On Translating Talk of Reparations Into Practice

On Translating Talk of Reparations Into Practice

The April 2018 edition of National Geographic magazine will take a reparative approach in looking at the racist lens it has used to present its material since its founding. As The Washington Post reports, with the help of historian John Edward Mason, the magazine’s editorial team has been in deep reflective and investigatory process in review of its work to date. Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg penned a letter to readers: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

This news, alongside the work Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have been doing for decades, is having Americans ask themselves what “reparations” really means and whose responsibility is it to “fix” our historical legacy.

As we experience this culture change, global leaders are working to change U.S. institutions as well. In 2016, The United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent shared their findings about institutionalized racism in the U.S., and reparations has been a subject of discussion at UN meetings this month in New York. (See Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, chair of the working group, explain how the U.S. owes reparations for slavery and mass incarceration). As stated in a recent UN report, "the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent… Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching."

All of us, no matter how we are categorized racially, suffer trauma around race. Some of us just know this and others do not. When we realize this, we can mindfully decide what it is that we want to teach our children and leave as legacy in our communities so as to liberate them from the violent institution of racism. But what does it mean to repair a legacy of trauma and erasure for people of color as a community? How can this responsibility fall into any one person’s hands who is living and breathing today? How can it fall to people who claim no connection with the decisions of our forefathers and/or who may also lay claims to the oppression of capitalism and patriarchy?

The answer is simple. If you personally benefit from or do not have to experience the trauma, threat, grief, and loss attached to a falsehood of race—and/or if you do not have to prepare your children for racist behavior that makes them “less than” or in danger of being perceived as “less than”—and, you believe in humanity, then your work is laid out for you. There are ways to make reparations; you just have to figure out what they are for you. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

What do reparations look like?

Reparations may be a university like Georgetown researching the slaves who built their college and awarding scholarships to students who would not otherwise have access. What is often missed, however, is the work necessary to fully support these students and their peers towards success. Institutions of higher education need to fill in education gaps and offer counseling when students encounter the racist frameworks that we all operate in. Paying attention to students’ health and wellness in these environments is imperative if we are to transcend the legacy of racism. This, too, is reparations.

Reparations may mean starting a savings account for a child born to a family living in poverty or a family of color whose legacy and roots date back to the original slave families or families who were denied mortgages. It could be setting aside a percentage of your dividends for another person’s retirement plan so they can plan for retirement and care for their elderly caregiver. You might contribute toward an underpaid colleague or employee’s education fund for his/her child.

Perhaps bordering on civil disobedience, reparations looks like refusing to categorize yourself as a race on government forms since we reinforce racism every time we check the race box (especially those who identify as white and/or otherwise privileged). We are socialized with the implicit threat that we will lose something if we don’t check a box. But race is not biological; it is a social construct historically created by our country’s forefathers to preserve access and wealth. Practice discernment: who will actually lose what? What will we all lose if we continue complacently?

Reparations is about rewriting our history books and curriculum to reflect diverse perspectives. Deliberate omission and misinformation exist now, and students question why they weren’t taught “real” American history when they discover it in college or later in life.

Reparations is giving land to a historically oppressed group as a restorative gesture. I am proud to partner with individuals who committed to this racial healing in our region through Harmony Homestead. Another way to do reparations is to return sacred land to first nation peoples without imposing restrictions as in the case of casinos which render a legacy of cultural, social, and health challenges to an already traumatized people.

Reparations is allowing, by stepping aside, an underrepresented community to honor and celebrate an icon who should have been their guide as the town of Great Barrington did recently in honoring W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois was one of our earliest intersectionalists on feminism and race. He was one of our sage advisors and forecasters on the damage on the union of capitalism and race to the point where he was exiled from his home in the U.S. for exposing those truths. Now he is being celebrated across the country and internationally for his 150th birthday.

