By Hilary Giovale, author/organizer
As a child, I was taught in school that slavery ended in 1865, all thanks to the benevolence and heroism of President Abraham Lincoln. After that, there was some unrest in the 1960s, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Fortunately, slavery is now a relic of the past. Now, we know so much better, and every February is Black History Month.
Like most white children who were indoctrinated with this false history, I accepted that I was innocent, and that this history had nothing to do with me.
Our indulgence in the luxury of this denial needs to end.
The imprint of chattel slavery is woven throughout this nation’s fabric. Even if the United States government were capable of committing to some form of financial reparations, slavery produced spiritual debts that are ongoing, unfathomable, and unpayable.
What is the unpayable debt?
At 40 years of age, my white worldview shattered when I opened a book of family genealogy. The book was written by my great uncle, and it had been tucked away on a bookshelf for more than two decades.
I was sickened to learn that my 5th great-grandfather had received a land grant in North Carolina and had inherited enslaved people of the African diaspora. His descendants later purchased and sold African Americans in Mississippi.
Ever since reading the names of enslaved people on my ancestors’ lists of “property,” I have been navigating the shadows of the unpayable debt. I see it in how the institution of policing originated in the Antebellum South, with bands of armed men patrolling, terrorizing, and chasing down people who were trying to escape to freedom — in the reign of terror produced by lynching in the Jim Crow South — in the brutality of the Civil Rights movement — in racial profiling and state-sanctioned murder of Black people by police — in the school to prison pipeline that criminalizes Black children and incarcerates Black adults at a rate five times higher than white adults — in the fact that Black people comprise 13% of the American population — and 42% of the inmates on death row.
The debt is evident in obscene income disparity between Black and white Americans, in which median white families possess 41 times more wealth than median Black families. It is apparent in inequitable opportunities for housing and healthcare and in predatory banking practices.
It is unmistakable in maternal health disparities: Black babies are twice as likely to die as white babies, and Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.
These disparities indicate how the wellbeing of Black women and their children is chronically undervalued.
Because of our false sense of superiority that is subtly reinforced on a daily basis, it can be habitual for white Americans to read these statistics and still feel deep down inside that these are “Black problems.” Many of us “well-meaning white folks” are steeped in the virtue of charity, believing that it is good to “help poor people with their problems,” rather than investigating the root causes of poverty, and undoing our problems with racism, amnesia, and denial.
Friends who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have generously sensitized me by sharing their experiences with the internalized shame of oppression, the pain of lateral violence, and the exhaustion of dealing with these realities every day — while swimming upstream in a river of white denial. Listening to their stories viscerally imprinted that slavery and colonization never ended — they just changed form.
Since the founding of this nation, white families have developed intergenerational family security, heroic legacies, and wealth, while ignoring or imposing intergenerational traumatic stress, forced labor, relocation, and division on BIPOC families. White families can enjoy political and institutional advantages and not worry about police killing our children in the streets with impunity. Our white supremacist culture assures us that it is “normal” to live with ignorance and apathy about the terror, discrimination, and poverty impacting BIPOC.
My own denial was so thick that it took years of discomfort for me to finally see and acknowledge these pathological patterns lurking in my own mind.
These patterns are systemically entrenched and are being replicated on a mass scale according to what our ancestors prioritized and the legacies they left. These statistics and feelings will keep being replicated until we do the gut-wrenching work to purge our internalized racism and colonialism, cleanse the original wounds, and try to reduce the harm from centuries of horrific abuse that can never be undone.
The need for healing
The financial compensation that is owed to Black Americans is in the trillions of dollars, but reparations are only partially about money. Healing is crucial to the intergenerational process of making reparations.
This nation of “liberty and justice for all” is a paradox: It was built upon stolen land, with stolen labor. Its inspiring founding ideology was propped up by domination.
Because of this fundamental contradiction, even acknowledging the existence of the unpayable debt threatens white comfort.
First and foremost, white families and communities need to turn the lens inward. Our healing begins by excavating to the roots of the dehumanization our ancestors inflicted and we perpetuate, that is still invisible to many of us. Gathering with our white friends and family to understand our European ancestral trauma builds resilience. We must consciously commit to perceiving the ongoing impacts of colonialism, enslavement, and institutional racism without the filters of denial we were taught as children.
Deep personal and community inquiry helps us feel the cognitive dissonance of our complicity in upholding institutional racism. We need to feel it, in order to become effective partners in dismantling it.
Ever since learning about my ancestors’ longstanding presence on this land, I have been immersed in this process. Indigenous mentors have offered opportunities to experience the sophisticated cultural principle “we are all related.” With their encouragement, I am reconnecting with the ancient cultures of my ancestors. Ritual, apology, and forgiveness have helped me to accept and love myself, my ancestors, and my living family enough to try to reduce the harm. I believe that even amidst the long shadows of our painful history, it is possible to become a good relative.
White people learning to become good relatives is not only an inside job. It happens in tandem with our taking a multitude of reparative actions, such as humbly supporting the leadership of Black and Indigenous women, establishing racial justice curriculum in our children’s schools, opening an account at a Black-owned bank, upholding efforts to defund police and redirect funds to caring for communities of color, teaching our children to challenge racism, learning from films and books by BIPOC artists and scholars, advocating for student loan forgiveness, patronizing BIPOC-owned businesses, and enabling the return of stolen lands. Most importantly, it happens when we build relationships with BIPOC, and school ourselves in the sacred art of listening.
