Why I'm Giving My Coronavirus Relief
Check to Freedom Inc.
By Amy Hilgendorf
A large check showed up in my bank account last week as part of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. I’ll admit that seeing this felt exciting and like a bright spot in what has been a strange and challenging time. What to do with that money?
I’m giving it away. And to Freedom Inc.
I don’t need this money. And not just because there’s something unique about my circumstances, but because there’s something systemic about it. These systems have positioned me and my family as largely unscathed by this situation and equally positioned many, many others in vulnerable and scary situations. Like many people I know, I’ve transitioned to working from home, still pulling my full salary and keeping my health insurance, etc. While many others have been laid off or lost their jobs – including undocumented neighbors who won’t receive any kind of relief check – I’m not concerned about paying my bills. Is this because I’ve earned this kind of security? No, not really.
The real reason for my secure situation and the advantages I experience that have been only amplified by the COVID crisis, is that I’m white and my ancestors were white, living in a government and society that has systematically promoted white supremacy and intergenerational wealth accumulation for European-descended white people. While this may seem hyperbolic, let me spell out one example of how this advantage has played out for my life:
My grandfather, a German-American from a working class Wisconsin family with an 8th-grade education, fought for the US army. In the war, he lost his brother and suffered a physical injury that changed his life forever (as well as mental health injuries only to be understood later). He couldn’t go back to life as a laborer like his father, and the government knew that. So they took care of him: Sending him first to a school to finish a high school diploma, then to the university, and then hiring him for a government job at the state capitol. None of his classmates were Black or People of Color, as these same offers weren’t made to other veterans. And none of his coworkers were Black or People of Color, as even Black college graduates weren’t hired for anything more than service jobs in Madison at this time. And none of his neighbors were Black or People of Color, when he and my grandmother took that steady salary to buy their one and only home, in a green-lined neighborhood with a restrictive housing covenant.
My father then grew up in this neighborhood, among white neighbors and classmates and teachers who expected him to do well in school, go to college, and get a well-paying job, and supported him in doing so. Largely free from police surveillance and risks of harassment or abuse from whoever he may encounter on the street. A few decades later, my own experience as a white girl and young woman, was very much the same. And, all the while, my grandparents’ house steadily increased in value and when sold, paid off my parents’ own mortgage.
That multi-generational, systematic advantage for my white-skinned family has cemented itself in my education, my steady employability and salary, and, worse-comes-to-worst, a personal and familial safety net of assets and savings. As well as government safety nets that will always be easier for me to access and advantage from. I don’t need another one.
While there are a lot of people and organizations I could redistribute this money to – who are also working to support those most vulnerable to the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, who are disproportionately People of Color, in low-wage jobs, and/or marginalized by their gender identity, sexuality, nationality, documentation, language, etc. – giving my money to Freedom Inc. is an opportunity to spur transformation, not offer Band-aids. Since my advantages (and those of my children’s) are unjust, historical, and systemic, I want to support the efforts of those who can lead us to dismantle systemic inequities and build a radical future in their place. A future that upholds the dignities of all people, meets everyone’s needs, and weaves interconnected communities through people’s talents and respect and admiration for one another. Guided by Black queer feminist idelogies that recognize the interlocking nature of oppressions, Freedom Inc. creates and provides leadership through pathways to dismantle these oppressions and bring us all towards an abolitionist, anti-capitalist, liberated new day.
My privileges and my positioning in a system that has and largely continues to work for me mean that I cannot take the lead toward a different, better future. But I have roles to play and contributions to make. This is not charity, but about taking on some small responsibility for my people for the oppressive systems we have benefitted from and helped to uphold. This is an opportunity to be better. Even while social distancing.