Kylie Jenner had a busy week. She reportedly removed her lip injections to look more “natural.” And Forbes featured her on its cover, accompanied with a story on how she’s on track to be the youngest self-made billionaire ever.
Jenner, 20, is the youngest of the ubiquitous Kardashian-Jenner clan. Forbes estimates her worth at $900 million for Kylie Cosmetics, best known lip liners and lip kits, and thus placed her on its list of America’s richest self-made women.
Ah, the myth of American Exceptionalism.
Jenner’s not an individual with an inspiring bootstrap story; she’s a pop culture ingénue who smartly capitalized on her family’s fame, fortune and household name status. “Self-made” ignores Jenner’s familial riches, which is a much better predictor of financial success in this country. Then the Calabasas, California, clan received an extra wealth boost and can trace its faux stardom to a sex tape of big sister Kim Kardashian leaked in 2007. Mother Kris Jenner is a cunning marketing maven. She’s finagled reality television shows, endorsements, publicity appearances and the like for her socialite children.
And so the family has infiltrated our television sets and social media feeds, and now we must fawn over the littlest sister for the bright idea of taking her lip game public. The Kardashian-Jenner aesthetic heavily borrows from black women — the plumping of lips, the rounding of the hips. Jenner and her sisters can safely be “black adjacent,” while co-opting black culture and having black babies with black men. The women in that family embody what writer Greg Tate calls “everything but the burden.” Clearly, I have as much use for the Kardashian-Jenner brood as I do for a tanning salon membership.
“Self-made” further implies Jenner received no help and is successful by pluck and vision alone. We keep spinning these American tales of uplift that celebrate the very privileged — and either ignore or look askance at working or poor people. I don’t know how hard Jenner works, whether she’s up at 6 a.m. tweaking color palettes or if she’s decided to study the chemistry behind makeup. And I don’t care, because none of that matters. Jenner’s birth into an affluent family trumps work ethic.
This past spring, a group of well-respected scholars with Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University released a sobering report called “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.” It finds black households hold less than seven cents on the dollar compared with white households. White households living near the poverty line typically have $18,000 in wealth, while black households in similar economic circumstances have a median wealth of near zero. The report debunks widely held myths that education, homeownership, saving, financial literacy and entrepreneurship will — poof! — eliminate racial wealth inequality.
And speaking of entrepreneurship, Jenner — as well as the Zuckerbergs and Bezos — ride the tale of “self-made” when in actuality their families helped them from jump with capital. The report says: “In general, the net effect of entrepreneurship is to recycle an expanding–often an outrageously expanding — circuit of wealth among members of an upper class of white players. In the 21st century, the number of persons coming from poverty, whether white or black, to enter the ranks of the super-rich via entrepreneurship is trivial.”
When I hear “self-made” entrepreneur, my attention turns toward struggling Illinois families locked out of the economy because of debt. Earlier this year a group of Illinois mothers and grandmothers — called Power-PAC and part of the local nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues — surveyed 300 families who live on less than $15,000. It wasn’t just household bills that keep them in poverty. Fines and fees from tickets and unpaid bills create a disparate impact especially for immigrants and moms of color. Income inequality continues to grow in the country and one doesn’t snap a finger to climb out of poverty. Low-wage jobs are increasing, and the middle class is hollowing out. Yet we cling to the concept of “self-made.”
Twenty years ago I graduated from Howard University. My grandfather came and said he would’ve walked to Washington, D.C., to attend the commencement ceremony. That’s how much my degree meant to a black man born in rural Georgia who wasn’t able to go to school beyond third grade. He left the racism of the South for better opportunity on the South Side of Chicago. I am proud to stand on the shoulders of all of my grandparents who sacrificed and worked hard for their progeny. Their Great Migration stories are much better examples of “self-made.”
I can’t fault Kylie Jenner. We tune in to her family’s antics. We sop up reality television with verve. We buy the lip products. We create a GoFundMe account to push Jenner over the edge to billionaire status. We call her “self-made.”
I wonder when we’ll be insulted.
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