Do Work: The Kylie Jenner Ethic
It’s old news that Forbes put Kylie Jenner on their list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Women.” It’s also old news that with a net worth of roughly $900 million, Kylie Jenner is a sho0-in to become the world’s youngest billionaire at only 21 years old.
However, what is truly old news is White people being the face of the myth we fondly call “the American dream”—that heartwarming idea that everybody has a chance to work really hard and make something of themselves in this country. It’s a tale as old as time (or at least as old as slavery!). People come to America for opportunity. People have been coming to America for opportunity since its beginning, but what people actually find the opportunity they are looking for?
When I first saw Jenner on the cover of Forbes, the feminist in me immediately thought it was badass. A woman only two years older than me independently launched a cosmetics business with 100% of the ownership is now valued at approximately $800 million—totally badass. Although, “self-made?” Really? Are those the words that come to mind when you hear the name “Jenner,” which is usually in the same breath as “Kardashian?”
Of course not, and Forbes has since made it abundantly clear what definition of self-made they were using: “someone who built a company or established a fortune on her own, rather than inheriting some or all of it.” According to this definition, Jenner fits the bill.
Nevertheless, she certainly had a leg up. I did some digging, and in 2014, about a year before launching her cosmetics business, she already had 12 million Instagram followers. That sort of social media presence is no joke, and on top of that, she consistently appeared in Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which had an audience of 4.7 million viewers at its peak. To start a business already having a platform that huge is sort of like opening a restaurant when you’re a star on a food network—you know it’s going to work out.
Many of Jenner’s friends and fellow celebrities were quick to come to her defense, including her sister, Kim Kardashian West; whose position was: “We might have the opportunity, but I’ve seen it go the complete opposite way. Nobody works harder than my sisters and my mom.”
This was the statement that got me thinking about the American dream and how it intertwines with Jenner being branded as self-made. How many times have I heard “nobody works harder than ____” come out of the mouths of those who are defending the successes of privileged people?
An exhausting number of times.
Perhaps some people who were bothered by Jenner’s Forbes cover feature were under the impression she didn’t work hard for her fortune, but I don’t think that was the main take away. I’m sure Jenner did work hard, and I’m sure anyone who has amassed a near billion dollar fortune had to work hard. Yet, I’m even more sure that there are a lot more parts to the equation than working hard, and I’m not talking about luck. In fact, success often has little to do with luck. I’m talking about the parts of the equation that everyone tiptoes around—race, class, education, sex, sexuality, and these are just to name a few.
The concept of deserving success because of hard work is a privileged concept (i.e. a White concept, a middle-class concept, or a heterosexual male with a business degree from NYU concept—take your pick). It is a concept that for minority groups in America is just that—an abstract idea, not a tangible philosophy.
This is where some feathers start to get ruffled; the part of the article where privileged people who are proud of their successes get uncomfortable, feel attacked, and decide to stop reading. Although, this isn’t an attack, and privileged people are not the victims. No one is denouncing hard working individuals. People are merely starting to acknowledge the facts, which illustrate how a country built upon racism produces a society filled with institutions and systems that are also built upon racism.
According to an article published by Bloomberg in 2016, a middle-aged Asian American has a 22.3% chance of becoming a millionaire, while a White American has a 21.6% chance. Compare this to the 6.8% chance a Hispanic American has to the even lower 6.4% a Black American has—the gap is startling with a 15.2% difference between a White American and a Black American’s chances.
To note, these are not just empty statistics about a hypothetical. They are confirmed by the 15.2% of White families that are worth more than a million dollars, as compared to the 2.3% of Hispanic families and 1.9% of Black families.
Why is there such an alarming race disparity?
A lot of people jump to the conclusion that it has to do with education. It is true that minorities have less access to higher education. In the 2014-2015 year of school, 1,210, 523 White Americans received a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 217,718 Hispanic Americans and 192, 712 Black Americans. These numbers mean that roughly 64% of Bachelor degrees distributed in America in 2015 were received by White people—a huge majority, which certainly is a problem in its own right.
However, lack of education isn’t the explanation for the racial wealth gap. In fact, many studies have shown that racism persists across every level of education. The median family income of White college graduates in 2013 was $94,351. You guessed it—the median family income of Hispanic college graduates in 2013 was significantly lower, $68,379, and that of Black college graduates in 2013 was even lower, $52,147—meaning the median income of Black college graduates in 2013 was a meager 55% of the median income of White college graduates in 2013.
The sad truth, which no one (especially White millionaires who worked! really! hard!) wants to admit that there is no explanation for these statistics that doesn’t ultimately boil down to the dichotomy between racism and privilege in America.
None of this is to say that Black people and Hispanic people are never successful, and none of this is to say that White people don’t work hard. There are always exceptions when you are speaking about entire races of people.
What it is saying—and not just saying, but screaming—is that a lot of people work really hard, and don’t become billionaires or millionaires, or even make enough to reasonably support oneself and one’s family. A person’s dream job, after four years of earning their degree, can come down to the name at the top of their resume sounding just a little too Black. (This was an actual study that was conducted by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, which revealed that resumes with White sounding names were 50% more likely than identical resumes with Black sounding names to lead to a response from employers.)
So, after thinking it through, I’d still call Kylie Jenner and her soon-to-be youngest billionaire status badass, but you know what would be even more badass?
An end to systematic racism!
Haha just kidding, but that’d be nice, too.
The racial wealth gap closing!
Let’s not get crazy, but equality!
Wow, I like that one. Someone should have found a country based off that fun idea.
In all seriousness, awareness and conversation is a good stepping stone towards real change. So, let’s switch the rhetoric from, “Does Kylie Jenner deserve her success?” to “Does anyone deserve their success?” Or better yet, “How can we create and contribute to a vision of the world in which people do indeed deserve their success, regardless of race, class, sex, etc?”
There is no way to completely undo history, but we certainly can improve.