Riting on Reparations (pt 1)

Tiny - Posted on 15 May 2011

The following are six different "reparations" narratives by six anonymous authors excerpted from the chapter... From Removal to Reparations in the upcoming book: Poverty Scholarship #101 The Population Brings the Popular EduKashun- a PeopleSText which will be released in 2012

1) Blood Money from People with long-term memory loss...

blood money from people with long-term memory loss. for whom forgetting, not looking back, is the only way to reconcile. land-grabs from indigenous people, that’s literally where the root of my money is. white european settlers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. the captors of pocahontas, mr. founding father thomas jefferson himself - this is my blood, passed down and down, but still in mine, trickling directly through the centuries of a family tree to present day. milking capitalism, too - taking part in the rat race and winning. using privilege to make more privilege - a tip off before the great stock market crash of 1929 saved my great-grandmother’s bank account. privilege begets privilege.

i think my family - the whole extended networks of ancestral aristocrats -  doesn't oft remember this. in fact i think they choose to forget (sometimes i do too). the past is in the past. true to the WASP form, there is little emotion, even little attachment. what’s done is done, that’s what they say. we can only do what we do now. it’s a learned pattern, so i’ve learned to forgive them. it’s not their fault - it’s not my fault.

thinking of all the resources i have overwhelms me - a trust fund, a savings account, a stable job, healthcare, an apartment, my parents’ house. a father in politics, a doctor for a mother. a lifetime of consistent (western) healthcare, vaccines, TLC and ample time off when i’m ill. always a multitude of vegetables, fruits, local foods and wholesome options. enough space and time in my life to cook food and enjoy it. enough space and time in my life to sleep for 8 hours a night and enjoy it. braces when my teeth were crooked, eye exams when my vision was questioned. specialty therapists when i felt depressed, specialty therapists when i had an eating disorder. uncles and grandfathers in high places at prestigious universities, who’ve hobnobbed with presidential candidates and their ilk. a network at wesleyan and beyond of professors, academic resources, bright-eyed young people with a college education and a background like mine. 40 hours a week (at least!) spent connecting with other young wealthy folks. innumerable friends with apartments, innumerable family members and extended community members with homes with extra beds.

parents who love me, whom i love fiercely right back. who would take me in and hold me - emotionally and financially - for as long and as deeply as i ever needed. a sister who who do anything for me. friends who i can call when i go on a shitty date, or when i hear a funny joke, or when my grandparents pass away.

2) I will never be without a food or home

Rich people traded pieces of earth among themselves as if they were theirs to trade, and someone I love facilitated those transactions for a percentage of the sale costs, and a small share of that share was passed along to me. But even that sliver of a sliver of huge dollar amounts is big enough that I have the safety net of knowing that whatever I might do, whatever choices I might make, through no work or effort of my own, and on the backs of people who have been displaced, gentrified out of their longtime homes, whose entire neighborhood, where their families in many cases had lived for generations, was completely changed without their consent, I will have a chunk of money coming to me that means I will never be without food or a home. On other people’s backs, my basic needs, for the rest of my life, will be met.

What makes sense within the dominant economic system makes no sense when all the lives, people's and earth’s included, are acknowledged. What seems to make sense within this system—that earth can be divided up and owned and traded, that people can profit off other people’s housing and have so little responsibility to them—just doesn’t. There are so many unacknowledged costs: stories upon stories, lives, life, of people who were shoved out, displaced, disrespected, disregarded, unacknowledged—the people buying and selling have to blame them or make them wrong when they manage to notice them at all in order to justify to themselves what they are doing—stories upon stories, lives, life of land partitioned and owned, traded, with no regard for its life and needs and wholeness outside of its utility to whoever happens to “own” it at a given moment, then whoever comes next, with no regard for the people who live there without the entitlement ownership confers, whose payment for their housing enriches the very owners who are unaccountable to, unconcerned with them when the time comes for another trade.

I could consider as “mine” money that streams to me through an accident of birth in the context of white supremacy, colonialism, earth exploitation, and capitalism, but only if I shut my heart, spirit, and mind to huge pieces of the story, only if I am willing to not notice impacts, not register the whole. I could consider this money “mine” and use it as such only if I were willing to not be whole and I am not.

To be whole, to even move or aspire or dream toward wholeness within a context of thousands of years of violence enabled in part by fragmentation and disassociation, requires facing the fact that the entire earth is a whole, that each aspect of it is connected to each other. That it is all and we are all in some senses already whole, but we have been violently disassociated from that fact, and there is no true wealth or security or fulfillment in “benefiting” from violence and disassociation.

