White Money in Social Justice

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I can’t talk about money without talking about my relationship to money.

I grew up middle class. Or maybe upper middle class? I’m not sure what the defining features are. We only had one car most of the time, and were only allowed two gifts from Santa, but also we had a pool for a few years because it came with the house we were assigned by my mum’s job. Whatever category we were in, we weren’t on food stamps and the lights were always on. Growing up I knew that I could go to post secondary without much trouble.

The only time I experienced poverty is the year between highschool and acting school. I was living on $10 a week in groceries, eating half a bagel for breakfast and rice and beans for dinner. I had to plan my sleeping time in a way that would minimize the hours experiencing hunger. This was only for a few months, but I still haven’t shaken the habit of mentally tallying my groceries to make sure I don’t get that dreaded DECLINED. I still feel poor a lot of the time. I still live in fear of being poor. Actually, I still mentally classify myself as poor.

But something I’ve noticed since becoming an adult – and specifically since getting married – is that white folks define poverty differently.

I define poverty differently.

Despite not having any debt after graduating from acting school, I lived well below the poverty line for about a decade after that. As any first year economics student can tell you debt and wealth are not directly related to income. I wasn’t in debt but I wasn’t making money and I most definitely was not accruing wealth. But I was young and I was fine with that. Then I hit my late twenties and that whole bohemian laissez-faire attitude shifted as I realized that it would be nice to see a dentist. Not only that, but working in restaurants was taking its toll on me and I still hadn’t developed the ability to save or plan for anything. Losing a job or losing a few shifts meant I was suddenly asking my landlady not to notice that rent was a little late this month.

I went back to school, and for the first time in my life I was facing down a big debt decision.

Could I justify taking on $60,000 in debt in order to get the education I needed to get a job that could get me out of that debt?

I took the plunge. I work 2 jobs (sometimes 3, sometimes 4) while going to school full time and I just barely scrape together enough to not feel like a failure, while receiving student loans and opening a student line of credit. It feels like poverty.

But it’s still different.

See, when I was 18 I didn’t have access to money or credit. When I only had $2 to my name I really only had $2, and any change I could find in the furniture. Now, I’m playing with monopoly money but I can still access it. I don’t have to live on $10 a week in groceries as long as I haven’t hit the limit on my credit card. That access to money has changed the feeling.

There really is a difference between “I only have $10” and “I only have access to $10.”

My mum taught me that you will never go wrong investing in property. I still believe her, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do so. I have friends who went to work on cruise ships after school. They spent 4-5 years putting away money until they could get together a down payment for one of those sight-unseen condo development deals that were all over Toronto 10 years ago (Are those still around? I think I’ve filtered them out of my visual memory). Me, I wasn’t going on a cruise ship. I didn’t have the legs for it. I lived the starving artist life for a while.

But the message was still clear, throughout my 20’s I watched as people around me shifted into that mind-space where they needed to own property. Somewhere around 25 people were talking about when they’d be able to afford a house. I still couldn’t figure out how to pay off my credit card every month, so property ownership seemed like an advanced level skill that I wasn’t ready for yet. So I decided to put a pin in the idea of owning a house.

Until marriage.

Planning a wedding was one of the single most expensive, most stressful things I have ever done. And doing it all with the social pressure of being perfect and excited and happy while also spending so much money on something stressed me out beyond measure. There were days I would come home in tears because I couldn’t reconcile this level of extravagance while also looking at my student loan debt.

Before I got married I became really serious about not carrying debt and worked to pay down my credit card. I worked really hard and counted every penny that summer and paid off almost $3000 in credit card debt that I had been carrying for a long time. But, that feeling didn’t last long. Then there was a wedding, and figuring out how to financially plan for two people, oh and I was still in school and accruing debt anyway.

