Saturday, December 1, 2007

rationalizing your way to a fortune

I don't like to blog about harvard TOO much, because i don't like to remember harvard too much. but since the black community lists don't seem to be taking up the issue, i feel like i have to put it SOMEWHERE on the internet...

here's what happened: the Harvard Crimson ran a 3-part series entitled "Living by Harvard's Rules." The series is a focus on now-senior Bryan C. Barnhill, an active member of the black community, and soon-to-be i-banker (or perhaps consultant). I'll do my best to make my summary quick, since 3 articles is a lot to get mad about:

basically the articles are broken down like this:
article 1 talks about how Bryan came from a very poor neighborhood in detroit. harvard gets a quick shout-out for being so financially diverse (can you believe that 1 in every 4 students comes from a family making less than $80,000 a year? wow, i feel normal already!) the article talks about how Barnhill, and many others, feel disoriented when they arrive at harvard. Bryan makes a decision to drop the do-rag and baggy pants, and take up a collared shirt.

article 2: barnhill finally finds a feeling of inclusion in the Harvard Spee (for those who don't know, the spee, and other final clubs are kind of like frats. except way more steeped in racism, sexism, and classism). he doesn't feel tokenized, even though he sometimes can't afford to hang out with the rest of his "brothers." his parents, when they visited, were impressed by the spee's rich history (of rich white men). article 2 ends by noting that people from bryan's neighborhood are not jealous of his success, they're proud.

article 3 (my favorite): is about how bryan came to harvard with a desire to change the world. to "dismantle capitalism," even. but he soon realized that doing good is for crazy people. no, more to the point, its only for rich people apparently. barnhill felt "hoodwinked" by campus liberals who told him he didn't have to be an i-banker. "they didn't seem concerned about their wallets," he said. but bryan (unlike the rest of us) has responsibilities back home. he needs to be able to help his family out, to take them on vacations, to help his brother go to college. for that, he needs i-banking. and he hopes to give back to his community first by becoming a personal success, and then sharing the wealth.

ok, so not a super-short summary. sorry. ANYWAYS, since you know i love bullet points, here are my concerns. and i'd like to note, first, that i'm sorry in advance if any of this comes off as mean. i know bryan, and i like him. but i heartily disagree with his point of view on this matter, and i'm offended that he agreed to let this story be published about him. here goes:

- the most offensive part of this to me was the part where he implies that those of us who go into public sector work do it because we don't need money as much as he does, because our families don't need us, or because we're just rich. if someone could please tell that to my checkbook, that would be great. because i don't see the riches he's implying. i do see a salary i can survive on, and even save a bit to help out family members who might need it, but no - the harvard mantra is to never settle for "fine" when you could be making 80,000 or more a year. like yes, obviously i-banking pays better than public interest. no duh. but i am SO offended by the implication that public interest careers are a privilege that people from working-class backgrounds can't afford. if you really want to help out your community, why don't you go teach their children? no salary in the world is so high that it's going to lift your old community out of poverty, so dont kid yourself into thinking you're "giving back," when you're just "giving a bit." and don't kid yourself into thinking you're doing this for someone else, when you're doing it for yourself. (and like i said, not to be mean. this isn't me yelling at bryan, its me yelling at every single harvard student who uses the same rationalization i'm seeing in this article).

- the article is right, harvard is NOT very welcoming if you don't come from money. joining a final club will not make it more welcoming. sure, you'll have friends. and maybe they really aren't tokenizing you, although i doubt it. but how in the world does that make the situation better for anyone else? again, don't kid yourself into thinking its about someone other than yourself.

i could go on for days, but then you would stop reading. so, in conclusion: this article is a shocking example of the entire reason i was constantly angry when i was at harvard. what bothers me most is a) that its about a member of the black community, and b) that NO ONE IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY IS TALKING ABOUT IT. seriously, for those of you reading this, what the fuck? are you scared people won't like you anymore if you disagree with one of the 'popular' kids in the black community? do you all just agree? or is this just not an issue anyone is even interested in?

this is one of those times i'm so glad to have graduated. even if it does mean having to live in the "real world" on a less than phenomenal public interest salary.


natasha said...