I make reparations through POOR and many other projects and people because what else would you do in the face of interconnectedness? Because interconnectedness is the truth and the obfuscation of that truth that makes exploitation and violence of all kinds a reality is trauma on trauma on trauma and reparations are one piece of healing that, and healing from that.

And while I make reparations and put heart and time into collaborative experiments toward interdependence, I learn from people who may not have the “privilege” of financial resources earned at other people’s and the earth’s expense things about love and mutual support and family and spirit that the money I have been given, the famous and powerful people I have known, have not given, could not possibly give, me. Reparations are part of dreaming for communities, for the earth, for the truth of interconnectedness, in waking life, in action.  

3)Unlearning the Lie

In my life I have made money and not made money. Sometimes living off the inherited stolen profits and wealth from my family. But class privilege and wealth is so much more than the material things. I have an effervescent positivity and optimism, generated by never having to worry about money. I have a sense of freedom in how I move about the world that lets me enjoy confidence, that is reinforced because people respond well to confident energy. I can afford to share resources, including time, with friends and aqcuaintences, and get a lot of credit and praise for “being there” for people and being a “good friend” because I can afford to consistently prioritize people I care about, not needing to hold on to a job or save money on transportation to get places. My relationship  to wealth, stolen capital, affects every relationship I have. It is direct access to often invisibilized power, a power that is seductive to hold onto and that so many folks, even with tight anti-capitalist analysis, are also attracted to. It makes me feel and makes me get treated as super-human, superior. Someone who’s time actually is more valuable than other people’s, just like I was told everyday growing up that I was one of the “best and brightest.”
Unlearning that lie can’t happen just in the classroom, even in peopleskool. It’s going to take practice. Living without direct access to wealth. It’s going to take vulnerability, anxiety, disappointment, and loss. I won’t ever experience Poverty Scholarship (probably). There is money in my name I don’t have control over, but will be available for emergencies, including medical emergencies. I could live with either of my parents—I won’t go houseless even if I can’t work and make rent. I am learning from peopleskool that I need to let go of this extra extra privilege. I need to let go of enough that I can start experiencing my humanity. Asking for help. Not being the hero at the meeting who takes on huge tasks because I have limitless time. Disappointing friends that I can’t see whenever we both want. Not being able to buy whatever I want whenever I want it, or live anywhere I want, or spend my time however I want. I am afraid to give these things up. But I know the cost of these privileges is a separation from what it is to be human in this world, and an allegiance, no matter how subtle, with the system of capitalism.

4) Class Ascendance

My father and our family returned to the US from Turkey, and he got a degree at UC Santa Cruz. He was a member of the first graduating class at this experimental college. Like my Grandpa, he was the recipient of state-subsidized financial aid before the days of affirmative action, and got through school basically for free because he had traveled through Europe, Asia and the US, accumulating experiences that signified his complex and unique perspective on the world. Inheriting my Grandpa's legacy as a world traveler, he was able to use the paths that US imperialism had carved before him to advance academic interests in obscure and exotic subject matter. He and his revolutionary ideas learned from time spent with Italian Socialists took off for Cornell Graduate School (Dad was a legacy now), where he became  a scholar of Antonin Gramsci and Socialist organizing. He didn't have a lot of spending money, but he was provided a stipend to cover food and housing through various fellowships and loans thru his Akkkademic networks. He got to travel to Italy and finished his dissertation, after which he was hired to teach politics at SUNY Albany, where he and my mom met. He was a professional now, living cheap in the de-industrialized city of Albany NY. There are lots of pictures of my parents' earlier life together in bucolic upstate New York, dressed in dapper '70s tweed and silk prints, or bakcpacking through the granite-faced, deep green Adirondacks during summer break, or sitting with healthy, tanned friends around the coffee table.

Through my ancestors' experiences of world cosmopolitan travel and research, I have inherited financial security directly tied to the caste/apartheid system we have here in the US, and worldwide tourist and academic institutions. From my Jewish great-great grandparents, who could easily find jobs in the racially-charged industrial economy of World War I; to my grandparents, who were eligible for loans to buy a house during the 1940s and 1950s white flight; to my dad, whose increasingly exclusive education had been financed by US military and academic imperialism....with each generation, my family's class ascendence has been subsidized State institutions designed to support white families at the expense of everyone else. I have grown up caring deeply about my parents' stories of travel, study, and adventure, hoping to emulate their curiosity about the world and their wish to make it better. My head is filled with some very complex questions about how I can best transform the culture of imperialism and entitlement that my family has grown wealthy within. I need to repair the patterns of inheritance, to challenge ideas about what a rich life of knowledge might mean, and to heal some of the wounds that my family's extraction of resources have inflicted.

