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“Self-Made” Is a Myth – TeenVogue.com

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In this op-ed, Holly Fetter, a member and organizer with Resource Generation, outlines why calling Kylie Jenner — or anyone else — “self-made” hides the reality of inequality.

ICYMI: Kylie Jenner is projected to become the youngest “self-made” billionaire.

But if ending up a billionaire is a home run, Kylie was born on third base. Caitlyn Jenner was a wealthy athlete whose estimated financial net worth in 2015 was $100 million, and Kris cunningly parlayed managing her partner’s career into managing her family of photogenic children, leveraging resources from her former marriage to prominent lawyer Robert Kardashian. Through sex tapes and TV shows, Kris and her kohort continued building the visibility and value of the family’s collective brand, or “extreme fame leverage,” as the Forbes cover story describes it. Calling Kylie “self-made” sounds a lot like Donald Trump essentially classifying his beginnings in Brooklyn as humble, with a “small loan of a million dollars” from his dad.

Okay, so neither Kylie nor Trump are “self-made.” But the real question is, can anyone be?

I used to think so. I was born into a wealthy, white family and graduated from Stanford University with no debt, and pretty much everything I own is monogrammed. But I always wondered, Why didn’t other people have the same kinds of privileges my family had? Was it really just that my parents worked a lot harder than everyone else’s? What about my friends whose parents were housekeepers or line cooks? They worked hard too. I then started to see the ways that my family and others in the 1% had invisible advantages that gave us a head start in building wealth. I realized that it’s not possible for an individual to build wealth without support. Here are just a few examples of resources that people draw from when they accumulate wealth:

  • Virtually all entrepreneurs and business leaders rely on support from the government. Maybe they were educated at public schools and universities, or their companies rely on public infrastructure like roads and airports, or they were able to protect their big ideas through copyright and intellectual property laws. Or maybe they benefit from the lack of taxes on their income or assets.

  • Companies like Kylie’s employ workers, either directly or through contracts and consultants, that make the products possible. Think about the people who assemble her lip kits or manufacture the makeup. They helped build her $900 million, but they likely haven’t seen as much of the profits.

  • Consider arbitrary advantages, like luck and timing, or unearned advantages, such as gender and race privilege. It’s no accident that 76% of millionaires in the U.S. are white, and about 88% of billionaires in the world are men. Women and people of color encounter systemic discrimination when accessing things like loans, housing, and jobs, and communities of color have fewer resources to transfer intergenerationally due to the legacies of slavery, mass incarceration, and stolen Native land, among other things.

  • Also, let’s be real, wealthy people, especially us white ones, profit off the ideas and cultures of other people — Kylie and the Kardashians, for example, have been accused of profiting off of black culture and copying black designers.

All of these truths point to the existence of a “built-together reality” as put by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham in their book The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. I’m not here to say that Kylie and other billionaires didn’t work hard — Kylie’s the youngest and the wealthiest of all the Kardashians, a testament to her success in relation to relatives with similar advantages. And within the context of capitalism, it is nice to see a young woman (and a young mother, at that) leading things for a change.

But no one is ever “self-made.”

“Self-made” is a myth that justifies wealth inequality by reinforcing the idea that anyone can get rich through “hard work” and “smart choices,” while obscuring the systemic barriers to wealth accumulation. Conversely, it reinforces the idea that if you’re poor, you must deserve it. The reality is that it’s really hard to get to third base if you weren’t born there: An estimated 34% to 45% of wealth in the U.S. is inherited, according to a 2005 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and intergenerational class mobility is notoriously difficult, depending on where you grew up and what your racial identity is. The “self-made” story isn’t just wrong — it’s dangerous and discourages action to challenge the seemingly inevitable status quo.

King Kylie isn’t the only young person with wealth. There are more than 11 million millennials living in households with incomes of $100,000 or higher annually, and our generation will soon begin to inherit $30 trillion from our parents and grandparents over the coming decades. And this is all happening during an era of unprecedented wealth inequality — the richest 10% of Americans now own 76% of U.S. wealth. A lot of us young folks aren’t okay with how unequal our country is — a 2016 poll conducted by Harvard University found that 51% of millennials didn’t support capitalism, and the rise of young Democratic Socialist candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez indicates that our generation is rejecting the inevitability of inequality.

The good news is that if you’re a young person with wealth, like I am, you can use your class privilege to challenge inequality. This is our moment to change the very system that creates economic inequality in the first place. Here are a few ideas:

  • Donate some of your income or inheritance to social movement organizations led by poor and working-class communities fighting for justice.

  • Speak out about economic injustice in your communities and on social media. Raise questions about our economic system with your friends and family. Post about things that don’t sit well with you, like Trump’s tax plan or the fact that Jeff Bezos is building a $42 million clock in the side of a mountain in Texas. (Wtf?)

  • Join an organization like Resource Generation, a community of young people with access to wealth who are fighting for the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. (Or at the very least, follow us on Instagram! Fire memes only).

Already using your privilege for good? As Kris would say, “You’re doing amazing sweetie!”

Related: This Woman-Led Startup Wants to Help You Find a Job You’re Passionate About