Hey Kaya- In response to your post, I would like to make a point that often (and in this exact case) there is a discrepancy between what an interview says and the ways an interviewer portrays them. Beyond inaccurate quotes that were attributed to Bryan in the article, there was also a deliberate attempt on behalf of the writer to "pick and choose" what parts of his story she wanted to include- oversimplifying his experiences and in many ways his life story, to fit a simple narrative that fit her *own* and many other Harvard people's already preconceived notions about the story of a ghetto kid who comes to Harvard.
I don't think its necessary to imply that anyone is "afraid" to disagree with a "popular" kid- that's somewhat disrespectful in my opinion for you to portray the situation that way.

kaya said...

natasha! i'm glad you commented, and hope you read this. i definitely know the crimson has a tendency to do what they want, which is why i tried to make a point of saying that this post isnt about bryan in particular, its about that general mentality, that has definitely been expressed by a large number of people both within the black community at harvard and with harvard at large. i do still wonder why no one is talking about it, though. and i do think a certain part of that reluctance might be reluctance to say something when they know it will be interpreted as a personal attack by many people.

Brittany said...

Okay so I haven't finished reading this because I'm about to come meet you to go to a movie (yay! also I'm late.. sorry) but woo child...

wannatakethisoutside said...

I have been struggling with a related issue recently which is that at my school, people in the public interest/nonprofit/whatever you want to go it field often just give each other knowing looks, or roll their eyes, or otherwise ignore it when folks who are going to be making a ton of money talk about how public interest work means you will "have no money" or "not be able to feed your family."

We let them control the conversation by remaining silent and letting them continue to claim that anything less than $80,000 a year is "no money" or makes you "poor." Somehow they think that we graduate and are suddenly entitled to immediately live without roommates in some of the country's most expensive cities, and still have money to be out at fancy clubs every night.

I know that there are class, race, community, and family decisions involved in going into public interest versus big-money work and I think that folks face a complicated set of decisions and mostly I wouldn't second-guess people's decisions. But it makes it harder for people to make clear decisions when as a community we tolerate hyperbole that teaches people they "can't survive" on 40 or 50k per year.

There's a side issue at Harvard that everyone living on campus for all four years means that some people graduate without a clue of how to do basic things like cook, buy groceries, make a budget, or do basic chores. It certainly is harder to make a public interest salary and eat out all the time.

And that's my related and yet somewhat off-topic rant.

Ily said...

Hiya, directed here from Quench :-)
It's funny because for everyone at my college-- rich, poor, or in the middle-- non-profit sector was the ideal career goal of choice. We were all resigned to being poor and I often joked about living in a cardboard box-- with my BA from my prestigious liberal arts school in tow, of course. Maybe this attitude is healthier, but it's never helped me much, and think it's still too extreme. Does anyone go to a school that fosters midrange and healthy attitudes about money/earnings?
I can't say much more, because I'm not familiar with Harvard at all. But, you bring up some really interesting issues.

bygpowis said...

seems we have the same tastes in book. come by and watch me tell young brothas how much i love james baldwin. visit, look and let me know what you think.

emily2 said...

this bryan guy is really mature.

although some may disagree, i do agree with his sentiment that you have to help yourself before you can offer anything to others. the first thing flight attendants tell you to do is to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then on others who depend on you. in order to give, you have to be on a solid foundation yourself.

chasing money may seem crass, but with money comes options and influence. if you're a minority, it's even more important to do well. you have to do better than the average white person. (yes, i'm a minority.)

i have also seen how people from working class backgrounds struggle when they are shouldering absolutely sick amounts of debt while working public service jobs. their hearts are in the right place, but not their brains. it may seem unfair, but you gotta do what you gotta do. work a high paying job, pay off those loans, and get yourself a retirement account / some assets. the more you have, the more you can give back. just don't forget to give back!

plus, i think more minorities should join final clubs. that way, the built in networking system becomes open to those that are traditionally foreclosed from it, and additionally, the other members are exposed to different types of people. bridge gaps and all that.