5) Because Capitalism is so Violent

As i write this, i realize more and more that i don’t really understand what my mom does, how her work fits into this economic system. the company she works for now, the company she’s paid to legally protect, trades in things that aren’t real, that i can’t touch. insurance, annuities, portfolios. these are ways to make rich people’s money “grow,” and to provide rich people with the feeling that Certain Financial Decisions will keep us safe until we die, without having to rely on anyone else. the  company's website says: “how much is enough? how much would you need to accumulate over time to fund a 20-year retirement?” 

money “growing” means that people, somewhere, are working without being paid what their work is worth, and that that money is being siphoned into financial markets, which contain things like ‘annuities.’
because capitalism is so violent to so many people, and because it doesn’t make sense for the things our souls long for, it takes intense labor to keep it standing. so the kind of work that people in my family do, that help keep these enormous companies and structures intact and humming smoothly, is crucial to the system. and so my mom gets paid more than almost almost almost anyone else in the world.
some of the reparations i owe, at least the ones i can trace directly through my immediate family, are vague, enormous. it’s the heart of this economic system, of people trading in non-tangibles, in things that don’t help anyone meet their basic needs. some are a little more specific: affirmative action, which brought my mom where she is today, grew from civil rights and freedom struggles that demanded something much bigger, and whose visions are still visions—visions that demand reparations from me and my family.

6) For Class Privileged Peoples

I think it’s crucial to draw connections – between media storytelling and the stories we tell in our families; between the racism of politicians and legislators and the insidious, institutionalized racism that affects us without our even realizing it; between the paternalism of philanthropy and the privilege that we as individuals unconsciously enact; between the oppression by obvious perpetrators like police, military, and sweatshop-owning, union-busting multinational corporations and the oppression underlying our personal family fortunes.
Anti-capitalist social justice movements continually inspire me to challenge myself as a rich person and to challenge other rich people, because they situate us as players in systems that deeply harm the majority of people on the planet. It’s crucial to me to incorporate a radical critique of capitalism into both my understanding of my own wealth and privilege and into the donor organizing work I do. The “progressive philanthropy” world tends to take a stance that resists truly challenging capitalism and oppression in order to accommodate more moderate wealthy donors. Much of the landscape of social change philanthropy seems designed to make rich people feel better about ourselves and to channel some funds to progressive (or even radical) organizing without actually challenging the roots of inequality.

You don’t have to look hard to find clear explanations of how capitalism is inextricably linked to multiple oppressions: racism, through (for example) slavery, imperialist acquisition of land and raw materials, and dividing white and POC workers to keep them from organizing; sexism, through exploiting the labor of women (who are already culturally devalued) and relying on women’s unpaid and unrecognized labor; ableism, through laws allowing companies to hire people with disabilities at less than minimum wages; and so on.

We should talk about these things when we talk about having class privilege, because as the beneficiaries of capitalism we are implicated whether we like it or not. For white folks with class privilege, the history that gets erased when we tell our simplistic “pulled-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps” money stories is the (continuing) history of explicit and institutionalized racism in the U.S. Some of us can trace our inherited wealth to slavery or other systems in which white people directly profited off of the stolen labor or land of people of color. Even for those of us with “new” money, previous generations of our families are more than likely to have benefited from racist policies and institutions that helped white people and discriminated against people of color (Homestead Act, G.I. Bill, land grants, New Deal, loans, jobs, contracts, unions…). Throughout U.S. history, people of color have been explicitly prohibited by racist government policy from building assets; and since the most important indicator of wealth is how much money your parents had, cultural myths about a “level playing field” start to look pretty empty.

For class-privileged people to be allies in social justice movements, we have to take responsibility for the bigger picture behind our own wealth. Our personal decisions about money and the stories we tell (to ourselves and others) have reflections and repercussions connected to our place in the larger class system. Challenging these decisions and narratives, and challenging ourselves to look deeper, is a good way to start shifting our participation in oppressive systems.



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