Money and whiteness: these are the topics I know in my embodied experience to have profoundly affected my heart, mind and, as importantly, my bank account. The impact is felt and reverberates through and across all of my relationships — the most intimate to the seemingly insignificant. And while my personal experience is important, at least to me, this is not a personal essay. It is a call for a compassionately held inner reckoning to begin living in honorable and just relationship to ourselves and others. I deeply believe that we in the white community are unwell. I witness our community continuing to be disassociated from our white racialized identities. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more apparent than in our complicated and distorted relationship to our money. We need to name, make respectful amends for, and tend to the wounds inflicted from the operations of a system that values our lives (and pocketbooks) more than those of our Black, brown and Indigenous sisters and brothers.
These intimate and sometimes challenging reflections are offered as a means of discovering more ground for us to individually and collectively sow the seeds of transformational liberation. I, like you, am doing my best to piece this all together and am hoping we can start asking some of the same questions and taking some new actions around money and whiteness together.
I offer this in love.
Before we go on, let me tell you who is speaking ~ I am a white, wealthy, cis-gendered woman. A 47-year-old, ‘Jewfi’ (reform Jewish + Universalist Sufi) living in Austin, Texas with a fruit and vegetable farmer husband and a bold 6 year-old son. I was explicitly made aware of my personal finances, with alarming casualness, one day before going to my public high school outside of Minneapolis. That morning, my mom let me know that I had assets amounting to 2 million dollars that had grown from the $20,000 in stock I was gifted at birth by my paternal grandparents. The stock was from the family’s banking business based in Chicago. Since then, those stocks have generated enough money to land me inside the boundaries of the top 99% of average household net worth.
I disclose these details to be in a more authentic relationship to you, the reader, and give context to my particular lived perspective of the subject. To be clear, this piece is not intended just for rich readership. We need more, not less, people in conversation with themselves and one another across the wealth spectrum engaging in steady thinking and new actions around race and money.
For twenty years, I’ve worked to identify ways to leverage my race and class privilege towards the goal of actualizing a more just and equitable American society. I have given 1.5 million dollars to small- and medium-scale progressive and radical social justice causes with a focus on racial justice and women’s rights, as well as assisted in mobilizing over 3 million dollars for Black and brown communities affected by Hurricane Katrina. I’ve made many mistakes along the way. I have been respectful and unknowingly disrespectful, created opportunity and also unintentionally caused harm. As a result, I have alienated people and gained life-time soul friends. My class position, my money sharing history, and my decades of engagement within social justice spaces has afforded me a unique perspective to offer about the inner workings of ‘whiteness’, financial wealth and its impact on relationship and social change.
It is also important to let you know that I am intentionally writing this piece with a white/white identified reader in mind. I wish to implicate myself as the author within the complexity of ‘whiteness’ as well as more directly accompany other white/white identified people in the process of acknowledging their racialized experience. I employ this cautiously, as I in no way wish to disrespect or exclude Black, brown and Indigenous readers. I welcome them and their critique. My analysis is founded upon the tireless and generous work of activists and thinkers of color. What I offer is in direct response to my learning from them.
The more systemic analysis and truthful lived experience we catalogue together the greater chance of depleting the strength and ending the habitual systemic practices of white supremacy — and co-creating something very different in its place.
Invitation to a Reckoning
It is a relief, although also periodically terrifying, to openly invite other white people to join me in bringing more awareness to the secrets of their money and its relationship to whiteness. Since that fateful day in high school, I have been silently chronicling patterns of common outer behavior and inner turmoil mostly, but not exclusively, from those of us in the (white) middle, upper and owning classes. This yearning to understand myself and act responsibly in relationship to my money led me to activist spaces where I exposed and explored my class privilege in all of its complexity– which, in turn, plunged me into confronting my racialized ‘white’ identity as well.
I have been longing for company to share this with for a long, long time.
A great cultural shift in racialized awareness appears to be happening as I write. More and more white people are becoming aware that we live in a society where there is a hierarchical ranking of the human family and those deemed ‘white’ by virtue of (real or perceived) European ancestry or physical attributes of Eurocentric physiognomy have been constructed as the standard of what is valuable, and all other members of the human family are hierarchically ranked below.
