Reparations reimagined: Can online giving counter systemic racism?

Sky writing over Sydney, Australia on National Sorry Day, when the country atones for historic mistreatment of its indigenous population. (Photo from Flickr by butupu)

At first I thought it was a joke, or some really radical performance art.

Late last week, artist, activist, and “tired black woman” Natasha Marin invited me to participate in a Facebook event called simply “Reparations.” The cover photo showed a white guy holding an armful of kittens like a creepy, wiggly bouquet.

“I invite People of Color to ask for what we need to feel better, be happier, be more productive by posting in this space. These may be both material and immaterial requests,” the page read. “I invite people who identify as White to offer services or contributions to People of Color in need of time, energy, substantive care, and support.”

Below this was a list of sample scenarios on what this might look like: people of color in need of simple things like a warm meal or a massage, to the more complex things like the need to vent at white people.

Maybe we need to connect in order to begin repairing the incomprehensible state of inhumanity our country is in.

But scrolling down the posts on the page, the theoretical asks and offers had turned real.

By the time I got there, there was already a long thread of participants: white people offering to clean and organize your house, take care of your kids, pay for your trip to the spa, buy you groceries and read your resume; people of color asking for sculpting lessons, paid vacations, jobs, and rides.

And I thought, “For real? This is actually happening.”

40 Acres and a mule

When I think about reparations my mind instantly turns to 40 acres and a mule, which allegedly was supposed to be given to black folks after the Civil War. Unsurprisingly the same government responsible for slavery (and the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese people and a lot of inhumane institutional policies and practices against all non-white people) never got around to distributing that wealth.

This is a bit of a sore point, particularly when what’s left of Native Americans received sovereign land and casinos, and Japanese descendants of the internment received an official apology and a cash settlement.

Over the years, several Republican politicians have asserted that black people have gotten reparations in the form of welfare — and inevitably because all slave owners are dead and racism ended when Barack Obama was elected, this country doesn’t really owe us anything — not an apology, an acknowledgement of wrong doing, and certainly not land and animals.

But then, having grown up in a non agrarian community I have no idea how much land an acre actually is. And what would I do with a mule? Ride it down I-405 on my commute to Kirkland?

I don’t spend much time thinking about reparations because I’m pretty sure I have a higher chance of winning the lottery.

A post-Civil War woodcut shows a black farmer plowing in South Carolina. (Public Domain)
A post-Civil War woodcut shows a black farmer plowing in South Carolina. (Public Domain)

But the idea behind Marin’s project is not reparations for slavery.

“I think there’s no way you can make up for slavery,” said Marin over brunch. “But we can comfort each other right now in the present. There are people who I feel like need comfort and support and care. Material goods. And there are tons, tons of white people who are well meaning and want to do something to help and rather than stay in these isolated worlds. Why not make a space where people can connect?”

Though created by a black woman, it’s not even specifically targeted to black people, but to all people of color, in an acknowledgement of the shared history of systemic oppression.

Rather than putting the onus on systems and government to fix the imbalance of power and privilege, what Marin has done is to allow white people to acknowledge the ways in which they have been privileged and to take that privilege and redistribute it in a very personal way.

“Lend your car to somebody. Write somebody a reference… Take your whiteness and like vouch for somebody on a rental application. How much does that cost you?”  Marin asked and answered. “Nothing but time. And these are actual measurable ways that white people can help people of color. It’s also about recognizing in these acts where your privilege lies. The effect, I think has been people actually getting to know each other right now.”

After the back-to-back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, Marin says her Facebook page was filled with angry and grieving people.

“So I thought, let me throw up a reparations page that just allows people to offer what they can as a way of assuaging their guilt or, I don’t know, making it feel like they are actually doing something as opposed to just watching police brutality videos and feeling like crap.”

This was last Friday. And already there are hundreds of offers and requests on the page, most of them centered around Seattle, but also Baltimore, Miami, even as far away as Chile and Germany. One woman wrote to Marin suggesting she create a website. Another volunteered to help. So over the weekend a new platform was created.

The response hasn’t all been positive. Marin has been inundated with trolls calling her the “N word” and a racist. But local benefactors have volunteered to donate $1 for every racist email or post she has to deal with. If you would like to donate to the “troll fund” there’s even a place to do so on the new website.

The "Troll Fund" page of Reparations.me (Screenshot)
The “Troll Fund” page of Reparations.me (Screenshot)

Is this charity?

“I don’t think of this as charity. I think of it as good people, regardless of what color they are, get a good feeling from being able to help somebody,” said Marin. “Your network can help you find that person that can help you. And this is basically a bunch of people of all different colors taking advantage of the fact that we have these networks that connect us.”

While fascinated by the concept, I also felt a deep discomfort with the idea of asking white strangers for help. My first instinct was that I don’t actually need help. I have a job that pays the bills. I own my own home. Yes I am still impacted daily by systemic oppression, but I am better off than a lot of people.

