by Latoya Peterson
Please note, this is part four of a multi-part series on the Lifting As We Climb: Women of Color and Wealth report released by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. Please carefully read part one and review our comment moderation policy before participating in the comments.
Heaping trays of Indian food were laid out on the long table. A large, happy crowd gathered in clusters, piling food onto their white Chinet plates. Men made jokes about one another’s love handles and spare tires – things women would never say to one another despite thinking them. Walter handed her a thick paper plate before taking his own. “Get what you like, but we gotta head back soon. Okay?” He spoke to her affectionately, as if she were a little kid.
The food made her mouth water. All around, people spooned food onto their plates, grabbing pieces of warm naan bread. There were pans of bread everywhere. The trays emptied gradually. The group dispersed.
Kevin and Hugh had already returned to the desk. Casey had managed to grab a cocktail-size Samosa and a scoop of biriyani but had hesitated to fill her plate during an interview. Walter’s plate was crammed with a taste of everything.
“Gosh. Girls eat so little,” Walter said with wonder in his voice.
“It happened so fast,” she remarked, her free hand resting at her side.
Walter swept his right arms to the ceiling, gesturing like a ringleader, and said “It’s free food for millionaires.”
She wrinkled her brow, amused by his dramatic movement.
“In the International Equities Department – that is Asia, Europe, and Japan sales – the group you’re interviewing for -”
Casey nodded okay.
“-whichever desk that sells a deal buys lunch for everyone in the department. We finished a big deal last week – a big power plant outside of Bombay. So today we bought Indian. Get it? If Japan finishes a sales deal, then we get sushi.”
“Gotcha,” she said.
“The funny thing is that if you were a millionaire like some of these managing directors shaking down seven figures a year, you’d have known to push your way ahead and fill up your plate. Rich people can’t get enough of free stuff.” Walter shrugged. There was no reproach in his tone; in fact, there was a wistful admiration in his voice, as if he were beginning to understand how the world worked.
“So this is the game, Casey. You have to take what’s offered.” He spoke like a mentor.
“If you say so,” Casey replied. But she didn’t know how she felt about money or free things. Her father always said there was no such thing as a free lunch.
—Min Jin Lee, Free Food for Millionaires
The first time I picked up Free Food for Millionaires, I could immediately relate to the protagonist Casey Han. She is the child of working class parents, exposed to the lives of the wealthy through education and proximity. However, Casey was different. Her first marker was her race. Her unseen marker were the scars of having grown up lower middle class, and understanding that there were some things that were just not within reach, or possible for someone like her. And throughout the book, each time she forgot that she was different, she paid a heavy price. Min Jin Lee’s novel is a smart commentary on the shifting influences of race and class on the lives of the Korean-Americans (generation 1.5 or 2 in the book) and follows Casey throughout life’s trials and tribulations. Even though she is a Princeton graduate, she finds herself ostracized from family, homeless, and jobless. Her childhood friend Ella takes her in, but also exposes Casey to her sadistic fiancé, Ted. Ted likes to screw with Casey, as he thinks she is acting above her station in life. In one chapter, Ted assesses Casey’s character, thinking:
[E]ventually, with her qualifications, she could have gotten a far better position than sales assistant from one of the letters she’d sent out, but few companies hired a person based on sheer resume, and it was nearly the end of July – a dead time for hiring. The girl had no cash left and no backup plans. The most hilarious thing about this girl was that she was too proud to use whatever connections she might have made. Her arrogance stunned him; he almost admired it. She was one of those Korean girls who thought she was as good as white and that the world was fair, and it tickled him to see her reduced to this position – to have to ask a member of the immigrant tribe for a patch of floor to sleep on and to ask another member to pull a favor on her behalf. Where are all of your little white friends now? he wanted to say to her. She was acting like a rich white girl, and Ted knew that life did not let you lie to yourself for very long. In that way, you had to admit, life was quite fair.
Reading through the Women of Color and Wealth Report, there was one aspect of wealth building that was absent from the pages. And the Insight Center could not have measured it, since by nature, these things are intangible. However, as a person mired in the American class struggle, the three other factors loom fairly large: networks, access, and acceptance.
These three things also influence how someone is able to amass wealth. Networks play an important role, as Ted points out above. Even if someone has the correct qualifications and experience, without networks to unlock the doors, it can be difficult to access positions on the higher levels of the scale. Also, access speaks to the idea that you can reach levels of decision makers and speak with them in order to turn things in your favor. But most important is acceptance – the ability to appear as if you belong, so that networking comes naturally, so that the decision makers you meet will accept and want to work with you, and so you do not mark yourself as too different and strange.
In the excerpt above, where Casey is at a job interview, she is literally starving, having exhausted all of her funds. Even though she is living off of rationed cigarettes and one pack of ramen noodles a day, she doesn’t fill her plate. Her prior training has taught her to be careful what you eat and how much you eat at a job interview, so she pushes her personal desires aside in order to make a good initial impression.
This part of wealth building isn’t often discussed – the idea that some people are able to game the system better than others. In a world in which bias can work for or against you, it is the dirty little secret of our so called meritocracy that the better connected tend to win out over the better qualified. Once again, networks and access hold the key.
Thinking through your own network connections (parents, parent’s friends, schoolmates, peers), how easy it it to find someone who:
- Can loan you fifty dollars? Loan you $500? Loan you $5,000?
- Owns a business with more than nine employees?
- Has an executive level job?
- Can sell you weed?
- Does not have a bank account?
Since Fridays are for reflection, let’s ponder the following:
How does who you are connected to impact how far you can go professionally? How much information can you find out from your networks? In what circles do you feel the most comfortable, and how does your race/class/gender impact your social and professional circle?