We are eternally indebted to the consistent and substantial work of leaders within the Black, brown and Indigenous communities to bring these systemic inequalities to the surface of consciousness. Through their tireless work, many of us white people are now beginning to recognize and speak openly about our racialized privileges, generally. But we, as a community, have yet to reach a racial maturation level to openly reckon with how our money is the very agent and signature of our racialized separation. We seem to be largely unconscious and dissociative towards the ways in which our money, and our access to it, untethers us from honest aligned relationship with ourselves and others. This disconnection not only sequesters and perverts our relations, but it enfeebles our ability to share money across racialized class boundaries.
This is all by design.
White supremacy strives to keep our lives and our money as disconnected and isolated as possible. It denies us equitable relational interconnectedness. It is not surprising that we in the white community find ourselves in a state of inner paralysis around the topic as well as a hobbled ability to access mature agency in redistributing our personal financial resources. We operate within a scarcity mentality no matter how much or little our bank accounts contain. The system requires it to continue functioning. One of the cardinal rules of whiteness is to not openly acknowledge the operations through which whiteness bestows itself, and, henceforth, everyone included within the domain of ‘whiteness’ with the greatest societal access to power, agency, education, physical health and money.
The operations of this system can never be recognized, named or made visible, for that would threaten the very basis of the unholy conceit allowing us to have hoarded it in the first place: the conceit that white European human beings (or those who look like us) constructed our own racial superiority (and the very concept of ‘race’ as we know it today). It rigged the system from its beginnings to ensure our bank accounts and corresponding institutions reflect and reinforce our dominating status. White people openly speaking about the honest origins and workings of our money within the context of ‘whiteness’ would begin to lay bare almost unimaginable violence, greed, rage and plain, astonishing acts of theft that it took to establish and reinforce whiteness as the de facto ‘human’ experience.
A Suspended Estrangement from Our Hearts
Because we white people find ourselves entombed in this, we experience real damage and erosion to our individual and collective sense of self-respect. The deterioration to our humanity goes unattended and buried deep within. Many of us, through sheer overwhelm with the complexity of it all, unwittingly acquiesce to living life in a sort of suspended estrangement from the depths of our own hearts. We register all of this and know a quagmire of guilt, hopelessness and rage. It grips, constricts and causes a sort of inner freeze. In that arrested state, we too easily give up on (or worse yet, never even imagine) our potential to be agents of transformative change. This is true in relationship to our money and how we might share/disinvest it, but also within our lives generally. Our lack of honest, generous and connective relationship around money across class and race lines all but ensures the systemic maintenance of white supremacy and our own isolation. We’re talking about a system that defends its power with murderous acts, amongst a multitude of other perversions, as tragic as they are familiar, committed against Black, brown and Indigenous bodies.
Let us be sobered by the reminder that this country was ‘founded’ by white Europeans who perpetrated a racialized genocide against indigenous Americans. The United States has committed more governmental violence against its indigenous population than any other nation in the world, and the sheer number of Native lives lost was nothing short of catastrophic. Conservative figures suggest there were approximately 5–15 million indigenous people in the continental US before Europeans arrived and by the late 19th century, at the end of the Indian Wars, only 238,000 survived.
Humanitarian atrocities upholding white supremacy in America, of course, did not stop there. African Americans were the legal property of white owners only a short 155 years ago; meaning that they have been free in this country for less time than they were enslaved. The seismic repercussions of both of these realities can be easily, but no less staggeringly, reflected in the racial wealth disparities of today. As of 2016, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family. The numbers are no less stark within the Native American community, with one in four Native Americans living in poverty, and approximately 22% living on reservations, in conditions “comparable to Third World.”
There is a lot at stake with the white community remaining dazed, silent and defended in regard to our money and history.
The complexity of it all can activate a state of internal overwhelm and distancing that happens when white people come into contact with evidence of the brutal, tragic, real-life consequences of white supremacy in which we are personally implicated. I’m going to call this “white paralysis.” For me, this form of white paralysis induces a shut-down of mental and emotional capacity that allows me to justify disconnection from the unjust realities in which I am undoubtedly entangled within. It’s an embodied experience that is built into the design and it is essential for white people to recognize and work with, because, if we are being honest, it happens a lot.
