To make reparations, is to repair or make right a situation in which someone has been harmed, and you have played a role.
A lot of folks don't seem to understand what reparations are. So lets remove race from the picture all together for a moment. Let’s imagine you are pet sitting for your very best friend.
Imagine you are out walking their dog, and decide to let the dog off the leash in a field to play fetch. Unexpectedly a car backfires nearby, and startles the dog. The dog runs away. Imagine you unintentionally lose their beloved pet.
Would you stand there and do nothing or would you try to make the situation right?
Likely, you would try to chase after the dog. If you couldn’t catch the dog on foot, you might drive around looking for it and calling it’s name. You might ask people in the area if they saw the dog. You might make posters, or contact local shelters. You’d probably google “how to find a lost dog”. There would be many avenues you’d try to make things right. Eventually, you’d have to fess up to your friend.
Now what if the dog was hit by a car and died? The situation then might feel a bit more irreparable, because all chances of restoring your friend’s connection with their dog would be lost. In this case, would you set aside your own feelings of guilt or shame in order to comfort your friend through their grief? Might you grieve with them? Would you offer to get them a new dog when they were ready even though you knew you could never replace the old dog? Would you try to make things right, even if your friend was angry, in deep suffering, and found it hard to forgive you?
To make reparations, is to repair or make right a situation in which someone has been harmed, and you have played a role. Making reparations is not about nullifying a harm that has happened. Its not about minimizing, or erasing the guilt of having participated in an act (willing or unwilling) that resulted in someone’s suffering. It’s about making things right.
Although you did not cause the car to backfire in this imagined scenario, you did take the dog off the leash, and so ultimately you played a role in the dog running away. Likely, you’d feel partially responsible for the loss of the dog.
In the same way you may not have created white supremacy, certainly you have been in indoctrinated into it (we all have, regardless of race), and if you are white or even white-passing, you benefit from it. How?
When you get pulled over, and the police give you the benefit of the doubt and don’t shoot you over a burnt out tail light.
Even if you do commit a crime, you’re more likely to be arrested, receive a fair trial, and be allowed to be accountable for your actions instead of being murdered by police. You even benefit from the chances that the people on the jury and the judge look like you.
When buying undergarments, makeup, and band-aids in “nude” and your skin tone is within the range of assumed nude. You benefit from being able to buying shampoo that is made for your hair type at the grocery store rather than an expensive specialty shop.
If you own a nice car, you get the benefit of the doubt that you did not steal it. If you own a nice apartment, no one assumes you’re trying to break into the building, even after you show them your key.
Another benefit is going to the movies and seeing futuristic worlds, and romance stories, and heroes that look like you as the default.
You don’t have to earn these privileges. You didn’t even ask for them, but when the structures of a society are rooted in white supremacy you naturally benefit from being white or white-adjacent. This isn’t to suggest your life hasn’t had it’s challenges if you are white, it’s just that race hasn’t been an additional contributing factor to your struggle.
THE BLACK COMMUNITY HAS BEEN HARMED BY WHITE SUPREMACY AND THAT HARM IS ONGOING.
White supremacy has embedded itself into every facet of human life on Earth. From how beauty is represented in mass media across the globe, to who holds political and economic power, and gets to write the laws. Until June 2020 there were no official medical texts regarding how disease appears on dark skin. The film for our cameras is not made to capture brown skin; the vast majority of people who live in poverty worldwide have brown skin. The spiritual practices and cultures of people with brown skin are simultaneously demonized and commodified. In North America, people with brown skin face higher rates of infant mortality, heart disease, illiteracy, policy brutality, hunger, domestic violence.
There are two streams of thought as to why this happens.:
Either people believe that people with brown skin are inherently inferior; IE: white supremacist ideology. or As a result of longstanding colonization, enslavement, segregation, systemic oppression (including redlining, gerrymandering, internment camps, head taxes, laws which barred people from certain countries from obtaining citizenship, accessing education, voting, etc) people with brown skin have been very intentionally and systematically disadvantaged. IE; white supremacy in action.
Nowadays many white people would not have intentionally chosen to create a society which purposefully disadvantages Black, Indigenous, or people of colour. Many white people say they want to live in a world where there is peace and equality. They have a core value of love and kindness. They want to see things get better, but they don’t know where to start and the guilt of having lived an advantaged life can feel incapacitating.
Unpacking privilege can be especially disorienting for white people who have lived a life affected by poverty. They have experienced economic disparity within the structure of white supremacy, which promises whiteness prosperity but often fails to deliver on it, because by definition white supremacy cannot function without subjugation and exploitation. (On a side note: there was a really great article on MEDIUM recently that discussed ways to make reparations when don’t have economic status.)
REPARATIONS ARE A PRACTICE OF SPIRITUAL INTEGRITY.
The act of making reparations is an internal choice to begin making right a wrong. It is a personal, moral, and spiritual choice to make. It is through this act of de-centering, and dismantling whiteness that one allows the inner compass to return to an orientation of humanity, empathy, equality, compassion, and loving kindness.
One cannot wait for someone else to make right the wrongs we benefit from. Governments and corporate organizations alone cannot make reparations, because governments and organizations are structures which are run and organized by people. When the people who run and organize within them feel the need to make things right, the structures they organize and operate within naturally follow these changes. The act of reparations as an intentional act of peace-creating is deeply personal, since it originates within, even when it’s reaches have social impact.
A FINAL NOTE ON REPARATIONS
Reparations are not an instantaneous process which absolves us from harms we caused. Reparations are not about making someone feel better about the harm they caused. They are not a one time act where you donate $50 to BLM and are absolved of a lifetime of guilt. Reparations are about doing what is right and just.
What is in the past may be in the past, but the reverberations of the past still echo in the body as traumas in the present. Just like your friend might feel devastated about their old dog even when you offer a new puppy. A new puppy is not enough. Your friend might need to talk to a therapist or seek healing to process their grief, frustration, and disappointment.
In the same way reparations do not guarantee forgiveness, smiles, or gratitude. Also, they only carry the potential to truly repair damaged relationships when they are given with a full, honest, and genuine heart. Giving financial reparations as proof of allyship, or to gain props / clout nullifies the very act. It is how whiteness as a construct seeks to exploit Black suffering in order to elevate itself to saintly status, rather than acknowledge and repair a harm done. So what can you do?
Practice giving reparations anonymously.
Give reparations without being asked.
Do not ask for social credit in return to giving reparations.
Practice giving reparations to activists who are on the front line doing work you benefit from, even when it makes you uncomfortable.
True reparations will deplete the white community financially – they are intended to do exactly that because they are the collective redistribution of economic power. Let go of any ideas that you are owed goodness, kindness, or elevation through your choice to repair an imbalance.