For a long time, I thought that as a white, wealthy woman, there was no role for me in working to end racism and economic injustice. I tried doing service provision in low-income communities of color, and the “white savior” dynamics of that work felt disheartening. I was involved in anti-violence and queer organizing on my college campus that was important, but lacked a race or class analysis. I saw communities of color organizing themselves against racism, but felt like I wouldn’t be effective at organizing people of color. When friends introduced me to the idea that wealthy white people can actually organize in our own communities and families for racial and economic justice, that we have a unique role to play, and better yet, that we’ve been doing that for a long time, I felt like I had come home.
At Resource Generation, when we’re talking about working for racial justice, we’re talking about everybody working for racial justice. Racial justice work doesn’t mean organizing people of color, it means each of us working from our unique vantage point for the equitable distribution of land, wealth, and power, which implicitly involves ending racism. RG is working to make both education about race and racism and taking action for racial justice central to our work. White people are a key part of this, because:
- Working for wealth redistribution is gonna take all of us. Systemic wealth inequality is not our fault individually, but it is our responsibility.
- Addressing racism within RG will make us a stronger organization. White-dominance divides us and makes us weaker as an organization and movement.
- Our own liberation depends on it. At RG we believe in collective liberation- the idea that oppressions harm all of us, in different ways. We may be the material beneficiaries of racism and capitalism, but we are deeply harmed spiritually, emotionally, and in our ability to build relationships with people of color and poor, working and middle class people. We, too, need liberation.
Understanding the relationship between racism, white privilege, and wealth accumulation
Our economic system is built on a foundation of racism, which has been the central force that has enabled the theft of land, labor, and natural resources from people of color, women, and poor and working class people. Race and class are complex, and there are people of color with wealth, and economically oppressed white people. In this blog, I am focusing on white people with wealth, or who are from wealthy families. I am a white, queer, non-Jewish woman in my mid-twenties. I love my family, and we are wealthy. I do not currently have access to inherited wealth, I do currently have access to a boatload of class privilege, and I stand to inherit money and property when my parents pass.
An important place to start is with understanding our own stories of class and whiteness. Much of how I understand my own story is pieced together from fragments of family history that I know, combined with what I know of U.S. history. Here are a few examples of how white privilege and racism have enabled wealth accumulation in my own family:
- I have relatives who came to this country on the Mayflower, and who were some of the earliest Europeans who began colonizing what we now call the United States. Killing indigenous people and stealing their land allowed my ancestors to accumulate land, which lay the foundation for them to begin building wealth.
- Many of my ancestors were poor Irish Catholic immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1800’s. This was a period of time in which the US was set on “westward expansion”, and was giving away stolen land or selling it for dirt cheap to European people. Building on that original leg-up, within a few generations my great-grandfather had a successful company in Alliance, Ohio that built cranes for the steel industry. Industries such as this one relied heavily on the underpaid labor of people of color and working class white people for profit.
- My grandmother’s father was a trust lawyer. He was able to go to law school. There were very few law school options open in the 1920’s to women and people of color. He made money and set up trusts for his children, one of which I stand to inherit.
- Inheritance from my grandfather’s death helped my parents buy their first home in the Berkeley Hills, CA. Due to gentrification, this neighborhood appreciated rapidly in value. My parents were able to sell the house at a profit, which helped pay for my dad to go to business school, in turn enabling him to start and run a profitable business.
As these examples illustrate, systemic white privilege has resulted in policies and laws that have granted white people free land, free labor, and a helping hand for over 500 years. What we’ve been taught to forget is that we’ve had to pay a high price to become “white” and to access those privileges. Whiteness is a fluid category that different groups of people have been allowed access to at different points in history. Jewish people, the Irish, Italians- many of us have ancestors who were not considered “white” for a time in the United States, and at some point were given limited to full access to the legal and societal privileges that being categorized as “white” entails. White people have had to pay a high price for assimilation- we’ve had to give up our cultures, our connection to our ancestors, connection to homelands, our religions and spiritual traditions, our memory of our own indigeneity. There is tremendous grief in the loss of these things. I know that if I want my culture back, we’re going to have to end racism.
