that people just shut down, I don’t want to hear anything you have to say about that other person. On both sides. I think that’s just a horrible way to live. And you know what else that does? It closes the door to empathy and compassion. And because someone over there does something that you wouldn’t do, you don’t have compassion for them. But when you’re in the field, and you know this, because you are writing about finance, you know people make a ton of mistakes when it comes to their finances. Some of people make the mistakes and they never knew the right way to do something, and some people know the right way and they still make mistakes. But you still have to say, okay, you made that mistake, let’s see how we can do something different going forward. And that’s what we have to do in our financial lives and our political lives.
When we kind of go off to a corner and say that person up there is horrible and bad, that’s when we get this clash, which is what happened on the Capitol, you know? Lies collided with the truth, to produce this horrible event. And, you know, when Trump was elected, a lot of people talked about people who had voted for him. I was one of the people who was like, we shouldn’t really call them the deplorables or they are racist, or so, because they were hurting. They have a certain kind of pain that some of us don’t resonate, doesn’t resonate with us. Many of them are struggling financially. Now, they followed someone who was a liar, and didn’t really have their interests at heart. But when you are struggling, and you feel like this system has shut you out, then you reach sometimes for a leader who tells you things that you want to believe.
So I’m still very concerned about the polarization of the US; not just in America, in other countries as well. It astonishes me you could be from the same culture, you look the same. It’s not like in America, we’ve got Black and others… I mean, and then you have class systems. I mean, what is that about? That is just ridiculous. We are all human beings. I have this question. I don’t know if I always get it right. But you know, the tide lifts all boats. Why don’t we see that, that when someone else is risen or raised up, we all get lifted? That’s the politics that we have today, that doesn’t see it that way. It’s almost as if everybody believes there’s one pie, and if I don’t get a slice of that pie, and somebody else gets a slice, or maybe it’s even bigger than your slice, there’s something wrong with that. It just pains me to see how we deal with that. Maybe I have a different sensibility. I’m the parent of three children, and I always remember when we were slicing up a pie or whatever. One of the kids will say, Well, their piece is bigger than mine. You know, as a parent, you go, You know, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s also how you are looking at it, but you still have a piece of the pie. And maybe this kid needs more, this person needs more than you have. So my hope is that going forward, that this pandemic exposed the haves and the haves-not, that it was such a great divide, that we need to close that divide more than we were willing to in the past.
I almost feel like saying, Preach, sister! Because really this is the gospel of, it’s almost like the gospel of the golden rule, the gospel of fairness. And we all fall by the wayside. So I do have a question for you, and I’m sensitized to my blindness on racial issues, and I’m afraid I’m going to stumble into saying something right now that has already been proven to be racist, but since we’re friends… So to me, it seems like in the United States, we’re sort of this layer cake of immigrants, and that the layers have stayed, that there’s first, of course, the indigenous people who were here long before anybody. But when the settlers came, it was the white European settlers, and then there’s the Jews, the Irish. And as long as the more recent immigrants felt that they were superior to the Black people, they could actually feel that they’re part of the story of the rise. So, it seems to me that racial hatred has been stoked to set, what are fundamentally people who are promised the middle class and they’re sliding into the lower class, to set them against one another, to keep the dominant story of money going. So it’s almost where the problem is constructed is we can’t seem to talk about economic fairness, without this squabbling over a limited pie. Are you hearing the same problems or narratives in the Black community around personal finance as you hear from people who are in the working class who are sliding down the slide? Are you hearing the same problems in both? And could you imagine that this was not so much a race issue as class issue? I mean, could America ever get there?
Well, I have to tell you, I did hope and pray that America would get here before now. I recently wrote a 10 part series for The Washington Post called Sincerely Michelle, covering race and money. I wanted to talk about redlining and discrimination in hiring and credit scoring. Some of the letters I received, I knew I’d get the racist emails, I knew it. I mean, it’s just who we are in America. The ones that broke my heart were people, I’ll be frank, who were more educated. You know, college professors and upper income managers, people who I feel should know better. So the issue of race and those layers that you talk about, is that African Americans are still at the bottom of that layered cake. People don’t understand why we’re still at the bottom, so the people who come in later, and who have succeeded to reach a middle income status – although that’s pretty tenuous now, because the one percenters have made darn sure that their piece of the pie, if we use that analogy, is they’ve got almost all the pie and everybody else got this small, little wedge. They have done wonderfully in keeping that pie by legislation, by lobbying. Look at our Congress, it’s one of the wealthiest Congress, and when you have money, you come from money, and you don’t know what it’s like to be hungry. You can’t appreciate what it’s like.