(full disclosure: i used to be one of those twits who thought that taking a high paying job was "selling out" and joining something like a final club was "lame" and automatically makes you an asshole.

the 32 year old me is a lot different from the 22 year old me, and the 22 year old me would probably hate the 32 year old me.)

anyway, i don't know bryan, but it looks like he's on his way to something huge. more power to him.

deborah ho said...

i think emily2's comment is one of the saddest things i've read, and exactly why our generation is seen as the apathetic one--are we all doomed to a future self in which we all eventually just give in and write off our idealistic values as just that, youthful idealism? and having minorities join final clubs? THAT is idealism. what about GIRLS?!?! biggest minority ever. and we all know that will never happen...

emily2 said...

sorry to be so blunt. i'm rereading my post, and realize it could be interpreted as being offensive, and i often forget i'm writing to those much younger than myself. i really don't mean to sound like such a turd, but i really wish someone had told me about creating a safety net for myself before following my dreams. (okay, my parents did, but i thought they were being fascists when they told me i had to find a sensible profession first, have some money in the bank, and then follow my dreams. back then, age 30 felt so far away. now it's behind me.)

long story short... capitalism isn't going away (nor is the "patriarchy" or whatever liberal arts folks call it), and we're just going to have to live with that reality. sorry.

so, taking on the institution from within isn't being apathetic, it's being practical. when you lift yourself up through channels that already exist to a position of power, you are, in turn, able to lift others up through those channels. the point is not to forget to lift other people up. get it?


*throws hands up in frustration*

(p.s. there are plenty of female social clubs at harvard now. the system isn't terribly egalitarian, but hopefully, the girls will use those channels to lift each other up just like to boys. or one can hope.)

Brittany said...

I like how emily2 said "turd."

Brittany said...

Also you can lift yourself up and be successful in networks other than Finals clubs, I think that if you think a network is problematic it's just acceptable to join a different one as it is to try to change it "from the inside." And also capitalism can and probably will go away, but maybe not in our lifetimes.

emily2 said...

Also you can lift yourself up and be successful in networks other than Finals clubs, I think that if you think a network is problematic it's just acceptable to join a different one as it is to try to change it "from the inside." And also capitalism can and probably will go away, but maybe not in our lifetimes.

yes, i agree (except the capitalism part - i think people are inherently too competitive for it to go away, but that's another discussion for another time). the only reason i mentioned final clubs was because the article #2 mentioned them. there are plenty of other networks one can join, of course. final clubs are not the end all be all... far from it.

anyway, certain institutions have a name recognition that, for better or worse, command respect from the general public and people who hold positions of power. we all went to harvard, so we all know about credentialism whether we'd like to ignore it or not. anyway, investment banking is a power profession that also guarantees you lots of money.

once a person becomes affluent and well-connected, such a person can use that money for good, like starting a scholarship. (or, if you're super duper wealthy like oprah, start a school.) you can also open doors for for others like yourself just by being in a position of influence. by being successful, you show others that they can do it too. you can be a mentor, and your mentee will actually listen to you. you can influence the political process. hell, you can run for president.

i'd like to quote from article 3:

His sophomore year, Barnhill read “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” a book about the black elite’s yachting clubs and the cotillions they held for their debutante daughters. Barnhill was shocked.

“I find out that there was this society underneath my nose the whole time,” he says. “Where have those people been all these years? Why haven’t they helped? Why haven’t they been there?”

Barnhill is determined to be there. He wants to help change his neighborhood—jump-start Detroit out of its economic malaise.

