ON POVERTY CONSCIOUSNESS: BLACK PEOPLE AND MONEY

Something unexpected happened when I consulted my new spiritual advisor recently, a sangoma with long colourful braids. Her slowly enunciated speech is tinged with a foreign but unlocatable accent, something befitting the presence of all kinds of deities in her practice room; a large rectangular shrine. From different vantage points, Hindu goddesses, Buddhas, west African Voodoo dolls, Native American spiritual symbols, Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious signifiers sit in quiet conference with amashoba and other Southern African traditional healing tools. The smell of sage in small bulbs, mounds of impepho and incense all burning silently, simultaneously, create an atmosphere where my nerves emerge, relying on the knowledge that they are to be quelled and healed.  I sit down on a grass mat and feel myself get out of my own way. We begin.

By the time we finish, the iPad playing holy meditative music beside us is in the red region of its battery life. Two hours ago when this consultation started, we began with a guided mediation, a prequel to the shell readings, age regression readings, general guidance and a full body sonic healing session. I had paid before everything started, not knowing what to expect. In the email that she had sent before our consultation, the amount was R350. Today, she didn’t call it money when she asked me to present it. I think her words were ‘’please place your energy exchange here’’. As soon as the consultation was over, I couldn’t help myself. ‘’You have to charge more for this’’. Up until that moment, she had held the power in our interaction. We were still on the floor, this time, looking directly into each other’s eyes.

Money is one of the most uncomfortable conversations to have when spoken about outside the realm of the lack of it. Still this conversation wasn’t nearly as difficult as the conversation I’ve been having recently with some of my friends and family members about being black, female and knowing your financial worth. While seated on the mat, the conversation planted itself as the seeds to this article as she introduced a new concept to me: poverty consciousness. She described it as the tendency in black people who carry historical trauma, subjugation and oppression, to have an inherent scarcity mentality when it comes to money because historically, black people have not had money in the ways in which we understand money today. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of what she was saying is that how we understand, handle and use money today is not divorced from our historical relationship to it and it goes beyond the physical, it’s something that manifests in the spiritual realm too because its likely to have been carried, as a heavier burden, by our ancestors. [Sidenote: the other day I was thinking about how this area of black life, things to do with the spirit realm and loyaring and stuff is something whose effects on us we seriously downplay. White people’s problems usually don’t include a real danger of korobela affecting your relationship, your great aunt thakatharing your family members and you having a car accident or a dog biting you because your ancestors are thirsty. Fucck. And here we are just carrying on as if our experience of life is only lit because of oppression. frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>

When laid out like this, this seems pretty obvious. But most of us are unconscious about the fact that the shame black people carry regarding our relationship to money doesn’t always simply boil down to an individual’s bad spending habits. It’s a mashup of psychological, emotional and intergenerational trauma, making for a case for the idea of poverty consciousness, the foundation of a healthier, more confident and sound relationship to money. The shame and secrecy around money contributes to its concomitant traumas, a lot of which become the black pain that is content fodder for Sunday night TV and daily newspapers. Our money problems have become entertainment – dependents fighting over their dead mother’s insurance policy on TV; the terror of money motivated bathakathi / bayoli / people who bewitch others in newspapers, children in monkey suits who dance for money wearing monkey suits at robots. And especially, the apartheid that apartheid created between black men and women resulting in broken black love and families as a result of the pursuit of, the lack there of or the misuse of money. It’s not that these kinds of things don’t happen in other racial groups, but poor black pain is pathologized because it is public domain, poor black people’s laundry is hung out for all to see and exploit versus other groups, who are good at hiding their pathologies from public view.

Psychoses around blackness and money also penetrate the class and gender barrier. But mentioning ‘’nouvou riche’’ spending habits and the love black people have for luxury cars and prized bottles of teenaged whiskey would be too lazy a conclusion to make about how our complicated relationship with money manifest in everyday life. There are other, far more fascinating cycles to become conscious of and to break.

There’s a gender and race based difference between what employees expect to earn versus what they deserve to earn. In numerous studies conducted by U.S. economic professor Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask, her findings after conducting studies in business school students, are that men are four times more likely to initiate salary negotiations than women, who when they do ask, generally ask for 30% less than men do. This is despite further studies by journalists Katty Kat and Claire Shipman researching a phenomenon called The Confidence Gap, about the disparities between women’s competence versus confidence in the work place, which consistently found that women are more self deprecating about their abilities, contributions and achievements at work than men, whom the study found to be generally be confident, to overestimate their abilities but who were constantly outperformed by women. This study was conducted in America, where white women started their ascent up the corporate ladder half a century ago, compared to South Africa where the sun only came up for women in the 90s. The racial hierarchy of white men on top and black women at the bottom certainly exists economically, where it matters most. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, where there are members of historically oppressed groups who exploit the system by earning way more than they are qualified for, irresponsibly using their race and gender as a factor in their negotiations.

But how do the race and gender based inferiority and superiority complexes that were instilled and are constantly, subtly reinforced in South Africa affect how much black women earn versus what they deserve? This was a question that a black female architect I spoke to had to address the day the HR manager at her construction company accidently shared a folder containing information with everyone’s salaries on it. ‘’My subordinates are earning more than I am, so are senior engineers and quantity surveyors on my level, like way more including their departments’’. When she found out, she says she felt naive and resentful because as the only female among her peers in the company, she does much more than is required of her because she felt the need to prove herself. ‘’What’s really frustrating is that they treat my department similarly to how they treat me as a woman, there’s an element of not taking it seriously and I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or if it’s because they know that I earn less’’.

Another black woman, who heads up the comms department at an N.P.O says it’s because ‘’I asked for the money I think I deserve, not knowing that I was undercutting myself, until I found out what others, even those under me were earning’’. In both of these cases, these women were fine with their salaries until they saw what their male and white colleagues were earning. Is the money they think they deserve linked to this unconsciousness about money? A gratefulness for having a job? An obsequious relationship with money? It’s difficult not to become resentful in both cases, but a company is not likely to say ‘’no, you deserve 40% more than what you’re asking for, let’s increase your salary’’, thus it becomes a need to fundamentally shift our own understanding of it.

‘’I also find that a lot of black people are afraid of money’’, said my sangoma, who says her rate is reasonable because she wants it to be accessible to more people. ‘’There are so many negative energies and habits that millions of us are unconscious of that can be addressed and healed on a spiritual level, I want to do poverty consciousness workshops because this is not normal’’, she says. I would certainly attend those workshops. It was only last month that I realized that I’m probably the least earning section head at work, despite my contributions to my organization. Coming from a freelance background, I was grateful to betting a job and a steady income when I started my job. But a year later, I look at the work that I’ve done and after researching how much people in my position should be earning, I decided to sidestep my fears and had the conversation with my editor. I was so nervous to call the number out but when I did, I said it over and over, more to convince myself than to convince her. I’ll know the fate of my paycheck at the end of the financial year.

 

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