While the southern side of my family struggled with poverty, the northern side managed to eke out some generational wealth due to my great grandmother’s line of haircare products and the fact that she founded the first black beauty school in the state of Iowa. This afforded my grandmother and subsequently my mother the opportunity to pursue higher education, which ensured that I grew up in a stable middle class environment.

I’ve always thought my healing was my own responsibility and something I would just have to spiritually bootstrap.

That being said I spent the majority of last week sobbing in strange places, ducking into bathroom stalls, crying in my car and on the disgusting yoga mat at my gym, then trying to pull it together enough to make it through my work day. I’ve been pretending at normal for so long that I have created a new normal where I can function surprisingly well and contain my internal turmoil to 10 minute intervals of depression before washing my face and moving on.

I know I must sound crazy. But let me just state this fact: I live in a country where it is not a crime to kill me. I live in a country where I am casually dehumanized on a regular basis and told to get the fuck over it.

I don’t just live here, I was born and raised here. Generationally there are no records of any of my relatives living or dead that aren’t from here. America is in my blood, and it is toxic. So in reading Marin’s invitation to ask for what I need and to open myself up for the purpose of restoring my faith in humanity, my first instinct was “no thank you.”

Let me explain: In asking me to receive, I would also have to give, I would have to trust that this interaction wouldn’t put me into contact with people who would further damage me. We talk all the time about white fragility, but damn it as a black American woman I am hella fragile right now. And while I really could use a hug, a massage and $100 million dollars, I barely trust white people not to shoot me in the street. I am also used to being the person who gives, not the one who receives.

What can we really ask for?

In processing my own relationship to the page, I reached out to others to hear their perspectives.

“I would not participate in reparations the way others might,” said writer Anastacia Renee Tolbert, a black woman with her own concerns about vulnerability. “But I am a staunch supporter of reparations and I feel like we all want things. Some of them are not quantified by materialism. I would like a million apologies. And if a white person could type ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ and send it to me, I would be happy with that.”

Bettina Judd, professor of gender and women studies, also a black woman, said she plans on participating in the experiment.

“I think it’s a brilliant way to put reparations back on the table as a real thing and to see how the micro-aggressions that we experience, the everyday experiences of racism, the seemingly benign experiences of racism, can be at least mitigated by some benign acts of kindness that would otherwise not befall black folks and other folks of color.”

Judd hasn’t decided what to ask for yet: “I’m with Anastacia in that there is not enough to give, so it’ll be…no matter how many things one might ask for it won’t be enough. But that’s just going to be the condition of our healing until we’re healed.”

Seattle artist and activist Natasha Marin (aka Tashi Ko), who created the Reparations project on Facebook. (Courtesy photo)
Seattle artist and activist Natasha Marin (aka Tashi Ko), who created the Reparations project on Facebook. (Courtesy photo)

While reparations is a concept based on repair coming from the outside in, I’ve always thought my healing was my own responsibility and something I would just have to spiritually bootstrap without any hope of apology or systemic acknowledgement.

But reading through the posts forced me to consider what I might need in a real way, but also what I would be willing to accept. I found that there was a difference between the two — that there were things I couldn’t bring myself to ask for regardless of whether I felt I wanted, needed or deserved them.

It made me wonder what’s really at stake in this personal act of giving and receiving? What scared me most about the idea of asking for what I need is first having to admit that I have needs, and then second the idea of admitting that to a white stranger and asking them to help fill the need.

But then I began to think about the love and support I’ve received over the last two weeks. Without me ever asking, friends of all colors have called me to check in, brought me food, and cried with me when I could bring myself to cry in front of them. And I have felt closer to them because of it.

Maybe strangers need to feel closer to one another, maybe we need to connect in order to begin repairing the incomprehensible state of inhumanity our country is in. Maybe white people need to know that I am hurt and have needs. Maybe people of color need to know that there are white people out there who feel as devastated as we do and who want to be good human beings.

With this in mind, I made an ask.

Art has always helped me through hard times, so I asked for a gift card to my favorite art store to replenish my paint and glitter supply. Within an hour a woman responded, not with money, but with a care package of actual paint and glitter. Through our brief exchange I felt a glimmer of that hope that Marin is trying to create, that there is some possible remedy to all this hurt and separation. But I also still acutely felt the risk of trying.

White people get on board

I was curious to hear from people who were making offers about what made them take the risk. Dan Joslin, a white man from Tacoma posted an offer that included small tree pruning, hauling, groceries, poetry, and art supplies. No one has taken him up on it just yet.

“If someone doesn’t want to be involved or they just want to take me up on it that’s fine,” said Joslin when I contacted him. “But if there’s an opportunity to work for somebody for the day or help somebody who needs it, I’d love to be able to meet with them and share a smile and a laugh.”

Dan Joslin's post on the Reparations Facebook page.

As I watched the newsfeed over the weekend, I saw a reoccurring theme: Regardless of what the asks and offers were, the magic of the page lay in the connection.

