Reparations, or How to be a Great Ancestor in This Time

Image is of old black and white photographs in a worn wooden box, presumably the photographer’s family members from earlier times.

Image is of old black and white photographs in a worn wooden box, presumably the photographer’s family members from earlier times.

In the wake of last week’s historic reparations hearings, this felt like the right time to finally try and write down what I’ve been thinking about a lot this year (or really since my daughter was born 10 months ago). This odd, burning question: how can I be a great ancestor in this time?

The question is really an aspiration, a way to evaluate my principles and actions (as well as inaction) with an eye on the arc of history. It’s one we should all try asking ourselves, whether we have kids or not, in light of a growing body of evidence that shows the traumas we inflict on each other get imprinted on our DNA and passed into the future one way or another.

And when it comes to white Americans like me,* we’ve inflicted some ridiculous trauma on the ancestors of just about everyone who doesn’t look like us. It’s almost unfathomable, really.

It’s why the ten-year old version of me probably would have agreed with Mitch McConnell’s argument that we shouldn’t pay reparations because none of us were around back then. (“I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! That was such a long time ago, can’t you just get over it?”)

The current version of me sees it a little differently. I know that even if your ancestors never stole land from Native Americans, didn’t own slaves, came to this country post-Civil War, or you bloom from a long vine of abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights activists, the reality is that white people have inherited the sins of white supremacy regardless. We benefited from it then; we benefit from it now.

It’s probably obvious that I’m pro-reparations. The argument seems so clear-cut to me: after some eight generations of slavery and at least five more generations of racist policies and State-sponsored violence against black Americans, in which it has been nearly impossible to accumulate and pass down any kind of wealth, simple justice demands some kind of restitution. We will never wake up in an equitable country without it, not when so much has been stolen away for so long.

And yet, should we really be compelling people to pay for the sins of their fathers? What if our ancestors were on the right side of history, would reparations feel like justice then?

If Trump has taught us anything, it’s that there’s merit to the idea that forcing the issue could actually lead to an aggravation rather than a healing of racial enmity between black and white Americans (shoutout to reverse racism). There’s merit to the cry that the current generation shouldn’t be punished for mistakes that were made decades ago. Hell, there’s even some merit to the argument that at least a good portion of white people didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong, as outrageous and triggering as that might sound.

To anyone who rejects that idea outright, let me just offer this: part of the reason that I’m vegetarian is because I believe that future generations will look back on the time we live in now and wonder how we could have possibly thought it was moral to forcibly breed, medicate, cram into pens and then slaughter literally billions of animals for food every year.** If you’ve never seen what goes on inside a factory farm, I invite you to have a look, just this one time (WARNING: graphic images).

To be very clear, slavery and factory farming aren’t the same thing; there is absolutely no equating the two, period.

My point is that history has shown that our ancestors (especially the white ones) have struggled to recognize the injustices of their times. I suspect we all have racist, homophobic, and/or misogynistic relatives of one form or another alive today. I also suspect many of us love them, in spite of it. We give them passes about not knowing better or being born in a different era. But would we accept those excuses being said about us? What injustices are we failing to recognize today?

This is what I am trying to take to heart every day. It’s why I out myself as a person with class and wealth privilege and work in service of those whose land, labor and lives were stolen (and still are) by people who look like me. Extreme wealth inequality is the outcome of a profoundly unjust society. It’s time to stop making excuses about whose fault it was and start giving what I can to social justice movements led by people of color and poor, working class communities.

It’s also time for something else that will have implications long into the future: giving my inheritance away. Absolutely life-changing money. But it isn’t mine, so there isn’t anything heroic about this.

It’s just an attempt to be a better ancestor. Instead of keeping it and building on it in ways that most black people in this country have never been allowed to do, I will give it and invest it all in those who are building a more just society. It’s the best thing I could possibly do with it, for my daughter as much as anyone.

Though I wonder, what will she think of this decision? And the grandkids, if there are any? Isn’t the one in the family tree who squandered the wealth supposed to be the worst of all? I suppose we’ll have that conversation when the day comes.

All I’ll really have to say when it does is what I’d like to think many parents tell their kids at some point: “love, I just tried to imagine you living in a better world than we did, and I did what I could to make it real.”

*I self-identify as biracial white/Asian, but I look white and that has definitely been my lived experience.

**I see you, vegans, and I am working on the eggs and dairy drawdown.