The Image Gap: The Price Many of 'Us' Pay for Growing Up Different

I was recently at a fundraiser for an organization that helps low income Black and Latino children get into private schools. The organization provides tuition for these students and has a weekend academy to help prepare them academically for what can be more rigorous curriculums than they are used to.

The program is great. The children were beaming as they described the great education they were receiving and opportunities that were ahead.

As I looked at these young people, I prayed with all my heart that someone in their lives was giving them the emotional and psychological tools they need in order to deal with the feelings of isolation that come with the "privileged" education they were receiving.

Feelings that if unchecked can lead to a costly image gap: The space between whom you are and the image the people, places and things around you reflect back to you as "normal." Many of these young people will grow to see a reflection of a person who doesn't feel as if they fit in anywhere. These coping strategies -- usually unconscious -- they develop in order to fill this gap and "belong" can impact everything from their relationships to the ways in which they negotiate to their financial behavior as adults.

Paying the Price

In 2012, a New York Times article, "Admitted, But Left Out," found here, a young woman describes how "It became linked in my mind -- rich, white; minority, poor," a belief that can lead to financial choices that make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I spoke with Award winning director, Andre Robert Lee, also mentioned in the New York Times article. Lee chronicled his personal experience at an elite prep school in Philadelphia in the film, The Prep School Negro. Info here.

If I saw someone who was successful, or a family or a person who had money, I never, I never imagined I could really have it," Lee shared with me in a recent conversation. "I didn't honestly believe that I could reach the same level that they did, you know, in terms of my classmates and people in my school because I would go home and we were struggling.

Lee also shared that spending beyond his means became the norm in order to simply to live and integrate into the environments where he was getting an education and forming social bonds.

He says even the people who are closest to him do not understand the "disconnect" between how he seems and how he feels...a gap that is reflected in is financial choices.

"On the surface it looks like I'm doing very well. 'Oh you travel. Your life's so exciting," Lee said. "But I have zero savings. When I look at my financial profile, it reflects, sadly. It's said that your bank account reflects how you feel about yourself, and if that's the case, I might not feel very good about myself...I can deliver the message so well, but to internalize it and practice it, that's a moment when I get caught."

You Ain't One of Us

One of the most challenging parts of being transplanted into majority racial environments, particularly those of economic privilege, is that you are isolated by your own community. I recall laughing to myself when blacks would say to me (some still do), "You think you're White," or "You're not Black enough," not realizing that I was familiar with racial differences in a way that they could never imagine...Those marching together had each other.

Some growing up in socioeconomic isolation can also feel a strange sense of separation from their families. Many of the people I've discussed and researched this with, point out that one of the most challenging aspects of being the "lucky one" is the guilt of having opportunities that other family members do not. Even worse, is the lack of compassion others feel, and their endless reflections on their own experiences. "You don't know what it's like to struggle," many of us are told. The result is that people who grow up in isolation can grow to feel like there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do when they should feel so "lucky."

The Tools to Transcend

If you have children, get real with the fact that being "the only" is having an effect on their self-image. Pay attention to how it is affecting things like friendships and dating. No matter what you tell them, its human nature to compare ourselves to those around us. The brain uses these comparisons to help us define ourselves in ways that will last a lifetime. You really need to understand this because chances are your child is not going to realize the ways in which growing up isolated is or has affected him/her until adulthood. Also, take a compassionate look inside if you grew up in this situation.

• Speak about this often: Let your child know that you understand that they feel different. Experts point out that they may say "everything is fine" because they've had to bury these feelings in order to go into these environments every day. In addition, they don't want to disappoint you. Discuss that it's okay to have hard feelings and that the sensations can also serve as a reminder that being different is their greatest strength -- growing pains mean something is getting bigger. Remind them that "this too will pass," but understand these are going to be difficult years for your child even though on the outside, things look idyllic.

• Ask your child's educators for help: Racial insensitivity in schools can often be the result of a lack of awareness, not intentional racism. My nine-year-old son was recently asked in a homework assignment, "When did your family come to America?" His teachers did not realize what a complicated question this is for people of African and American-Indian descent. My son and I spoke about this for a long time, but the next day in class he said "Italy," reflecting his Father's heritage. I explained to his educators that his response was exactly the outcome that none of us want -- the identification of Italy and his European heritage being "the easy way out" and rejecting the other parts of himself. They completely "got it" and were near tears over the fact that they "missed" this. The new language is, "From what continent did you family come?" In addition, we are discussing a full curriculum review for the school so that things like this aren't missed... I love that the school is now leading the charge on this. As for my son, he is fast becoming an expert in his proud African heritage.

• Focus your child's (and your) attention on where they really come from: It too often feels like our history starts with slavery. Africans were chosen to build this country because they have so many amazing skills and are among the best nation builders on the planet. We're kings, queens, merchants, etc. Immerse your child in their history. Only the truth of who they really are can fill the very image gap we strive so hard to prevent in the first place. Set them free.

• Get help: One of the most important things we can do as parents is to know when our children are in situations we do not have the tools to deal with. My mixed race child will have a very different experience in the world than I, even though we both will battle feelings of isolation. The Independent School Diversity Network is a wonderful resource. Info here.

• We're all One: When I speak about the issues of racial and economic isolation, I often hear, "It's not just them." "I grew up fat." "I was adopted," etc. To be clear, I am using racial and economic isolation as examples because I know them and they are among my areas of expertise and experience. We can use some of what's revealed in the situations I am describing to help many. Comparison also belittles the discussion at hand. We can help everybody.

• Doesn't 'tragedy' compare: Responses like "You don't know what racism is," or "You're don't know what tough times are," belittle your child's experience. Pain and rejection feel the same for all of us. We just have different story lines to get us there. Your child's hurt doesn't feel any less that hurt you've felt. Three great rules of listening:

1. If you are thinking of your own experience
2. If you are judging what someone says as "good," "bad," or "not valid"
3. If you are thinking of your response, you are not listening.

Step away from these tendencies and just listen. There will be time for us to all share our stories.

I look forward to your comments on this and continuing to look at how things like race and culture play out in our financial experiences. I do this in depth in my book The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money. Info here.