Reparations entails giving credit to people who have made a positive impact. The movie Hidden Figures catalyzed a movement to look again at history and ask, “Who actually deserves the credit for innovation in this country?” This resulted in one of these African American innovators, Katherine Goble Johnson, now age 99, getting long overdue recognition.

In the case of mass incarceration—the US had the highest incarceration rate in 2010 to 2013—reparations means using restorative justice methods to liberate our communities and start to resource families in order to disrupt harmful cycles. 70% of folks in prison come from families living in poverty. As a nation, we are waking up to the fact that poverty itself is being criminalized. Think about what it means that the average white family makes seven times more than the average African American family. As Beverly Daniel Tatum explains in the newest edition of Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, we have gone backwards towards re-segregation in the last 20 years. Begin with positive education programming for children of adults who are incarcerated. Individuals should have access to jobs, positive education, and holistic health services (emotional, physical, and mental) as all of these things are essential for stability. Misinterpreting or mismanaging reparations as “handouts” or “waste” is a very real threat. Governments, institutions, and agencies need to do their due diligence in building intentional, sustainable reparations programs informed by those communities that have been the most impacted.

Reparations requires reexamining discriminatory laws and policies across the board: governments, schools, corporations, and all institutions that carry power and leverage in our society. In addition to criminal justice reform, we must also work intentionally on immigration reform and pay equity. So as to not further destroy community and our aspiring, evolving American culture, reparations must involve addressing historical proficiency and unpacking the three pillars of our American history as illustrated by Andrea Smith: War/Orientalism, Colonialism/Genocide, and Capitalism/Slavery. It requires intentional education and courage at all levels.

In essence, reparations is making the starting line the same for everyone by undoing years of oppression and discrimination. It is about resourcing for success. By this, I don’t just mean access to money, education or property/land, but rather social networks and capital, emotional psychological and behavioral health, and role models and relationships built on trust and integrity.

What can you do?

On a personal level, you can participate in reparations by finding simple ways to be generous and give up something you feel or experience that is meaningful to you. This is the very definition of generosity, which if fortunate enough we already know is the source that moves all of us forward and lifts each of us up. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering requiring millions of dollars or acres of land, but it will require intention, work, and relationship-building and most of all again the practices of developing cultural humility and historical proficiency. Giving up something naturally comes with discomfort— which sometimes is transformed into relief or a greater joy never before imagined. Leaving our comfort zone is about survival, but as a people, it is worth remembering that we are not actually surviving as a whole.

Reparations can be as simple as changing your “plus 1” to an event. Instead of inviting someone you are trying to impress, extend your invitation to someone who would not normally get invited (or feel welcomed and safe if invited). This is the person with an underrepresented voice who would add value and perspective with your unconditional support. The women of Hollywood modeled this beautifully at The Golden Globes as they raised awareness about the #TimesUp movement. Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, and Amy Poehler were three of the actresses who shared their privilege with activists Ai-Jen Poo, Mónica Ramírez, and Tarana Burke respectively (all incredible leaders in their own right). Sharing privilege is something we can do all the time. The old metaphor of giving a man a fishing pole and teaching him to fish totally misses the evolved idea that some people are happy, willing, and eager to give another human being a place at the river. Ask yourself, what power do you have to redistribute?

What reparations has meant to me:

I view donations made to BRIDGE, a minority and women-run organization, as reparations more than charity. These funds support work informed by the direct experiences of communities of color (women, African Americans, immigrants, etc.). This work has historically been undervalued and under-compensated, but our impact is undeniable. I encounter individuals who have committed to reconciling their own family histories by giving of their time, talent, and/or treasure to BRIDGE with the deeper knowing of the sacrifices me and my family have made in order to pursue the work we are doing. Their intentional practice of reparations supports me in leading this important work and has served us all in healing the trauma and isolation capitalism and racism have caused thereby restoring human connection.