Uncovering the story of racism and how it has enabled wealth accumulation in our families can be hard, and can bring up feelings of guilt, grief, anger, immobilization. It’s important to feel these things, and, not to get stuck in them. I want to share some helpful things that I have been taught that have helped me to take action for racial justice:
- White wealthy people are good people, just like everyone else. Think of all the white wealthy people you love. I’ve noticed that it can be hard for us as white wealthy people to operate out of love and kindness for each other, and we can create a white-on-white culture of harshness, calling-out, and a focus on being the “good white person”. We need to love each other, to go towards each other, and support each other’s transformation.
- We’re ready to step up! We will never have all the right answers, and we will never be able to do things perfectly. I know that I’ve spent time waiting for people of color or non-wealthy people to tell me what to do. It’s important to be informed by and work alongside communities outside our of own, and, we also need to risk making mistakes, because how else will take action? Social change is always going to be a messy process.
- This is a life-long process. Individually, we will spend the rest of our lives unlearning racism and classism. Collectively, we will spend the rest of our lives working for the change that we want to see, and that we know takes generations to come to fruition. We’re in it for the long haul.
- Everyone has the ability to transform. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that there are “good” people who can understand race and class, and “bad” people who can’t. As people who have the privilege of being taught about racism and wealth inequality, we aren’t special, we’re just lucky. We need to remember that every single person has the ability to transform and heal from living in an oppressive society.
- We are the ones who can best organize, lead, and heal our own white, wealthy communities. During the Civil Rights movement, Stokely Carmichael challenged white folks to go organize our own people. Our challenge is to simultaneously back the leadership of people of color and poor, working, and middle class people, and to step into leadership in our own communities.
- Lean into the discomfort. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re doing something right.
There are so many ways that wealthy people can work towards the equitable distribution of land, wealth, and power. People of color with wealth are charged with the question: How do we build assets in communities of color? For white wealthy people, our job is to figure out how to redistribute wealth outside of white upper and owning class communities and the global north. The words redistribution and reparations get at the question: How are we going to give the money back? Giving is an important tool for getting us to the world we want to see. And, even if all the wealthy people and white people in RG gave our own or our family’s money back, we’d still have massive wealth inequality. Ultimately, we need to support, participate in, and lead organizing for systemic change that will redistribute money on a much larger scale. By changing government tax policies, for instance. Here are few steps we can take towards those goals:
- Learn more about race, racism, white privilege, and your own family history.
- Tell the true story. By telling our own stories of race and class, we get to speak out and change the narrative. Tell your story to friends, family, in public forums, to the media.
- Give to organizations that are led by people of color and who are organizing for systemic change. Organize your family, friends, faith community, or foundation to give with you.
- Get involved in local community organizing that supports economic and racial justice. Learn, listen, and ask what you can do to support.
- Build relationships with other young people with wealth by joining an RG praxis group. You’re going to need a network of peers and comrades to help you figure this out.
- Help us create a thriving, multi-racial RG: welcome people of color into RG and support them to be here. Learn about the ways that race impacts our stories of wealth differently.
Working for racial and economic justice is going to take bravery, because you’re going to have to take risks. I promise you’re going to feel uncomfortable. You’re going to want to run away, find excuses to leave, give up. If you have those feelings, you’re doing something right. If you lean into them, you will learn and transform and build deeper relationships, and you will set yourself on a path towards reclaiming your own culture, history, and ancestors. There’s so much in this for us. This work is hard, and we get to do it together. Are you with me?
Yes, reparations for slavery and property stollen causes angst. There are many families, including mine, who had businesses and homes burned by the KKK and family members murdered. What would our wealth be today if the KKK did not burn everything and the State of Tennessee did not excommunicate my family merely because they were fighting for the right to vote?
Thanks for this well thought out approach, Sarah. I’m going to be chewing on these thoughts for a long time.
so does this then include taking away White racism? because all I see now a days is Blacks and Browns saying how awful Whites are, how racist we are. Im sorry. Im not the one who came from another Country representing another Country and then calling a U.S citizen racist. I am more than sick of all this ridiculous nasty talk of White people being racist. like I said.” White people are NOT the ones going and saying hey White girl, Whitie, hey White boy.” those remarks are ALL RACIST. lets be sure to get all of are facts straight shall we? the people who put my race down is what makes me want to act the same as they.