He doesn’t plan to live in his childhood neighborhood; it’s not a safe place to raise kids. That doesn’t mean he wants his daughters to go to cotillions.

He thinks the polish and contacts Harvard and the business world will give him will help him accomplish the revolution he’s been dreaming of most of his life.

see what i'm getting at? his heart is in the right place, and so is his brain.

kaya said...

ok so first, i'm glad to get some discussion about this. we're all about having people disagree in a civilized manner. :)

that said, i at least am also all about disagreeing back. so here goes, emily2:

of course capitalism and "the patriarchy" aren't going anywhere if everyone thinks, "well, they're not going anywhere." thats sort of a ridiculous thing to say. like if you're saying you LIKE capitalism and the patriarchy, and are ok living within that system, then fine, but if you are not ok with that, i don't think its unreasonable to say that you should not work within it. of course one can work within the capitalist system, create a "safety net," and help a certain amount of others, but one cannot work within the capitalist system and actually change the systems of racism and poverty that plague the black community. so if thats what you're trying to do, no, ibanking will not help. if you're trying to help a few select people and maybe make a sweet life for yourself while you're at it, then yes it will. i'm just saying thats not what i want, and i hope i'm not alone in that.

wannatakethisoutside said...

Emily2 -

My concern is only this. The number of folks I see now in my age bracket going to get some for themselves and "come back" for others later is way way way higher than the number of people (or by percentages, or whatever) in the next couple age brackets - say ten or twenty years older than me - who are actually coming back to help now that they've made theirs.

From what I've heard from people in that age bracket who did come back, these folks had just as committed words when they were my age.

There is something about capitalism which makes you addicted to having, or forget your values, or something. I don't know what it is but I just know that such a small proportion of people that start out with a plan to "come back" actually do. Do you have thoughts or ideas for ways that you plan to combat what must be some kind of pressure to never come back?

This is aside from my concern that on a personal level, I feel like with all the years I've spent getting an education, I've already gone to "have mine" and it's not fair for me to put myself first and "get mine" anymore because it's not just mien to get. But that's just on a personal level.

emily2 said...

of course one can work within the capitalist system, create a "safety net," and help a certain amount of others, but one cannot work within the capitalist system and actually change the systems of racism and poverty that plague the black community.

i think this is one point where we disagree. or actually... perhaps there is a slight distinction i'd like to make. one can use the capitalist system to get to a point where one has enough capital (both in terms of finance and influence) to make a difference. as much as we'd like to believe that we live in an egalitarian society, we don't. the ones who hold the purse strings have more social, political, and economic influence.

but let's talk about "working outside of the capitalist system." let's say you work for a 501(c) or some other type of non-profit. when you work with a non-profit, you ask for donations. why? because the non-profit, despite being "not for profit", still needs money to do its good. the non-profit is an engine, and the donations of money oil the engine. without the oil, the engine ceases to run. so, even in the realm of non-profits, you have to pitch to people with money so that the non-profit will continue to run. so even non-profits are at the mercy of those with money. (and if you're lucky enough to work for a non-profit that has a huge foundation, you can bet that a capitalist funded that foundation.)

check out this piece on tim gill, a tech mogul (the founder of quark). if you don't have time to read it, he's a very rich gay man who used his money to start a foundation to elevate local gay-friendly politicians around the country to office. here's the tagline: "The software mogul Tim Gill has a mission: Stop the Rick Santorums of tomorrow before they get started. How a network of gay political donors is stealthily fighting sexual discrimination and reshaping American politics."

i've volunteered at the empire state pride agenda dinners (and other fundraisers for lgbt organizations), and let me tell you that they're ritzy affairs designed to attract glbts with money to plunk down hundreds of dollars a plate. and people actually show up in droves and plunk down hundreds of dollars a plate! same with the LeGaL dinners. large law firms buy entire tables for thousands of dollars. and these donations are what allows the non-profits to lobby the government for change. the more money, the more you can influence the government to do things like pass ENDA, fight the marriage amendment, etc.

so you can't get away from capitalism, even if you try to work outside of it.

