The weekend of July 15, artist Natasha Marin tagged Rokea Jones in a Facebook group called "Reparations." Jones saw the group's title, saw the cover photo of a man holding an armful of kittens, and thought, "What the hell is this?"
She was skeptical, but she told herself to look into it more deeply. The group's description seemed pretty straightforward. Marin, 37, billed it as "a social media experiment." People who identify as white can offer goods and services to people of color. People of color can elect to accept those goods and services. Also, people of color can request goods and services they need.
So Jones did some serious soul-searching. She scrolled through the list of offers and requests. Other people were asking for small things—food, a drink, a trip to the spa. But what would feel like a reparation for her? Here she is, a black woman who is taking time off from her 10-year career as a chef so that she can be there for her seven-month-old daughter during her infancy, a woman who regularly needs to take her daughter (and herself) to wellness checks at the hospital, a woman who is also training to be a doula.
A car. She needs a car. She is going to ask for a car.
"There was definitely some fear," Jones said. "Low-income communities and communities of color are the first ones to be fed the American dream rhetoric, that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-manifest-density bullshit that America likes to portray but that is not necessarily true for all. With all that being driven into your thinking, subconsciously you feel some shame or fear when you ask for help."
But for Jones, a feeling of empowerment overcame the feeling of fear. "I wanted to demand what I felt was my right, and to own that demand," she said. "We tell ourselves we live in one of the most progressive cities in the world. There's no way a woman and her 7-month-old child should be this stressed getting around in this city."
And so she requested a car fund.
She got a response the same day.
"I can contribute to your car fund," a woman named Jenny wrote on Facebook, offering to lend Jones an "old but fully functional" car in the meantime. The car-sharing situation ended up not working out—Jones would have had to take a bus to the place where Jenny stored the car—but Jenny still contributed to the fund.
Another woman named Jill, who lives in Texas, also messaged Jones, saying that she'd contribute to the car fund. Before Jones and Jill started to work out the details, they got to know each other. Jill asked how old Jones's daughter was. Jones sent a photo. Her name is Ase. It's Yoruban for "life force." It's also a word used to close a prayer.
So now, she has a car fund.
"For many years, it's been a running joke—'I still want my 40 acres and a mule,'" Jones said. "I think this group is helping to paint a picture of what that might actually look like, in a way that doesn't feel like pulling teeth. I'm not saying it's healing all wounds, but it is helping to bridge a gap."
Though the US government has given monetary reparations for incarcerating Japanese Americans during WWII, and though many Native Americans have received some reparations in the form of money, land, and tribal recognition, the word "reparations" is most closely related to the fight for reparations for slavery, which affects descendants of the African slave trade in particular and not people of color in general.
The fight for "capital 'R' Reparations," most recently reinvigorated by Ta-Nehisi Coates's incredible essay "The Case for Reparations," is small but ongoing. Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) annually brings to the House floor HR 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations proposals. The bill always gets committeed out of existence.
There have been numerous reparations proposals, including cash settlements. (In 2000, Harpers estimated the labor between 1619 and 1865 plus 6 percent interest would amount to $100 trillion.)
Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown, has critiqued the idea of reparations, arguing in the New York Times that a cash settlement would inadequately address the issue of racism in the US and also inflame racial tensions: "Reparations would allow the majority of Americans to look at the situation as one where 'we' do something for 'them.'"
Does Marin's use of the word "reparations" undercut the fight for slavery reparations?
She didn't think so. "The word 'reparations' refers to the action of repairing something. So many things are broken," she said over Facebook Messenger. "But just like affirmative action doesn't 'undercut' the fight for equality, my little ole Facebook page and website can't possibly undercut the totally legitimate fight for capital 'R' Reparations (for American Slavery slash Capitalism)."
Marin isn't the only artist to approach the idea of "lowercase 'R'" reparations from an artistic perspective. The day Reparations.me launched, Lindsay Buchanan, an acupuncturist, organized an event in Portland, Oregon, called "Care Packages for POC Portlanders." The event included free auricular acupuncture treatment, tea, and "heart medicine, self-care things... and sweet love notes."
And Damali Ayo, another Portland-based artist, occasionally performs Living Flag. She hits the streets to collect money in a bucket and hand it back to a random black person at the end of the day.
Emily Batlan used the same phrase as Jones—"bridge a gap"—describing why she participated in Marin's project. The recent shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights spurred Batlan, an academic advisor at University of Washington Bothell, to act: "We can read about it, but what can we do about it?" she asked. Fulfilling the offers on the website just seemed like "a really refreshing, possible thing."
Sitting on her couch at around 8:30 p.m., Batlan saw that a woman named Gloria had put out a request for a ride. Gloria (who asked that The Stranger not print her last name) works many sporadic contract jobs. One of them required her to travel to a handful of 7-Elevens around the city that evening.
"I have total insomnia right now," Batlan thought, "so sure, I'll do it, what the heck?"
Batlan messaged Gloria. Gloria told Batlan that she found it hard to ask for help, but she would lose money if she didn't figure out something quick. Batlan said she was happy to drive Gloria around town. The whole process was only going to take about an hour and a half. It would have taken twice as long on a bus.