Doing our own work to heal from the pathologies of racism and colonialism helps us develop the capacity to show up for the needs of BIPOC. We can support BIPOC communities to tell their own stories, celebrate their own brilliance, and generate their own solutions. We can follow the guidance of BIPOC leadership, generating cultural and institutional changes that safeguard their lives from racial terror. Spiritual, emotional, and material support of BIPOC relatives confirms that we are all related. We actualize our human potential and become whole when we nurture the lives of our relatives.
Ten years ago, I began philanthropic work with my husband’s family. Initially, I was in denial about reparations and thought that “someone else” would take care of that, “someday.” Now, I know that money must be released on a massive scale, and intentionally directed toward racial healing.
My husband and I return resources to Black-led organizations working to tell the truth of this nation’s history, reform the so-called criminal justice system, celebrate the resilience and beauty of the African diaspora, create spaces for restorative justice and healing, improve birth outcomes through policy change and midwifery/doula care for Black mothers and babies, empower Black entrepreneurs, build Black political and institutional power, and provide zero interest loans to Southern Black farmers. We return resources to Indigenous-led organizations working to protect the world’s waters, legally defend land rights, ensure Indigenous food sovereignty, reclaim language and culture, support matriarchs, heal historical trauma, and provide essential COVID relief to Indigenous communities.
The power of kidnapped and enslaved African relatives and their descendants was captured, generation after generation, to create a wealth-generating and hoarding economy so vast that it impacted the entire world. This economy was built upon stolen lands, broken treaties, genocide, and the ongoing erasure of Indigenous relatives. Since the inception of this American paradox, money and power have been consolidated, enabling today’s institutional philanthropy. Keeping power in white hands is exactly how this economy was designed to function. To subvert this longstanding pattern, we need to disrupt inherently imbalanced philanthropic power dynamics.
We need to support reparative grantmaking designed to return decision-making power.
One example is a participatory grantmaking circle in Mississippi, the state in which my ancestors enslaved people for several generations. With the support of RSF Social Finance, a community of Black-led organizations will participate in a day of grantmaking. They will allocate money without our input, and they will be compensated for their time and expertise. The circle will include organizations working to address food insecurity, voter suppression, education, public health, and building community wealth. This process will be intersectional and mutually supportive, centering the voices of those who are most impacted.
Another example of grantmaking that shares decision-making power is the Kindle Project’s Indigenous Women’s Flow Fund. For three years, a cohort of Indigenous women will make grants to benefit their communities, supporting each other in the process. This will nourish the revitalization of matriarchal systems of governance interrupted by colonization and patriarchy. Indigenous women, the backbone of their communities, are rightfully the ones to nourish the people, land, and waters by liberating and redistributing resources built upon their ancestral homelands.
Regranting funds are another example of reparative philanthropy that returns power to the communities from which it was taken. In these organizations, BIPOC leadership decides how grants will be made, according to their unique knowledge of and relationships with the communities they serve. Some examples of Indigenous-led regranting funds are the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples and Liberated Capital. Another example, Medicine Theory, offers sliding scale, donation-based webinars open to all people. Taught by Indigenous thinkers and leaders, they cover Indigenous perspectives on topics such as midwifery, musicology, hydrology, climate science, and governance. Those funds are returned to individuals and communities who are impacted by settler colonialism and institutional racism.
In authentic reparative grantmaking, BIPOC communities are accountable only to themselves. Therefore, we do not require reports from the organizations we support directly. Within the aforementioned participatory grantmaking, flow-funding, and regranting organizations, BIPOC grantmakers and flow funders work with grantees to decide whether reporting will happen, using qualitative, relational, and collaborative processes.
Repaying the debt together
Repaying the unpayable debt is not about wallowing in pity and guilt, nor is it about swooping in to save the day as white saviors. Regularly asking for spiritual and ancestral support generates sober humility. Cultivating courage and curiosity transforms our fears over time. Commitment to right relationships embodies trust that there is enough for all of us to thrive. Asking our relatives to take their resources and power back, with outstretched palms and open hearts, is necessary.
Dear white relatives, does this make you uncomfortable? Do you want to turn away, pretend you didn’t read this, and continue with business as usual? Do you want to argue or defend yourself?
For years, a painful internal blockage kept me from making reparations. Inside that blockage were fears of acknowledging the magnitude of the debt, fears of my efforts not being enough, fears of giving up power, and fears of being exposed.
If a blockage is coming up for you, I invite you to sit with it on the land, by the water, and with your ancestors. Notice where that fear resides in your body and how it feels. Greet the fear, listen to it, and make it a relative. Repeat as often as needed. That fear does not need to define who you are, nor does it need to stop you from taking the first good step, and then the next.
Healing is possible. Ten years ago, I was in denial about reparations and did not know how to begin. Today, 92% of our philanthropic giving goes to social and environmental work led by BIPOC experts, for the healing of BIPOC communities and Mother Earth. We have outgrown the insidious, white mythology of our childhood; this nation’s history does have something to do with us. We are not exceptional; we are simply taking humble steps to recover our humanity and care for our relatives, one step at a time.
Will you join us?
Gratitude to Amber Starks, Konda Mason, Tia Oros Peters, Lyla June Johnston, Edgar Villanueva, Sadaf Rassoul Cameron, and Kayla Leduc for providing input on this essay.
This essay is a modified excerpt from Hilary Giovale’s forthcoming ethnoautobiography about her process of decolonization. Hilary (she/her) is a 9th generation American settler of Scots, Irish, and Scandinavian descent, who is influenced by her relationships with Indigenous peoples, worldview, movements and places. A mama, dancer, writer, filmmaker, community organizer, and philanthropist, she lives at the foot of a sacred mountain of kinship on Diné, Hopi, and Havasupai land.