Another powerful example of reparations was at a high school in The Berkshires. BRIDGE partnered with a group of students who wanted to restore the high school community after a careless lynching threat exposed inherent racism in their school last academic year. The remarkable and dedicated organizing work these students initiated and continue to do is reparations work. The most recently targeted student has now graduated and is in college, but many more have had similar experiences and many more will experience this if nothing changes. The targeted student and the student who made the threat both have traumas to heal as do their peers. The organizing work our high school students are doing is a step towards healing.

What is not reparations?

If through your own work, you intend to support a historically minority group, but you inadvertently whitesplain, appropriate work, and/or cause more pain by perpetuating oppression (by reinforcing the attitude of superiority of the dominant culture), then that is still white supremacy (i.e. racism) at work. It is often more damaging than the actions of those who are not yet woke to the oppression and global impact of racism. Consciously or unconsciously, you inflict white supremacy and end up teaching it to all who are watching. If you have questions about your own work, my most basic advice is to move intentionally while focusing on building relationship. Practice consistent self-education and reflection whether you are of the historically oppressed or dominant group. Maintain discernment in service with a “heart generated by Love” in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. As I have learned through positive psychology, true generosity—and we all hopefully know what this feels like—is as contagious as a baby’s smile or their belly laugh.

Reparations is not an act of charity, it is a deliberate practice in humanity. We repair our present by being truthful about history through education by expanding access to critical resources and services. We can make reparations every day with simple gestures (i.e. invitations) and grand gestures (i.e. scholarships and policy-making). This is what true liberation looks like and what a true democracy can offer in a maturing United States. And this is not an easy task.

Ask yourself and your family members: what are you willing to give up? What is your pathway to meaningful generosity? How might you work towards equity and love through repairing and restoring our collective humanity? Your practices of reparations are reflected in your personal and family values and will ripple out into your community.

Header photo: February 23, 2018 Du Bois 150th birthday at First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, a historical reparations site as the church sent Du Bois to college after raising funds for his tuition. Craig Harris, Dr. Cornell Brooks, Dr. David Levering Lewis, Dr. Edmund Gordon, Reggie Leonard, Gwendolyn VanSant, & Randy Weinstein.

Photo 2. Great Barrington town members at the Du Bois educational series as part of the Du Bois 150th Festival. Left to right: Howie Lisnoff, Randy Weinstein, Selectboard member Ed Abrahams, Berkshire Hills Principal Ben Doren, Gwendolyn VanSant, Stephanie Wright, and Tommie Hutto-Blake.

Photo 3: Women to women program at Multicultural BRIDGE office in Lee. Six attorneys with legal aides from Donavan, O'Connor, and Dodig law firm share their time and treasure to join BRIDGE staff and volunteers for a pro bono family preparedness clinic supporting local immigrant families. Left to right: Janice Cook, Esq., Carmen Guevara, Rocio Chevez, Gladys Garcia, Gwendolyn VanSant, Sara Reese, and Buffy Lord, Esq.


Hawkins, Derek. “National Geographic confronts its past: ‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist’” The Washington Post. 13 March 2018.

Maurino, Claudia and Lucy Doren. “Students Lead the Way to Foster Inclusion at Berkshire High School.” Not in Our Town. 23 February 2018.

Goldberg, Susan. “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.” National Geographic.

Georgetown University to Offer Slave Descendants Preferential Admissions. NPR. All Things Considered. 28 April 2017.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?Hachette, 1997. Revised edition 2017.

Embodied Psychology 2017. Wholebeing Institute.

“What is Positive Education and How to Apply It?” 11 September 2016.

Mason, Eugene. “U.N. Panel Says the U.S. Owes Reparations to African Americans.” PBS. 29 September 2016.

Lee, Michelle Ye Hee. “Yes, U.S. Locks People Up at a Higher Rate Than Any Other Country.” The Washington Post. 7 July 2015.

Smith, Andrea. Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.

Cracking the Codes - Dissonance. Jelal Huyler.

© 2018 Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

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