As they drove around Seattle, the two new acquaintances talked about the way the buildings around town have changed and about how high the rent was getting. They talked about photography, a mutual interest they discovered along the ride. Batlan asked if Gloria requested anything else on the site. She said she had—grocery money. Someone had already private messaged her and wired her some funds.
"It was caring, it was fun," Batlan said.
But are people like Batlan just appeasing their white guilt?
"If people are doing this to assuage their white guilt, at least they're taking a step toward becoming aware that confronting bias and white privilege is really uncomfortable," Batlan said. "It wasn't assuaging my white guilt. It was more about what I could do immediately. I wanted to make a positive contribution immediately."
Immediacy is one of the main reasons Marin built the webpage. "I'm particularly exhausted by this notion that folks, especially white folks, are somehow helpless to make a difference," Marin said. "That couldn't be farther from the truth."
Marin, whose show Remember Me is currently on view at Vermillion on Capitol Hill, has a history of creating digital art projects designed to connect people. Her Red Lineage project is a long-form, collective poem that "explores relationships to family through metaphor." She also maintains a blog called #WomanCentered, "a series of interviews [that] seeks to tell the inspiring, interconnected stories of women's reproductive health, rights, and empowerment."
But Reparations.me has caught on more quickly than she anticipated, garnering coverage on KING 5 and the Seattle Globalist since the launch.
The pain that Reparations.me seeks to repair has long roots, perpetuated today by mass incarceration, police brutality, and discriminatory housing policy. It is a long list. But there's a gap between long-term legislative efforts to end those policies and the more immediate need to offer some relief to people of color who, in this age of Black Lives Matter, feel as if their lives are in danger.
"These are reparations for this morning, last week, the day before yesterday," Marin said. "People of color in America are managing really high levels of stress right now." Marin wants people "to feel empowered to DO SOMETHING."
Employees from local businesses such as SugarPill and the Pacific Northwest Ballet have offered goods and services as well. But for those who are not as quick to jump into the experiment, whose initial impulse isn't to "do something" right away but rather to think about what all this "means," and to think about all the possible unintended consequences and moral murkinesses involved in action, a case of analysis paralysis can set in pretty quickly.
Though the concept of crowdfunding and shared services isn't new, the site's name and intention triggers a series of complicated questions with no ready answers. Does Reparations.me ultimately transform white guilt into a kind of Groupon for people of color? Is that... a bad idea? Could a white guy make up for wearing a sombrero to a cousin's Cinco de Mayo party by giving a Latino man a ride to work twice a week? Does this site really just set up a virtual white savior arena? Does the very name of the website somehow undermine the fight for reparations for slavery? Does this website perpetuate harmful stereotypes related to people of color? Is it racist to even have all of these thoughts?
A white person (who happens to be writing this article right now) might ask: "If I keep asking these questions until I enter that mental state where I'm thinking about nothing and just staring into the middle distance and hoping the correct answers will magically appear in my head, then have I performed what people call 'one of those conversations we need to be having?' Is it better to have another 'one of those conversations we need to be having' or to actually just listen to a person of color tell you what she needs to improve her life and try to provide that specific good or service if you can?"
Marin says she's choosing not to "center white people's feelings or concerns" about this website, but that many of her white friends do seek to "extricate themselves from the guilt they are mired in."
White guilt, after all, may be only one of the many motivating factors for action. Boredom, a sense of philanthropy, and curiosity are others.
A quick browse through the site suggests that Reparations.me isn't a virtual white savior arena, either. A few mixed-race people and people of color with means have made offers, and a black man named Eddie in Connecticut, who requested a kidney donor in addition to $2,500 for school supplies, might have his request fulfilled by his sister, Angel, who is also black and who lives here.
On Thursday, Angel saw Eddie's post, wherein he stated he'd been "patiently waiting, on dialysis" for a kidney donor. Angel knew vaguely that her brother was ill, but she didn't know the severity of his condition, as the relationship between the two is distant and troubled. He is a minister and she is a proud atheist. That is the least of their disagreements.
Nevertheless, Angel said, "None of my bad feelings toward him extend to not wanting the absolute best for him and for him to live as long as possible."
So she offered her kidney.
Eddie thanked her on the Reparations Facebook page, and the two began making arrangements. Even if the chances are low, Angel said she will still get their doctors in communication and take the necessary tests in order to initiate a process of determining a match.
The site "created a bridge to a relationship that I thought was too far away, both in terms of distance and bad feelings," she said. Separated from her family and from connections that other people take for granted, Angel said she and her son "wouldn't even be here" if it weren't for strangers responding to her needs. "I need to know [places such as Reparations.me] are there," she said.
Not everyone is as enthralled; Marin has volunteer moderators to monitor racist comments. On Slog, some commenters balked at the relatively small offers and also at what seemed liked luxury requests. Is a trip to the spa extraneous?
"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare," writes Audre Lorde in her book of essays, A Burst of Light.
Marin seems to agree with Lorde's notion: "I think we could make significant positive change in our societies and in the world just by making more time and space for women to care for themselves and each other," she said.
While it's possible for Marin's particular Reparations website to expand and become the hub for a national "small 'R'" reparations movement, it's just as likely that the website will inspire other artists and activists to try out the experiment for themselves in their own cities, with their own local social networks.
It is, after all, a social experiment. Seemed to go okay for the people who've already taken part.