Refusing False Choices, Administering the Balm
Let me illustrate its working in myself. I wholeheartedly believe in reparations, for example. Yet when addressing the topic, intimate questioning around my own personal financial accountability in the matter easily becomes ignited. How much has my own personal white privilege benefitted me in dollars? And how could I possibly repay it all? And to whom? Or where?
Then there is an internal detonation and an abrupt sense of constriction that occurs. It stops my engagement with the issue both mentally and emotionally. For instance, it has literally taken me an entire hour for my cognitive mind to steady itself enough to formulate two sentences on how it might operate within me. It has an accompanying sense of outright shame elicited by acknowledging that I have a white racialized response to the topic of reparations at all.
This hints at the powder keg of emotions connected to the fact that I am not as neutral of a bystander to ‘Whiteness’, a racial category assigned before my birth, as I might like to be. It’s an overwhelm tinged with a futile sense that I cannot possibly justify my personal financial reality or the opportunities that are the result because it is predicated on white racialized advantage. Everything inside me halts, like a rock shoved in a wheel. Like an electrical short, all the lights go dark. My personal identity, the small human person that I am, takes on the entire enterprise of systemic racial injustice, and collapses. The wrong is so wrong it can never be made right.
A false choice appears: between disassociating from it and not engaging at all, or taking it on completely — and in the resulting overwhelm, shorting out into paralysis. Both options debilitate. A profound sense of inertia is the result.
Yet it is how we respond to that sense of paralysis that we begin administering the balm that allows us to regain conscious awareness. First by noticing it, and second, by finding reliable anchoring in ourselves to register our grief and sorrow, using the body to ground ourselves. Third, when we regain enough sense of ourselves, we have to be able to be discerning about the decisions we are making in our lives. How am I engaging my racialized advantages personally?
We have to cultivate a steady mind and generous heart to look at this. Sit with the feelings. Breathe deeply and slowly. Build resilience to withstand the complexity. Our friend networks must be able to support us in doing so, and if we don’t have those types of relationships now, we need to actively seek them out and create them. And once we start to notice it, sit with it, talk with friends about it, and have a familiarity with it, the power of the paralysis begins to drain.
Only until it strikes again; but this next time we are a little wiser of its operations. A little less alone with it all. A little less shocked and a bit more curious.
What is actually ours to affect, and what isn’t? It doesn’t all belong to each person. Parts of it are each of ours. What parts are yours?
By gaining a deeper understanding of how and why that paralysis and distortion around our relationship to money is a function of white supremacy itself, and unearthing how it all lives within us, we open the possibility of responding in transformative ways. We need to claim our distorted racialized relationship to our money so we can take the first step towards greater alignment and redistributing more of our wealth.
Break Down the Engine: Relationship & Money Sharing
There are no quick fixes. There is no one set of contemplative questions, articles, workshops or financial sharing steps that will snap us back into integrity with our racialized selves and our pocketbooks. Rather, to be in alignment and able to redistribute/share our money asks for an inner and outer commitment of sustained engagement in the effort. We need to deeply contemplate and act in all of these ways. The development towards right alignment with our money will ask us to demonstrate self-compassion, courage, discernment, humility, patience and endurance to withstand intense bouts of inner turmoil and external derision and shaming. We need one another’s support, encouragement and truth-telling. A sense of humor also comes in handy. It requires us to build relationships within which we share money consciously and redistribute a great deal more of our wealth than we are currently, as directly as we can, into the hands of Black, brown and Indigenous people and organizations.
The intentional act of cross-race, cross-class financial resource sharing, particularly when it is rooted in personal relationship, threatens the systemic design of white supremacy at its core. It breaks down the engine of the system: that money, institutional and social power be sequestered within the white community’s dominant control. It also punctures the delusional understanding that one of the greatest spoils of wealth is severing of one’s responsibility to relationship: that is, living a life of simply (and extravagantly) being served by others. Sharing our money across racial boundaries through the vehicle of respectful connection and shared well-being holds the possibility of transformation: the possibility of dismantling the hierarchy of human value and living in something more truthful: the interconnectedness of the human family.
