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White People’s Money: What We’ve Learned from Talking to White People about Wealth

Close up image of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill
Photo by Adam Nir on Unsplash

As members of Families for Justice we have a fair amount of experience asking white people to share their money. From our critical understanding of history and today’s policies, we know that white people have benefited from unjust policies of land, labor, taxation, inheritance, public spending, and more. These same policies took from, exploited, and/or blocked Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities from their own financial security and wealth-building. The racial wealth gap is huge and growing. We see this history as reason to redirect white people’s accrued wealth to support the efforts of BIPOC leaders – to help right past wrongs that we have benefited from, to put “our money where our mouths are,” and to ensure that the thinking and actions of the leaders that we all need today are well-funded.

We’ve raised funds for efforts small and large – from filling backpacks for Freedom Inc. youth at the beginning of the school year, to a day of citywide lemonade stands to help families separated and detained at the US border, to directing monthly contributions for the Madison Roots’ Black Homeownership Project. We’ve run workshops on the racist roots of generational wealth. We’ve placed our own family histories in this context and shared our stories. We’ve talked with our white families, friends, neighbors, and strangers about their access to wealth and why redistribution is an important part of anti-racist work. And we’ve struggled within our own hearts and minds to put this understanding into action in our daily lives.

This work is hard and consistently frustrating. But we’ve learned a lot along the way. As we begin the “giving season,” we offer a bit of this learning in the form of common questions and comments we’ve heard (most often as push back) and our responses to them. In a racial-capitalist society like the US, we believe that most white people – those of us who are white included – have a relationship with money that perpetuates harm in our communities and world. We hope that this blog post inspires some reflection as you consider “your money” this month, encouraging you to perhaps try something different in support of BIPOC leadership and to think differently about money.

“I’m not a wealthy person. Everything I have I earned.”

The American narrative is often one of grit, determination, and “pulling yourself by your bootstraps” and many white families have woven these ideas into our own stories and those of our ancestors. But it doesn’t take much looking into US history to see how laws and policies have systematically given advantage to white racialized people and exploited, taken from, or closed out from opportunity Black and Brown peoples. When we look at this in our own families, we can see how previous white generations were able to secure home loans and purchase homes in favored (greenlined) neighborhoods, go to college when others couldn’t, and further back, own property that was previously Indigenous land or simply earn wages at a time when others were enslaved. These advantages have accumulated through the generations and show up in the racial wealth gaps we see today. To learn more about these racialized “boosts” and “blocks” in historical and recent US policy, check out this timeline and the Is Our Economy Fair? website.

“How will I know they’ll use it right?”

Reconsider this question from the lens of redistribution. If you don't think of it as "your money," how does that change your attachment to how it is used? Who gets to decide what it means to use money in the "right" way?

“I might need this someday. You never know what can happen.”

The last several years have been difficult. We’ve seen the impact that a lack of social safety nets can have on day-to-day life. We may have grown up learning we have to fend for ourselves, afraid we can never have enough to be secure. But how much is enough? What happens when we make individual choices to show up for one another? How might joining with others to share resources benefit everyone?

While we don’t ask anyone to give beyond their means, we do encourage us all to push beyond our inherited comfort zones, question assumptions about scarcity, and find out what is possible when we stand in solidarity with our community.

“I’m more comfortable giving my money to my church or my kids’ school.”

The same policies that gave many of us generational wealth and privilege have kept us in segregated neighborhoods and narrow social circles. Giving only within our familiar spheres often contributes to reproducing privilege and inequalities. For example, school fundraising efforts are notorious for widening disparities in resources. To us, giving money through the lens of redistribution means supporting grassroots organizations led by BIPOC individuals. This doesn’t mean you can’t give money to your church or school. But consider how easily you make donations when asked for organizations within your social network. What would it look like to translate that same ease into distributing funds to BIPOC-led organizations?

“I’d rather save my money now and give something more impactful later.”

It’s natural to want our efforts to amount to something, but it’s worth examining what we think of as “impactful,” why we think more money equates to more impact, and how our own egos may be wrapped up in this. Small contributions today may be just what’s needed to build towards the kind of impact that’s needed. When we think about some of the greatest challenges today and those disproportionately impacting BIPOC communities – the effects of climate change, mass incarceration, access to abortion care – to wait will only mean that these problems will become worse and harder to respond to. And acting in solidarity means trusting BIPOC leaders to know what needs to happen today and how we contribute to that.

“I’d rather give my time than my money.”

Sometimes your time and talent is the most useful thing for supporting BIPOC communities and leaders in the vision for racial justice. And sometimes our socialization as white people, especially those of us with class and/or professional privileges, leads us to think our ideas and energy are more valuable than they really are. Regardless, we believe that true solidarity is about being responsive, so if the request is for financial support, trust BIPOC leaders and follow through.

“This is bigger than individuals. We need the federal government to tax the 1% and the corporations.”

The world we want to live in won’t happen based solely on individual actions. Yes, sweeping national policy changes will be required to erase the racial wealth gap and we encourage advocacy for systemic change. But individual and collective action is also vitally important. When we devote some of our resources where they are needed, it’s ourselves we save, our community we build. We can also strengthen our capacity for thinking of ourselves as part of a bigger “we” and nurture this in others and thereby support a greater political will for these changes.

“But having the big house and the nice car and exciting vacations is how we prove that we’ve made it in the US. And being a good parent is about giving my kids all the advantages that will ensure they get the well-paying job and all the nice things and be a success too...”

Okay, this one is not vocalized, but we think it’s there beneath the surface. And, yes, we live in a culture where success is closely correlated with wealth and conspicuous consumerism. It's hard to escape. But what if we think about success as acting in integrity with the world we hope to live in? And what if we modeled this for our kids, through our words and our actions? We think that this too is good parenting.


Questions for white people:

How many of these have you said or thought before? Have you heard other white people say these things? How do you respond? How does this fit with your ideas of being an ally or in solidarity with racialized communities blocked from wealth? Can you call on yourself to do something different?

Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.

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