So, they come in, the later immigrants, and they feel like, Well, why can’t those Black people rise up like we did? There’s a key difference, which people still in America don’t want to accept. We talk about slavery. The first thing on their mouth is, That’s so long ago. Except that it is not that long ago, when you look at it by generation. I always joke I look like I’m 29. But I’m actually old enough to have been born before my people had the right to vote, before we had a right to live where we wanted to live. In my lifetime. So that’s not so long ago for me. My grandmother’s grandparents were slaves. They were enslaved. And my grandmother told me stories about what that was like. A lot of her financial fears came from being the grandchild of enslaved individuals, that mentality. What slavery did, it just didn’t chain people up. Basically, it chained their minds, their ability to succeed, because to succeed as an African American, right up into the late 1970s, could mean your death.
So when you enslave people’s mind that they shouldn’t have certain things, because if they try, their physical being, their family’s welfare, would be a jeopardy. Imagine what that’s like? So I try to tell people, imagine when you grew up in a home where there’s an abuse, and those children are going to suffer from that, and their children are going to suffer from that, unless the family gets therapy. So, those millions of people that were enslaved, Black people didn’t get therapy. We didn’t get what it took to get out of an enslaved mind. You cannot compare the life history and strive to achieve of African Americans to white European immigrants. You didn’t come here enslaved. You weren’t enslaved. Your families weren’t separated and sold off, and actually prevented from learning to read. It’s not the same experience.
We’re often compared to Asians, who have done quite well financially, although they’re discriminated in different ways now, also because of the virus. Except they were now sort of accepted as being better. So their opportunities increase, where African Americans are still seen as less than. If you walk into the door of a company as an African American, you are right away seen as an affirmative action hire, an affirmative action hire who is less than. So you have to fight to prove yourself the moment you walk in the door, whereas an Asian or Italian or from another background does not have to do that. Right? You have to prove you’re bad, as opposed to prove you’re good. So the race relations in America will not get better until America accepts that the legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow still lives with us. Studies continue to show that when you send it two job applicants with almost the identical resume, the white candidates will get callbacks, the Black candidates will not. That’s today, in 2021.
So that’s what I write about in that series and can you imagine is that people are still dealing with that? My husband and I are very educated, we both have advanced degrees, our children are all in college, and they will have advanced degrees, and yet we are still discriminated against. So the idea that if we just value education more… well, how much more can I value education? I’ve got an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree. My husband has an MBA, an undergraduate. My daughter has a master’s degree. We believe in education!
Yeah, so back to our right now, the impact of all that’s falling apart. What do you see? Do you see anything emerging on this breaking the back of the hidden story of race in our country? Do you see glimmers of hope and positivity? Do you see alliances happening that haven’t happened before? What do you from this experience? And I’m not asking for positivity. I’m asking what do you actually see that may be a sea change. Maybe it’s just a little sea change, but it could be a sea change.
I am very encouraged. When you saw the Black Lives Matter marches, it wasn’t just Black people marching. It was reminiscent of the civil rights movement. When I see young white adults marching and older and you know, that video of that elderly man who they sort of knocked down to the ground, a white guy walking and marching; I do see glimmers of hope. When I wrote the series, in addition to all the hate and crazy mail I got, overwhelmingly I had letters from people who said, I did not understand the depth of what happened to you all as a people. People feeling like, I participated in this and I didn’t even realize what I was doing.
I got a letter from when I wrote about microaggressions. So microaggressions are a little small things that people do. They often mean well, but it’s racist. When they say things like, Oh, you speak so well. Why wouldn’t I speak well? I got two degrees. So that’s a microaggression. It happens so often, that oftentimes in the US we don’t talk about it, because if I just said that, that someone said I speak so well. Well, what’s wrong with that? That was a compliment? But if you hear it 100 times, 100 times in your lifetime, it is not a compliment.
So I wrote about, for example, my husband was playing with our children in a pool in Florida. We were among other families, but we were one of the few Black families at the pool side of this resort. This white guy got up from his chair, made his way all the way to my husband in the pool and said, I’m so proud of you playing with your children. I could hear him, I was close enough to hear him. And I looked at my husband, and my husband knows me, and he just was like, Oh, don’t go there, we’re on vacation. You know, so people said, Well, what’s wrong with that? Well, because dads were around my husband playing with their children. He didn’t feel like he had to tell them, I’m proud of you playing with your children. It’s perfectly normal and natural for my husband to be playing. He doesn’t need any congratulations for that.