(wow, now after reading about tim gill again i wish i had stayed at my investment banking job and chased the money instead of becoming idealistic about art and design four months into it. okay, no. that brief flash of regret is over.)

There is something about capitalism which makes you addicted to having, or forget your values, or something. I don't know what it is but I just know that such a small proportion of people that start out with a plan to "come back" actually do.

then that's the attitude we need to combat. :)

as to how i view capitalism... sometimes i think it's great (when i see competition breeding innovation), and sometimes i think it's terrible (usually when my private law school loans are due and i realize that i'll be indebted to some bank that passes itself off as a "non-profit" - YEAH RIGHT - for the rest of my life). ha. but when it comes down to it, i think it's the best system out there, in a "least of all evils" sort of way.

but really, private institutions and public institutions are the same thing to me. they're only as good as the people who run them. if all capitalists were also motivated by philanthropy as well, our society would benefit tremendously. i think we should try to work towards that ideal. keep reminding them of a time when they were idealistic. keep reminding them where they came from and how they have the power to do good. and if that fails, we could use a very powerful tool: shame. :D

emily2 said...

anyway, i'd like to conclude that last long post with this: if you're a member of a minority group, consider chasing the money. consider it a means to an end.

when i first graduated from college, i didn't see the big picture. i saw my i-banking job as a "crappy, soulless job that serves large crappy banks, and that's crappy." but i didn't see that it could lead to other things, like moving into private equity, which would provide the foundation to being an entrepreneur. and then sailing my own ship, so to speak. i didn't understand how capitalism tied into effecting political change. i didn't understand the power of money. i didn't understand very much when i was 22.

so, in short: IF YOU'RE A MEMBER OF A MINORITY GROUP, GET YOURS! then pull the people up.

Brittany said...

So pretty much people have lots of valid points. To emily2- you might not think this, but we do realize the ways in which capitalism is deeply ingrained not only into our society and economy, but our culture and conceptions of personhood. We don't deny this, we- as afropologists ;)- are just acknowledging that it is problematic, and urging ourselves and others to make even the feeblest of attempts at trying to conceive of societal structures that exist outside of a capitalist framework.

Yes, right now you have to work inside the structure to make an immediate difference, but what's wrong with us re-adjusting the ways in which we invision the future to include not only 20 years from now, but 80 to 100? Post-American slavery, trade and economics as the world new it were changed forever, but that was a change that was gradual.

Capitalism is not a perfect system when you look at it not only from a pure numbers standpoint but take into consideration lifestyles that people lead and put some value on human life (if it were we wouldn't have so many problems) but it's also a relatively new system, just as America is a relatively new country. So just saying that things are the way they're always going to be seems kind of silly to me because there's bound to be change, even if we are unable to understand the ways in which it will manifest itself.

Brittany said...

I'm pretty sure I misspelled "envision." Oh well. Them's the breaks!

emily2 said...

Yes, right now you have to work inside the structure to make an immediate difference, but what's wrong with us re-adjusting the ways in which we invision the future to include not only 20 years from now, but 80 to 100?

fair enough. excellent point.

Katie said...

Thanks for bringing this up, Kaya -- I've been really saddened to see the series in the Crimson, and a growing sense of radical individualism and entitlement among friends of mine at school. Not only do people believe in the "get yours and then give back" mentality (which, as wannatakethisoutside points out, is fairly unrealistic, as in, it doesn't happen in reality), but there's also this espousal of an even more bizarre attitude: "getting rich automatically makes people of color better off." Excuse me? Are we back in the days of racial uplift?

Fortunately, some folks are also trying to work on publicizing alternatives to extravagant corporate-capitalist post-grad jobs. I like ily's idea of sharing strategies across campuses, too. :)

Anyway, hope all's well with you two -- it's been a minute. Harvard misses you, even if you don't miss it.