Over the weekend, 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 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/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 needs regularly 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. She wanted to "demand what [she] felt was [her] right," and to own that demand. "We tell ourselves we live in one of the most progressive cities in the world," she said. "There’s no way a woman and her 7-month-old child should be this stressed getting around in this city." And so she made her request and started herself 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 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 far, only Jill and Jenny have contributed to the 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."
Emily Batlan used that same phrase—"bridge a gap." She's an academic advisor at University of Washington-Bothell. The recent shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights spurred her 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. Gloria works a lot of sporadic contract jobs. One of them requires her to travel to a handful of 7-11s around the city, but she needed a ride in order to do that.
"I have total insomnia right now," Batlan thought, "So sure, I’ll do it, what the heck?"
Batlan messaged Gloria, and then they started texting. Gloria told Batlan that she found it hard to ask for help, but that she was late on these audits and would lose money if she didn't figure out something quick. Batlan said she was happy to pick up Gloria at her apartment and drive her around town. The whole process was only going to take about an hour and a half, anyway. 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 what about white guilt? Aren't people just doing this to assuage their white guilt? "If people are doing this to assuage their white guilt, at least they’re taking a step towards becoming aware that confronting bias and white privilege is really uncomfortable," she 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."
Wanting to make a positive contribution immediately. That's one of the main reasons Natasha Marin built the webpage. "I'm particularly exhausted by this notion that folks, especially white folks, are somehow helpless to make a difference" she said. "That couldn't be farther from the truth."
She says that white people have "a lot of power and privilege at their disposal that can be leveraged to offset some of the trauma that people of color are dealing with daily," and that she wants people "to feel empowered to DO SOMETHING." Hence the micro-crowdfunding/crowdsourcing website, Reparations.me, which connects people who otherwise may not have been connected.
But for people who are not as quick to jump into the experiment as Jones, Jill, Batlan, and Gloria are, for people 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.
"Reparations.me" triggers a series of complicated questions with no ready answers. Does this site 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." She says Reparations.me "is a way to turn inaction into action, but is in no way a pardon for years of systemic abuse. This is a start, but it's not an end."
And is it better for a white person to just feel guilty and do nothing, or is it better to risk going out into the world and meeting with someone and giving where you can if you can? 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, who requested a kidney donor in addition to $2,5000 for school supplies, might have his request fulfilled by his sister, Angel, who is also black.
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 deeply troubled. He is a minister and she is a proud atheist, and that is the least of their disagreements. Nevertheless, "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," she said. "He has daughters—one who looks exactly like me. I could never stand to see the cry."
So she offered up her kidney. Her kidney. On the Reparations Facebook page, Eddie thanked her 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.
Angel is grateful for the site. "It 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 apparent and emotional needs. "I need to know [places such as Reparations.me] are there," she said.
Reparations. That word is so 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. What would Marin say to people who feel as if her use of the word is so general that it undercuts the fight for reparations for slavery?
"As a word nerd, I just wanna remind super literate Seattle that the word 'reparations' refers to the action of repairing something. So many things are broken," she said. "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)."
The fight for "capital 'R' Reparations" seems relatively small, but its certainly ongoing. Congressman John Conyers Jr. [D-Michigan] annually brings to the house floor H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations proposals. The bill always gets committeed out of existence. To support congressman Conyers's effort, one can, as always, call or e-mail one's Senators and representatives and urge them to support the bill.
In 2010, the NAACP signed a resolution calling for a systemic approach to reparations, encouraging the feds to "improve the conditions of 2010 African-Americans through better schools, health clinics, job training, environmental cleanup of landfills, and other such environmental injustice." The organization has also challenged private corporations with ties to slavery to be publish diversity reports and to address their history with the slave trade in some meaningful way.
It takes about ten minutes to call up a few representatives, and even less to donate what you can to NAACP. Time, then, doesn't seem like much of a constraint on a person's ability to fight for uppercase and lowercase reparations, and it's hard to imagine a person who would be willing to lend her car to someone but not call her local representative and request action on the subject.
The pain that Reparations.me seeks to repair is rooted in white supremacy and perpetuated by public policies, but there's a gap between longterm legislative efforts to end those policies and the more immediate need to offer some pain relief to people of color who 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."
While it's of course 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/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.
*This post has been updated.