So when I wrote that, this elderly woman who works in a museum in the Washington DC area, I think she was 81. She said, “I work in a museum, and on Saturdays, oftentimes, there are lots of dads with their kids, white and Black.” She said, “I never realized until you wrote that column that I only, or the majority of the time, the vast majority of time compliment Black fathers for being at the museum with their children.” She said, “I’d never realized the message I was sending to them, because she said, I can tell you, I probably never said that to a white father. I’m so glad you opened up my eyes, and I just want to go apologize to all of them for thinking that they were doing something great and extraordinary when it’s very ordinary, for you all to love your children just as much as we love our children, and to take them to the museum.”
So that’s the glimmer of hope that someone who’s in their 80s, who clearly would have gone through Jim Crow and understood that, would at that age, can still now see the weight of this being called racism in America, and how her actions contributed to it without her really even knowing that that’s what was happening. So yeah, I definitely got depressed when I wrote that series, and I cried a lot from the things that people wrote. But I also cried in joy from the things that people wrote, who said, I get it now. I wrote a column about reparations and that’s a hard topic. But when I got loads of people like: You know what, I never thought of it as that, that they stole stuff from us, and when you told your personal family stories in that context, I get it now. And that gave me some hope.
Wow. I agree with you on this one. I call it the sewer rats, the rats are up out of the sewer, under the stress of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd and the terrible election and the militia. The pressure of all of that on the maybe undeserved positive self-regard that white people have, because they’ve been blind, and also white middle class or privileged people. It’s so hard, it’s like pulling the bandage off, it pulls the hair out…
I understand why they’re blind, because think about our own personal lives. You’re just trying to make do for you and your family. I’m not mad at them. I just want their eyes to be open and be open to what you don’t know. Because the KKK and extreme racists, they gonna be like that. They’ve always been there. We can’t change their minds. They’re just evil. But there’s a whole swath of people in the country who just need to come out of their own cocoon, because what they see is, My parents didn’t have much and we scraped and sent me to school, and why can’t you do the same? Well, in your world, you could walk down the street and not be threatened with being lynched. In your world, you are not constantly thought of as less than. In your world, you don’t have to worry about your son, your white son, where I have to be worried about my Black son.
So if we could just open that door a little so you can come out of your world and your cocoon, then once that happens, I find that people do understand the struggle. But I got to get you out of that cocoon. You need to read, you need to go to book signings about people who don’t look like you., don’t just rely on the hype that you see in the media. I’m part of the media, but oftentimes, the way we portray is one way, right? You know, Black guys with their pants down, with the underwear showing. But we’re such a diverse community, of people who are like that, and people of middle class and upper class, and I call it tribal and non tribal, and we’re just like you! So I think that is a struggle to get people out of the cocoon, so that you understand. I mean, all of us need to do that, right? I mean, we need to know more about so much of other people, Native Americans and people with different sexual orientations; I mean, all of that. We will become such better people, if we just come out of our cocoon and expand our world.
Yeah, thank you. I think this is a wrap. And one of the things I want to say having listened to you, is that people don’t talk about it much, but maybe this is a time of learning empathy. You’re known for teaching about finance, but what I really hear you teaching about is empathy, and honestly, Christian love. So thanks, Michelle.
You’re welcome. That’s really what it is about, actually, people reduce financial literacy to the numbers. But you know what? It’s really so much more, which is what your book “Your Money or Your Life” is completely about, which is what I adored about that book. There are numbers in there, but it’s like, Look, we only have a certain amount of time on this life, and you only have a certain amount of hours in a day. You got to put your finances and your resources to what you truly, truly value. You got to figure out what you truly, truly value and then put your money on there, because all this other stuff that you have is not gonna mean anything. It’s gonna rust, it’s gonna go away.
I think that’s for me what financial literacy is about. All of us, no matter what kind of money you earn. If you want to be a teacher, it’s gonna be right where that teacher salary is, right? So, okay, how do you live a good life with just that? Not pine for more, or do things to elevate you to a different level that you can’t afford? That’s really what it’s about. What are you spending your time on? So I never tell kids, this whole push for entrepreneurship and, Oh, you got to be in the STEM. But that is to me, not what you should be doing. There’s some kids who are absolutely gifted in science and tech and engineering and math, and that’s what they should be. But not every kid should be doing that. You got to respect those other areas. So let’s teach you how to live on that salary, in the area where your gifting is. We need bus drivers, we need teachers, we need social workers, we need people in all areas of our life. That’s kind of where I come from, like, Tell me what you want to do. Let me help you sort of manage where you’re going to be. Because you got to live a life that gonna be more than just stuff. Like I said, the pandemic has just shown us that we could get rid of 90% of the stuff that we spend money on and be just as happy.
Right, exactly. Thank you so much.
You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.
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