“For me I think it can only be good. It’s gonna be something that I feel passionate about and hopefully the people that are on the other end of this that I’m meeting and engaging with…that I’m able to bring something to their lives that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have,” said Joslin. “ I’m not looking so much for me, I’m looking for the outreach and the way to communicate in multiple different ways with people that I might not have otherwise met.”

Jane Hinton a white woman from Seattle found herself similarly fascinated by the page.

Hinton responded to a request from a woman of color who was transitioning into a new job. After years of working in the non-profit sector, she offered resume editing as a form of support.

While she believes the approach is innovative and powerful, Hinton worries that there will be white people who use it as a vehicle to assuage guilt committing to broader change.

“It’s not like a pardon from racism… you still have to check yourself and make sure you’re living in a way that matches your beliefs.”

“The part… that makes me nervous is that it’s on an individual level, and you can’t just do the individual work, you have to also do systems changing work,” she said.

“No matter how much work you do politically or how many times I have conversations about race with my white relative, no matter how many times I vote or sign a petition, or I march or whatever the different political actions are, there is this desire also to make impact individually,” she went on. “That’s the beauty of the experiment. It allows me to say oh I have this skill or gift because of my privileged position and I can share it.”

Where do other POC fit in?

As I scrolled down the feed, one woman identified herself as mixed race, Filipino and White. In her post she chose to both ask for something and offer.

Esmy Jimenez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who identifies as Mestiza, says she felt unclear on how to approach her involvement.

“I absolutely think this is a fascinating event and I really like how people are stepping up and saying ‘okay this is how I can contribute.’ But there wasn’t really guidelines for everybody else who wasn’t white or wasn’t black. That made me a little nervous frankly.”

Marin wants to make it clear that everyone is invited to participate: “Its absolutely broader than black and white. People of color are welcome to choose how they identify and whether they want to participate in offering or asking.”

Despite her trepidation, Jimenez says she plans participate in the page.

“This whole, like, being nervous and not acting is not helping. That’s the opposite of progress. So you better go do it and learn from the mistake rather than not doing that all,” she said.

What can we as a community do to redistribute the balance of power and privilege?

Through this project Marin is encouraging people to connect with one another to assess and quantify their own privilege in relation to their intersectional identities, for the purpose of improving the everyday lives of people in our community.

“But what I don’t want is for white people to do any asking,” Marin said. She wants to be clear that the appropriate way for white people to participate is solely through giving.

“Maybe you can’t stop racism in the United States, but if you can help a single black mom have a 90 minute massage you’ve actually done something substantive to help somebody,” said Marin, who also emphasizes that the purpose of the project is not absolution.

“It’s not like a pardon from racism… you still have to check yourself and make sure you’re living in a way that matches your beliefs,” Marin said, “but it’s a place to start.”

A care package of art supplies, no matter how lovingly given, could never equal the weight of what I’ve endured in my 36 years of living life as a black woman in America.

But the gift isn’t just the material item. It’s that through the giving and receiving a humanizing connection is made between strangers.

In a recent column I explored the difference between allyship and being an accomplice. Marin has taken this concept and put it into action. What are you willing to give? What are you willing to receive? And what can we as a community do to redistribute the balance of power and privilege?

 

Lead image: Sky writing over Sydney, Australia on National Sorry Day, when the country atones for historic mistreatment of its indigenous population. (Photo from Flickr by butupu)

This post has been updated since it was first published. Due to an editorial error Bettina Judd was misidentified as working at University of Maryland.

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5 Comments

  1. I’m not White and I find this awfully disturbing and disgusting. My country has been colonized, brutalized, and taken over by several countries. Nevertheless my family overcame hardships living in a third world country, and now currently live and work in the states in a middle class neighborhood. You want something, you work hard for it. Shit like this makes me look down on black people. This doesn’t fix problems, it just further divides us more.

    1. You obviously don’t know the entire slavery problem from begin to end. Your “Third world” country didn’t whip or kill you for reading or writing. They didn’t take your religious beliefs and or practices from you. You were not taught to hate your own for generations (Willie Lynch papers). Black people built this nation for free. The mental effects of American slavery will last a long time in some families. Black work hard in country. That does not mean we are treated equal.

  2. It was the Democratic party that fought against states rights. Dredd Scott forced the free states to follow federal law and return fugitive slaves. It was the Democrat party that declared war on the Republic to defend slavery. The Democrats were the KKK. The Democrats enforced Jim Crow laws. The Democrats drew the redlines.
    I am a descendant of New Englaners, and a Republican. What do I owe you? To the best of my knowledge the ancestors on my American side fought for the Union. About 642,427 wounded, missing, or killed out of 3,950,526 who served in the Union Army. There were 2,672,341 slaves in the 1860 census. 1.5 soldiers served for each of slave. There was Union Casualty for every 5 slaves in captivity at the beginning of the war. Where do these lives fit in your deadly calculus? The Republicans wore blue. Do these blue lives matter?

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