Black girl with floral purse

“I Want to Be Rich When I Grow Up” — The Expectations on a Black Immigrant Girl

raniah jeanlys May 15, 2022

When I was younger, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have smiled and looked at you with a carefree sense of youthfulness and said:

“I want to be rich when I grow up.”

Admittedly, this isn’t the most inspiring thing a child could say. An answer like that doesn’t compare to the children who wished to be doctors, lawyers and educators. But my dream job was whatever job would let me live lavishly. I nodded my head fervently at any position that could bring me the most money. 

From a young age, I’ve had this symbiotic relationship with the dead presidents in my pocket. In fact, I would venture to say everybody in my family had that relationship with money. How else would a Haitian immigrant family make it in America? Money was the vehicle necessary to take you where you wanted to be in life, whether you liked it or not. 

My dream job was whatever job would let me live lavishly.

My earliest memories take place in my grandmother’s home. When I was younger, I would play in the living room with my grandfather, and my grandmother typically was in the kitchen preparing food. 

When I recount my childhood now, people wonder where my father and mother were in the picture. My parents were caught in a predicament that isn’t too uncommon for immigrants in America. Throughout the day, my father was out working odd jobs to hopefully provide himself and me a sense of financial security. He might be standing in the cold as a security guard or burning in the heat of a kitchen as a dishwasher. He was typically found working and coming home late.

My mother was more than 1,000 miles off the coast of the United States on the island of Haiti. We didn’t have enough money to bring her along with us. Back home, she was either going to her day job as an accountant or awaiting my return each summer.

Given my family history, I would never say money was ever presented as something that was easy to make or as the saying goes, something that “grows on trees.” It was almost as if I understood at a young age that said tree needed to be planted and cared for with patience before you could ever see any money growing from it. 

Money was never presented as something that was easy to make or as the saying goes, something that "grows on trees."

However, despite understanding that logic, I still felt this fervor to make money so I could catch up to my peers from school. Many of the grade schools I attended were primarily White, and I would find myself being friends with people who either actually had more than me or wanted me to feel like they had more than me. I wished that someday I would be able to live like that. 

As a young Black woman, I felt like it was instilled in us very early that education is the necessary path toward bougieness. I thought maybe if I did very well in school, eventually things would all fall into place and I would definitely become rich. Because that’s how it works for everyone, right? You do well in school. You easily get a job. And if you work hard enough, you’re guaranteed a chance to take vacations to wherever you want whenever you want. 

At least, that was how I imagined it for the majority of my developmental years.

My relationship with money has always been rather black and white. There was a set way in my mind as to how to make money and how that would later reflect my status. Being a Black immigrant girl, I felt like money was basically my green ticket into the happy, fulfilled life most Americans desire. When I was growing up, I took note from my grandfather that the job that would make the most money was being a doctor. So without question, medicine was the route to go if I wanted to reach that dream. 

This wasn’t far off from the narrative most immigrant elders tell their first-generation children and grandchildren. I always joked that Haitian parents always allow you to focus on yourSELF when you go to college: Sciences, Engineering, Law or Failure. If your major wasn’t one of the first three, you could almost guarantee you would fall into the fourth category. 

Out of fear of falling into category four, I stubbornly and pridefully stuck to my option of medical school, despite biology being the only science I liked.

Before I went off to college, I had this clear picture in my head of how I would look. An image that made me put immense pressure on myself as a Black woman. I was hoping I’d become the glowing image of a Black woman in her cap and gown, announcing her recent graduation from med school. Those pictures would then show me thriving in a bigger house, a nicer car, in different vacation spots. 

I was hoping I'd become the glowing image of a Black woman in her cap and gown, announcing her recent graduation from med school.

But after getting a few smacks in the face from life, the rich picture I painted for myself began to fade. A far reach from reality. I failed a couple of classes, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I failed not only my family but also myself. The immense amount of pressure on my shoulders began to crush me. I felt like I was supposed to be the gifted child to give a reason for my family’s trials and tribulations. I was supposed to be the one who made more money than the generation before me. 

I felt lost and detested every moment in my life. Much to my dismay and disapproval, my father suggested the best course of action was for me to study Finance. 

I couldn’t even begin to express how much I hated the idea of studying Finance. I was never interested in personal finance, nor did I care to handle the finances of other people. I only cared about where my own finances could take me. However, since my parents were Haitian and paying for my school, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.

Unlike those of my American counterparts, my parents didn’t really care much for my speech about choosing a major based on passion. In fact, many of their responses to my begging and pleading echoed my grandfather's sentiments:

“You need to pick something that will make you the most money.” 

It seems as though that was the big motivation in my life. It was like I was being told there wasn’t time to pick what you love. You don’t have time to rest and relax. You need to make money. 

If I ever wanted to reach my dreams of living lavishly and comfortably, I couldn’t do that with passion. Passion is reserved for the children who could afford a backup plan after wasting four years. Passion was reserved for the children who had already met a certain level of needs, which let them focus on what they thought was the natural step in the right direction. 

Passion is reserved for the children who could afford a backup plan after wasting four years.

Passion isn’t for the first-generation children who have something to prove. Passion isn’t for the children where just one misstep in this journey would leave them in unsettling debt. Passion isn’t for those kids. Passion wasn’t for me. 

And just like that, my father turned the “F” in SELF into Finance, and I found myself at a crossroads as to what this meant for me in my life.

When I switched over to Finance, I could immediately find myself being the odd one out. Marching through hallways, I tried to lie to myself so that I could be somewhat enthusiastic for class. Yet, I still felt like I stood out like a sore thumb among the people that casually wore suits to class. 

Switching over to Finance built a habit in my head of scanning the room for another Black person. It’s not like there hadn’t been a small number of Black students in my past biology classes. However, that percentage became even smaller in Finance classes. When I scanned the room specifically for a Black woman, it would sometimes come down to me and one other Black girl across the room. 

It was at this moment that I felt like I had to think a bit more outside of myself. I had been dreaming about lavishness and riches as if they would be offered to me easily. I began to ask myself questions. Why weren't there more Black people in my Finance classes? 

There is power behind your dollar, and it’s necessary to know how to use it in your favor.

There is power behind your dollar, and it’s necessary to know how to use it in your favor. When I reflected on my community, I felt Black people deserve to have that power behind their dollar. To understand just what they can do with their dollar. Learning how to build wealth shouldn’t be reserved for children of already successful business owners. 

I would think of this and imagine how I could retain all that I’d learn from Finance and Business classes, and share it with my friends and family so they could feel secure in their dollar. I imagined myself getting a job in Finance so I could spread that knowledge and assistance to underrepresented communities. I could maybe encourage more people to take an interest in Finance and handling their personal gains and savings. 

I imagined all of these things, and it was the first time I saw more than myself in my daydreams about working.

About the author

Raniah Jeanlys is a graduate in Finance with a passion for storytelling. She has published personal essays relating to her experiences as a Haitian American woman and has plans to do short stories and other forms of work in creative writing.

Image by Godisable Jacob via Pexels.

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