A White Immigrant’s Perspective on Reparations

A black sign being held aloft. It reads: Black Lives, Hopes, Fears, Dreams, Thoughts Matter." Next to this sign is another one that reads "Black Lives Matter"

By Sept Gernez, Washington State Chapter Organizer

When I first heard of the concept of reparations as a high school student, I used my immigrant status to avoid taking any responsibility for the racial inequalities that exist in the US. 

I thought to myself: My ancestors are great people! None of my ancestors were slave owners--they weren’t even Americans! They didn’t do anything to cause racism, right? I sure don’t want to uphold racism, but I didn’t cause the problem, so why should I pay? 

But, as I grew into my late 20s, and with help from anti-racist coaching, I started to become painfully aware of my privilege. I have since come to understand why it's important for me, and all other white folks, regardless of family history or ancestry, to give reparations. 

In this article, I’ll be addressing my fellow white people. My hope is to provide some connection to other white folks struggling with this question and offer my thoughts and experience. I’ll share why it’s important for us to give reparations, and outline how I have decided how much to give, and which organizations to give to.

How to Recognize Privilege

The more I began to interrogate my own preconceived notions, and examine my life experiences, the more I came to understand how white privilege impacted my life. 

I don’t need to wonder if I am a diversity hire. I don’t need to work twice as hard to prove my worth. My immigrant family was able to secure citizenship easily. Everyone I went to college with looked like me. I look and speak in a way that is deemed ‘professional’ without having to code-switch. That I speak a second language is seen as a fun fact and a resume builder, rather than a question as to how well I can speak in English. 

I experience all these benefits because people of color do not. My whiteness allows me to be seen as someone who belongs in this country, who deserves a living wage, homeownership, love, promotions, loans, etc.  I am seen as a ‘good’ immigrant by our government as proof that ‘bad’ immigrants are the norm. I was reminded of the countless times I could have gotten in trouble in my teen years with the police, but didn’t because they felt bad for a white feminine teenager. I knew I could get out of trouble by shedding a few tears. I was NEVER afraid for my life or physical safety when police were present. I knew that in their eyes, my life mattered. 

So, maybe my ancestors didn’t own slaves. Maybe they were great people who resisted racist policies. It doesn’t matter. I owe my economic well being to my whiteness. I benefit--- no matter how much I don’t want to---from the oppression of Black people. Even the land I live on was stolen from indigenous people- specifically the Duwamish people. 

Why should we pay reparations?

I don’t want to live in a racist society. I don’t want to be a colonizer. I hate knowing that my wellbeing comes at the price of someone else’s. I would love to live in a society where all are equal. And I know that  I need to give up what I gain from racism in order to dismantle it. That starts with acknowledging that many things I have in my life- no matter how hard I worked for them- were made possible by my white privilege. This is why I need to pay reparations- and you do too!

Also, it's important to note that the U.S. has historically given reparations to white folks before.

So, what are reparations?

White folks have built their wealth off the backs of Black people throughout the history of this country. For 200 years, Black folks were kidnapped from their homes and held captive, forced to complete brutal and unpaid labor. When the 13th amendment passed, slavery merely changed into mass incarceration. According to the NAACP criminal justice factsheet, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women. Fueled by Nixon’s War on Poverty and Reagan’s War on Drugs, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million between 1980 and 2015. Today, over 4,100 corporations continue to profit on underpaid, or unpaid prison labor, including Victoria’s Secret, McDonalds, Wholefoods, Target, Walmart and so many others. 155 years after slavery was ‘abolished’, we are still profiting from the oppression of Black folks.

So, now that we’ve established that white people continue to gain their wealth through present-day prison slavery, it is imperative that this accumulated wealth be returned to Black people. 

To be clear, reparations are not a form of charity or donations, they are the redistribution of unearned generational wealth, and wealth made possible by white privilege.

How much should we give?

Some folks call for capping incomes at 45K/year and donating the rest. As the primary breadwinner for my household and living in an expensive city, I don’t think this is an option for me. I came up with an amount that I think could be sustained over years to come, and that seemed significant given my income. 

Now, who should we pay reparations to?

There are many different organizations you can redistribute your money to. I wanted to donate to groups that align with my values, have credibility and support from Black communities and are local to my area. 

I researched online, listened to rally speakers when they promoted organizations, asked my friends, and looked on social media. I decided on a youth organization, a community land trust, and an advocacy organization to donate to. I feel good about the work these organizations are doing, and feel confident in my ability to support them long term. I am also paying real rent by giving monthly donations to the Duwamish Nation, as I live on the land that was brutally stolen from the Duwamish people. 

Giving reparations by donating to Black-led organizations doesn’t erase my privilege. It doesn’t check a box that says I’m off the hook for dismantling racism. It’s just the beginning. Like any good member of any organization, redistributing money is just the start. Being an active member means taking action. It means showing up when called for. It means educating my peers. It means having really uncomfortable conversations about race, even with superiors. 

I’ll keep working to dismantle racism. I’ll keep working to undo my own internalized racism. I’ll keep having uncomfortable conversations with my peers. I’ll keep giving reparations. I hope you’ll join me!

Further Reading: 



Photo by Polina Portnaya on Unsplash