By sustaining regular contact with our desire for actualizing interconnectedness within our own lives, we can tap into the motivation to do the work necessary to move into greater alignment with ourselves and others. Being close to our yearning for living a life of integrity for ourselves is key. The yearning is the flame that, if carefully tended, can illuminate the aspects of our financial lives that keep us from just action. The yearning can also keep the heart soft enough to tend to our debilitating judgement, grief and sorrow about it all with compassion. There is no avoiding the plain fact that coming into deeper awareness with how our racialized identities sever connection from ourselves, particularly around money, opens us up to pain. Common but no less real reactions are: heated defensiveness, avoidance, overwhelming guilt, plain confusion and self-loathing.
Exploring these lines of inquiry and our own reactions to this grappling has the potential of putting us in contact with our longing for something else. Some of my related longings are: My desire for my life to have integrity. My desire for justice to find more expression in the lives of us all. My desire to know myself and other people in the fullness of their humanity. My desire to live in a world where the creative potential of every person is nourished by the collective whole.
I invite you to find your own.
You can pledge to take time, even today, to find what your heart’s motivation for racial and financial justice might be. Knowing and activating our personal touchstones can shift us out of a fearful, guarded, scarcity perspective and into a more embodied, hopeful, and creatively collaborative frame of mind and heart. Be aware that this is not meant to supplant or excuse us from our responsibility to do intentional financial resource sharing. I am also not asking you to self-aggrandize or self-loathe or engage in spiritual or emotional bypassing. My effort is a call for white people to commit more fully into our own disentanglement with systemic wrongdoing by honestly assessing our driving motivation for racial and economic justice. You can literally pledge right now to contemplate for 10 minutes (or more) your hearts’ motivation for sharing your money within the context of racial justice. You can get there by investing time and space for creating an intimate, heartfelt connection to all that these topics bring up. We must water those seeds of awareness to grow towards just engagement and right alignment.
Prompts for Contemplation
On a more concrete, actionable level I am also inviting you to become more honest with yourself (and others) about the realities of your current personal and familial assets, including the financial networks you have access to. It is important that you are able to accurately identify your class status from your annual income and financial assets. One of the telling affectations of ‘white culture’ is that we white people have a distorted sense of our class position.The affectation is like a class dysmorphia. We enact a misidentification of our social class (usually into a lower one, if we are upper class, or into a higher one, if we are working class) or do not readily identify as having any class status at all. We need to clear the distortion around assets we materially hold and correspondingly, the amount of assets we might share. We cannot share money if we do not think we have money to give and/or sacrifice.
I offer the following thinking and writing prompts below to get you started in the process of considering your relationship to money and whiteness. These exercises are a means towards gaining a more mature and less distorted relationship to both. It will most likely be emotionally activating no matter what your financial status is. Be prepared to turn ‘on’ your awareness and notice what you might learn about how you react.
- What is my income? How much do I earn annually? Do I receive money from investments, real estate, etc.? How does my income compare to the amount I need to cover my regular expenses?
- What is my net worth? How much money do I have in assets such as savings, car(s), land, home, rental home(s), heirlooms, accounts, etc., less any debts? How much might I stand to inherit? (Guess at a range.)
- Am I accurate about the class status I occupy in relationship to the above assets? (Check here.) How would I characterize my relationship to my class status?
- In what ways, if any, does secrecy show up in my relationship with money?
- What arises for me when I begin thinking about my financial assets within the racialized framework of ‘whiteness’? What thoughts and feelings get activated? How does my body react?
- What percentage of my income, if any, do I currently give away? What arises when I ask myself if that percentage is in alignment with my values?
- How much of that money do I share/give within the white community? And how much money do I share/give to Black, brown or Indigenous people, communities and organizations?
- Ask the question: What is my heart’s motivation for engaging with the topic of money and racial justice?
Amira Glickman is a student + teacher of mysticism, mother, social justice activist, writer + resource sharer. @awglickman