The Guilty Feelings Within My Black Queer Success

I often reflect on what it means to be a first-generation college student finding success in their latter years of life. Many of my years pursuing higher education were met with financial insecurity, so there is always this lingering feeling that the other shoe is about to drop — a feeling that never goes away no matter how much money I now make. Going to college, I had the added layer of coming from a single-parent household with a mother who made it very clear that she wouldn’t always be able to help financially if I fell on hard times while trying to attain a degree.

Perhaps I should have deemed her warning as a premonition. There would be several moments — in both undergrad and graduate school — where I would call her crying about not having enough money for anything from the basic necessities to larger things like car repairs. It wasn’t as though I wasn’t working, quite the opposite actually. Most of my academic experience was spent balancing the educational demands of college while working 40+ hours weekly as a resident assistant, working at the local Starbucks, working for the LGBTQ+ Center on campus, tutoring international students with their English, AND babysitting. It felt like no matter how hard I worked, it wasn’t enough to pull me out of financial instability.

Things would get exponentially harder for me in the summer of 2005. After a car accident, I was unable to afford a new (used) car on my own. I reached out to my grandfather for help, and it came in the form of him giving me a 1991 Honda Civic. The car was a literal death trap, several of the manual windows didn’t roll down, there was no AC or heat, and it would flood on the inside when it rained. Months later the car ended up getting stolen. To make matters worse, I didn’t have the means to get it out of the impound and so the fees went on my credit report — dropping my score to a low 400. In that moment it felt like things went from bad to worse, all because I didn’t have the means to save myself from a stroke of bad luck and something that was totally out of my control.

Like many who are often one paycheck away from a bad situation, I quickly learned how expensive it is to be poor. Trying to consistently get ahead or just stay afloat wears on the pockets, but the financial instability also wears on your mental health. I began to believe that things would always be “that bad”, that the goalposts of financial security would always be moved for me, and that somehow I deserved to be in this constant state of financial turmoil.

As the years passed, financial stability continued to feel like a fleeting concept, but then — the tides finally started to turn. The commitment, tears, and money I’d put into my education slowly started to pay off. I began to make a name for myself helping queer and trans students of color in higher education, and I landed several major opportunities to consult with brands like Instagram and Twitter. I even got a chance to consult on two different films, which then led to me working with Apple, a company I always thought would be a dream to work for. That connection turned into starting the podcast, BFF: Black, fat, femme, and landed me a podcasting deal with one of the largest media companies where for the first time — I held the biggest check I had ever had in my hands. Considering all I had been through financially in my life, never would I have thought that actually having money would give me major anxiety.

The feelings I’d had in 2005 of wondering if I’d ever have enough or if I’d ever get a break, were now being replaced with something more sinister. Guilt began to cast a shadow over my well-deserved and hard-earned success. I’d worked hard to get to this very point, the road to it was windy and bumpy, but I’d stayed on it — and now I wondered if it was something I even deserved. It wasn’t a completely unfamiliar feeling, I also felt it the day I got my doctoral degree, but something about there being a monetary aspect heightened the feeling. As I began to put bills on Autopay and planned purchases of the things I’d always dreamt of having, “Who the FUCK do you think you are?!” began to ring loudly in my head while “You don’t really deserve this” joined in for a guest appearance. I felt like I was in an either-or situation — to rightfully revel in my success or succumb to guilty feelings. Why was I in this battle? Where was it coming from and why was I having difficulty in placing the feelings?

I started to process my emotions with my therapist, and in doing so I began to understand not just the layers of these feelings, but why said feelings never seem to go away no matter how much money I make. Knowing that so many of those feelings are rooted in seeing how whiteness and white supremacy impact the careers of Black queer people, but more so, how so many of my feelings are underscored in survivor’s guilt.

Growing up, I was always told by my mother that I would have to work twice as hard to get as far as my white colleagues. I knew about the wage gaps facing me in my profession as an educator, but I also knew how the world treated Black queer people who spoke openly about race and racism in the academy. I also had so many personal instances to reflect on of family members who didn’t make it in entertainment, leading me to believe that my dreams might one day pan out in the same manner.

However, I am in fact an outlier. My dreams were coming true even with all that I had up against me.

Knowing all of this still leads me to bouts with guilt because I know many other Black, queer, and non-binary people will never be able to say they found the success in life they were looking for. Knowing that can often be overwhelming and benumbing. Sometimes the guilt is also ingrained in me knowing that those before me will never see me. Folks like my trans ancestor Marsha P. Johnson who never got to experience this kind of financial freedom I now have because hatred and oppression cut her life short.

As I continually process the feelings and emotions that come with my success, I move close to recognizing that while this guilt may never go fully away, I am still deserving of all the things I have. Not just because of what I’ve gone through, but because of how hard I work to keep it. I’ll continue to focus on all the things I hope to accomplish and in doing so I’ll continue to soar. I’ll give myself the things I want — buying the car of my dreams, gifting myself the bags I’ve always wanted — because even through my guilt I know that I deserve them.

When I say “I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams” I mean exactly that. I now understand more intently why I have been given the blessings I have. I am living and doing all the things that they fought so hard for us to have, and I am working hard to keep their legacies, work, and dreams alive. I understand more intently why I have been given the blessings I have. When the feelings of guilt now begin to arise, I aim to live and breathe the words of the great Audre Lorde, “When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

For that, my guilt won’t keep me afraid of thriving.

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Jonathan P. Higgins, Ed.D.

Jonathan has written 1 article for us.


  1. Real ish. Sometimes I think about what *we* believe about blackness and what it has to mean in our lives, especially if we’ve dealt with financial insecurity in our childhood. Especially when that’s the model we consistently see in our communities. Point being, our experience can (read: will!) include abundance of all the wonderful things that make us feel safe.

  2. Thanks for writing this! I’m dealing with this right now. I’m a black Queer on the androgynous presenting side. I do consulting, and want to get to that level where i m financially and abundant and doing meaningful work. I just had a client who was ready to give me the salary I’ve always dreamed of, and it’s complicated. There are lots of feelings; it’s interesting to watch myself have all these bad reactions, fear, and thoughts of not deserving it, and underneath it is guilt for my relatives who are suffering. I know I’m lucky, but how do I enjoy that luck?

    There was a lot of trauma growing up. One of the ways I survived was by not needing people or things, so I could hide in books, fantasy, or other worlds. It worked really well for surviving bad situations, but it doesn’t work well for getting ahead in life.
    It helps to hear about your experience and to know that I not alone. Thanks again for writing about this!

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