When she said colorism, we heard wealth

A few days ago we woke up inspired. It was a chilly Sunday and the day before we’d reconnected with family, had a delicious meal at home and spent the evening discovering new music, courtesy of NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. We were in a soulful state of mind and wanted to stay there. So we did what any normal, grown-a$$ couple would do on a Sunday after brewing a fresh pot of French Roast. We let our son play with the new toys his Aunt bought him and we turned on Oprah.

To our surprise, Momma O had just launched an episode with Lupita Nyong’o and Cynthia Erivo on OWN TV. We’re big fans of Lupita’s work and even more fanatic of what her success means for the millions of people who see her on screens around the world. We’re admittedly not as familiar with Cynthia but knew she carried the distinction of bringing Harriet Tubman’s story to the silver screen, so we were looking forward to learning more about her.

The interview was filmed at Oprah’s home and would include conversations with Lupita (separately) and a brunch with all three women. It was just what we were looking for at the time; a simple sermon we could enjoy from the comfort of our couch in our fuzzy robes. It was forty minutes of funny, inspirational, heartbreaking and celebratory sisterhood.

Oprah’s chat with Lupita was first and began with them discussing her rise to stardom in recent years. They discussed how she handled the pressure of being in the public eye and her capacity to receive the word yes, in a world overflowing with no’s. They really leaned into Lupita’s speech at the 2014 Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. In particular, they focused on the snippets of a letter Lupita received and shared from a young dark-skinned girl. In that letter, the girl expresses that seeing Lupita influenced her to not lighten her skin.

Oprah asked Lupita about the story, the moment and what compelled her to share it in front of Black Hollywood’s elite. Lupita replied by sharing stories of her own challenges with feeling beautiful because of her complexion, how she learned [in part] about colorism by watching Oprah’s show and how it all motivated her to write her children’s book, Sulwe.

Watching these women admit to not feeling beautiful and how not being seen in the media played a role in their self image was powerful and heartbreaking. Oprah went on to say that she would’ve had a different opinion of herself” if she’d seen more celebrated images of dark-skinned women when she was growing up. Lupita then noted that Oprah’s glowingly positive reception of “Alex Wek”, a Sudanese supermodel, actually gave her the “possibility of seeing that beauty in herself“. It was the stamp of approval she needed to feel beautiful as she was.

Alek Wek
Listening to this conversation entranced us. While we knew they were talking about colorism, beauty standards and the power of media, we couldn't help but hear a conversation about wealth. Click To Tweet

They weren’t just talking about shades of brown and the diversity of skin tones. This was a conversation about the importance of representation and how it shapes the spectrum of possibilities for people.

We talk about money alot [obviously]. In many cases, when the conversation steers towards the financial struggles facing the Black community, we run into a handful of themes. One of the most common being the importance of financial literacy. The thought is, if people were simply taught these concepts, they’d make better decisions. But…

when you center the problem around financial literacy, financial education appears as the only logical solution. This approach wrongly assumes that when people know better, they do better. Click To Tweet

This is not to imply that financial education isn’t important or that financial educators aren’t valuable, but to highlight that financial decision making and success is a product of far more complex variables. Think about it. We don’t rely solely on sexual education as the sole solution to solving problematic sexual behaviors. No one [in their right mind] expects racism to be eradicated by offering books on multi-cultural history. So why do so many people believe education is the solution to solving financial struggle in the Black community?

We’ve long held the belief that to truly address the issues our community faces, we need to comprehensively address cultural and social norms, policy and systemic obstacles. This, in addition to financial education is key to creating real change. But there is another key we believe is powerful in shaping behaviors and that is the importance of role modeling.

When you’ve witnessed specific behaviors rewarded positively , you’re far more likely to interpret and model those behaviors than if you haven’t witnessed them.

So like Oprah, Lupita and millions of other people who struggle with self image, when you don’t see people that look like you being rewarded as their authentic selves, it shapes what is possible in your mind. The same is true for believing that you too can be rich someday.

When it comes to images of financial success, Black people have a dreadfully narrow set of images to draw from. Much like the conveying of specific images in beauty standards, these images send not-so subtle signals to people about what is possible for them and who they are allowed to be. On the contrary, our white brothers and sisters don’t have this obstacle to overcome.

