reparations- humility

We have been learning about reparations; then we take steps to put that into practice. As Paige Weston shares here, this can be quite humbling. May we listen in love as we journey together.  -Renée

Lately I’ve been trying to pay some of the reparations I owe. I’ll tell you a story about it and, so you don’t have to wait for it, I’ll tell you now I found the moral of my story in words 26-31 of Micah 6:8. That’s the “walk humbly” part.

Many years ago, when Laurence and I were younger, more foolish, and just as white and privileged as we are now, we hired a succession of truly splendid women of color to look after our preschoolers while he and I went to our day jobs. These were smart, competent, loving women—women to whom I entrusted my babies—who were willing to work for the pittance Laurence and I were able to pay them without rethinking major things in our lives like where we were willing to live or what kinds of jobs we were willing to take. Let’s call the first of these women Jane.

Jane was born the same year as our mothers, but was older, having lived a harder life. Jane insisted we pay her under the table, which made us uncomfortable because those were the years when prominent people were in the news for failure to pay their nanny taxes. We were law-abiding sorts. Plus, you know, we wanted to be able to write off our child-care expenses on our own taxes, and we couldn’t do that unless we paid her taxes. But that’s not why we eventually fired her. We fired her because she was old and poor.

One day Jane couldn’t come to work because she’d spent the night in the emergency room of the Cook County hospital. We were horrified. She’d had a high blood pressure episode and we feared for her life. We expressed our concern with days of paid sick leave (a perk of my own job I was able, barely, to share with her; if you’re a working mom with paid sick leave you spend your leave when you’re sick, when your kids are sick, when your kids’ babysitter is sick, and when your kids’ babysitter’s kids are sick). When Jane said she was ready to return to work, we wanted to be sure our job wasn’t killing her. We insisted on a letter from her doctor. To us, a trip to the ER meant “life-threatening emergency.” We didn’t know poor people went to the ER for routine medical care. We just didn’t know that.

Jane grumbled about having to bring a letter from her doctor. It took another day or two, and the letter she brought was unconvincing. (No letterhead, misspellings.) We were genuinely concerned for her health. If she was courting death, running after two preschoolers, then she needed a different job for her own sake. Plus, there was the inconvenience to us: the unscheduled absences, the lack of a tax write-off. But it was really for her own sake we fired her, so she could find something better suited to her physical abilities. Yes, indeed. (To be fair to our young, foolish, white, and privileged selves, we believed that. We just didn’t get it.)

During the same years Jane and the two other women worked for us, Laurence’s mom was buying us savings bonds out of her monthly paycheck. Her idea was we’d cash them early to pay for our kids’ college educations. When college years arrived, though, we didn’t have to do that, and those bonds have just begun to mature this year. So what do we do with this money we’ve come into, as heirs of a privileged white family? Obviously we use it to pay some reparations. I had this great idea. What if we could give the money directly to Jane’s descendants? My conscience began to tickle me about Jane years ago, and now it demands my attention. My children’s grandmother could share her excess wealth with her family. Jane, already a grandmother when we knew her, could not. We could make that right(er).

So I applied my considerable genealogical research skills to the problem, and tracked down a woman I was pretty sure was one of Jane’s granddaughters. I emailed her, concluding with:

I know this is a peculiar email to receive from a stranger, but I’d be very grateful for a reply. Do you think you might be related to the [Jane] we knew?

Hoping to hear from you!

Within minutes, I had a reply:

I’m REPORTING you to the POLICE!!!! This is fraud!!!!

Oh, dear, I thought. If she thinks I’m a fraud now, just wait til she hears I have money I want to give her. I tried again. “[Jane] was our babysitter.” “We lived on Dorchester, and then on 48th Street.” “We remember [Jane] had a granddaughter named [Mary], who was our daughter Rosie’s age, so would have been born about 1989.” As many earnest details as I could muster, without explaining why I wanted to make contact. After all, I didn’t want her to scam me. She replied:

You’re a fraud and have been reported!!!! Credit bureau have been notified as well!!! You don’t KNOW [Jane] or SHIT about her!!! I forwarded emails to CPD fraud department. Her name has been flagged.

She’s not wrong: I don’t and never did know much about Jane. I tried one more time, though, promising this would be my last email to her. I said Jane had had a big influence on our lives. I said stories and photos were among what I hoped to share with her family, if I could confirm I’d found them. She replied:

You should be ASHAMED of yourself!!! Trolling the internet and trying to piece information together about someone. You CLEARLY do not know anything about [Jane]!!! As I stated before I have alerted all credit bureaus as well as the fraud department with CPD!!!

And then I was ashamed of myself. And it was very uncomfortable. But why exactly did I feel shame? Not because I’d done anything illegal. I hadn’t. Not because I’d done anything unethical. I knew my own motives, knew I was not a troll, knew I wanted To Do Good. After some thought, I even acquitted myself of wanting To Be Seen To Do Good. (I had at the time zero intention to tell anyone who didn’t strictly have to know. No plans to write this story down. I didn’t even want thanks from Jane’s family. I owe them; they don’t owe me a thing.) But still I was miserable with shame until Laura Lindeman (whom I didn’t tell what I’d been trying to do) quoted the whole of Micah 6:8 to me. Walk humbly. Ohh. It wasn’t that I’d been too sure I was doing the right thing. It wasn’t that I’d wanted to be seen to do the right thing. I felt shame that in an ambiguous situation (my emails did sound scamlike, after all) I had expected, because I’m white, privileged, and apparently as foolish as I ever was, to receive the benefit of the doubt. Note to self: don’t count on white privilege to make it easy to pay my reparations.

I’ve written to other possible descendants of Jane, as well as of our two other employees, but at this point I don’t expect to hear back from any of them. There are plenty of other ways to pay our personal share of reparations. We’ll donate to college readiness programs and college scholarship funds, support local businesses, local food pantries, local homeless shelters. I don’t lack for ways to share my wealth. What I do lack, and hope I lack less, going forward, is humility. I’m counting on Your help with that, God. And yes, I’ll probably regret asking for it.

E. Paige Weston

5 Comments On “reparations- humility”

  1. Thank you, Paige, for the honesty and the challenge it holds.


  2. Paige
    I appreciate your attempts to deal with this difficult subject. May we all learn the best way to go forward and do what’s most helpful and appropriate.


  3. Like above, thank you for sharing. Also, for not stopping when you got rebuffed. This is a humbling business which is one of the reasons so many of us want to claim we are not racist.


  4. What a moving story. Thanks for sharing,


  5. Thank you Paige for sharing your experience. (And, thanks Renee for putting this in the NCF newsletter.) I too have been humbled again and again as I take faltering steps toward learning how to make reparation/restitution for my undeserved, but very real, privileges. Let’s keep learning, and your sharing helps us do that. Humility is a hard gift to receive isn’t it!


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