Through the lens of the media, you can be a rich white guy that wears custom business suits, a regular joe that sports pleated khakis, a scruffy tech geek that sports a uniform tee or any myriad of identities in between. The message is clear, just pick one; any one because you’ll fit in anywhere. Whichever one you choose to adopt, none will restrict you from accessing capital, having your intelligence questioned or limit the likelihood that someone with power may lift you up saying “you remind me of myself when I was your age“.

But when you’re Black, the spectrum of images you see isn’t nearly as wide or varied. You are either the male high powered mogul archetype that is always dressed to the nines, the female, ferocious and fabulous version of that character, or the entertainer/athlete that is so rich they can basically afford to do whatever they want.

In Black America, there is no standard image of a regular Joe that is also rich. And considering 70% of Black households are led by female breadwinners, one could argue the image of regular JoAnna is far more important. Click To Tweet
Source: Essence Magazine, New Report On Black Women Reveals Triumphs, Challenges, March 2019 by Donna M. Owens

This observation is at the heart of why we decided to name this blog rich & REGULAR. We wanted to ensure those who saw us, knew they didn’t have to conform to the stock image of rich they see on screens or in print. We wanted to add some diversity to the spectrum of images that define Black wealth today. Most importantly, we wanted to demonstrate that Black wealth could exist apart from Black celebrity.

In recent weeks we’ve witnessed a handful of online conversations that have taken aim at the FIRE movement and whether or not the message is suited for Black people. Some have argued that race can’t be ignored due to the historical legacy of African Americans in the US. Others have argued the [FIRE] message is flat out irresponsible and several have pointed to the few brown exceptions to validate that FIRE is in fact possible, irrespective of one’s skin color.

It’s a complex and dare we say flammable [pun intended] conversation. One we don’t have the answer to. What we do know is that as one of the few Black people who have taken heed to the message, we feel an obligation to attract more. We get letters, notes and DMs from people all the time expressing that they wouldn’t have known about FIRE if it weren’t for us, that they attended FinCon or went to a Playing with FIRE screening because they’d hoped to meet us there in person.

Even if those people never actually achieve it or decide to pursue it, like Lupita, like the little girl that wrote her and like a young girl from Mississippi who went on to become one of the world’s richest women, they will know that it was an option available to them. That it was, in fact, possible.


  1. Just a great post. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about FIRE and how we present it to the world.

    “We don’t rely solely on sexual education as the sole solution to solving problematic sexual behaviors. No one [in their right mind] expects racism to be eradicated by offering books on multi-cultural history. So why do so many people believe education is the solution to solving financial struggle in the Black community?”

    I, too, am lukewarm on financial literacy. For one, there are some damning results from formal financial literacy education: one might look at these programs and conclude they simply do not help people. But as you said, relying solely on financial literacy to solve complex financial problems seems woefully naive.

  2. I grew up lower middle class, although I am not a person of color. What I remember vividly as a kid are three things.
    1) with the exception of my mom no one in my extended family cared about my education. In fact many actively discouraged it.
    2) the only successful definition I had were the docotors I occasionally encountered.
    3) while my family did encourage the you can be anything you want narrative, there was no guidance or input into how that might happen.

    I sometimes shudder to think where I’d be if you removed my mother’s positive influence on me and I’d just had that negative culture.

    Poverty is as much cultural as its financial and educational.

    • Hi! First time commenter, longtime reader here… I agree with you that knowledge is insufficient to change behavior. We need to be able to apply information to our own circumstances, practice a new skill, and learn from what happens when we take action. Preferably with a support from other people along the way. Thanks for making room for this discussion.

  3. Absolutely love this post. As a WW, I’m concerned that BiggerPockets regularly says just hard work, sacrifice, education and viola, you’ll be rich! This post puts into words my concerns. Yes, all of those things greatly increase the odds, but it’s not that simple.
    I spend my life talking to young women (my clientele is primarily melanated to some degree) about how capable they are, but if you had a script for me, I’d gladly adopt it. I put a poster on the clinic door w book covers about financial literacy by women of color, fell on blind eyes.
    Love, love, love sending clients to your site! Keep it up!

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