I’m sure there will be people reading this who will say that maybe I was overspending in other areas, maybe I should budget better, etc. That’s probably true in some cases, probably not in others. Maybe take a moment to realize that living expenses and circumstances are different everywhere and that I’m not just a whiny millennial. If that’s your impulse just stop reading and go away. I’m working on something deeper here.

I’m working on our psychological relationship to money as white folks and why it’s so hard for us to give.

A couple months ago I had another emotional moment around money. I found myself crying about how poor we are. I need to provide more context around what ‘poor’ meant:

  • We rent an apartment in a neighbourhood surrounded by multimillion dollar homes that we could never afford.
  • Our retirement savings are non-existent.
  • We do not own a house.
  • All of my (adult) life my friends have been starving artists, but when I got married I moved into another social circle, one that I had very little experience with.
  • My husband’s friends are not starving artists. They are not the type of people to say “Actually can we drink at my place? I can’t afford to go out.” They’re all accountants and lawyers and managers.
  • My husband is also a manager but we make between a quarter and tenth of what almost everyone else in his friendship group makes. All of his friends’ wives are working, while I’m back in school and essentially racking up our debt.
  • We are poor compared to our current social circle.
  • We will not have the means to own a house until our parents die. 

That last one got me.

We live in this morbid reality where once our parents die we may have access to some generational wealth in the form of the property they own. And that’s a messed up way to think about your life. It’s a messed up way to plan your future. I was so upset and feeling so stuck because of this financial purgatory created by my returning to school. I feel entirely to blame for our not fitting in with his social circle of successful working couples.

Even now, I worry about what I wear to group gatherings, worry that I might wear something that I’ve worn too many times before, or that appears a little too ragged, or might have a hole in it that I didn’t notice. I worry that I might put our poverty on display (my poverty, not his, he’s always fit in, I’m the poor one). Hell, I worry writing this post that they’ll finally know that I really don’t belong because I don’t even know the first thing about investments, I’m too busy trying to not lose my mind over how much tuition is going to be next year.

But do you know how privileged I am?

I don’t worry about our lights or our heat being shut off.

I don’t worry about being evicted.

We buy name brand groceries.

We have cable. Seriously, we pay money for cable TV because of sports.

In February I made the first financial decision that changed my attitude towards money in this whole social justice sphere. I canceled my subscription to World of Warcraft and signed up for Safety Pin Box’s E-Ally program. And yeah, I miss video games. But I had to accept the fact that when I was saying “I can’t afford that” I was really saying “I don’t think I can find an extra $25 that I don’t plan to do absolutely anything else with every month.”

As if the only money I should be handing over to resistance efforts was couch-money.

Change jar money.

Money that didn’t ‘count’.

Money that I didn’t factor into our budget because it was too small.

That’s what I meant when I said I couldn’t afford it. Yes, it took me a few weeks to get my head out of my ass and sacrifice something for something else, but that was actually a really important lesson for me. And you know what the sad thing is? I didn’t have to give up WoW in order to afford SPB. I wasn’t that down to the wire. But I felt like I had to in order to justify this money which was roughly what I might spontaneously spend at a makeup counter one month. Now I think it’s ridiculous that I had to go through mental gymnastics like that, but at the time (5 months ago), I did.

Liberation will not be funded by loose change.

People get paid for all kinds of weird shit. Especially on the internet. Go look and see how much money people make for playing video games. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Yet we bicker and balk at the idea of paying someone for an article or for spending 3 hours in the comments section answering every question, or for the hours of moderating online communities and hosting websites and providing educational resources. We offer time when we’re asked for money and we offer money when we’re asked to show up. We say “I can’t afford that” and then go home and cry because we’ll never be able to buy a house to live up to the expectations that we imagine other people have of us. And I say this because I’ve done this. Not that long ago, I did this exact thing.

We live in a state of mental poverty over what might not be – I might not be able to retire at 55. I might not be able to buy a cottage. Oh no! I might not be able to go on vacation this year. This fear of what we might not be able to afford keeps us locked in a selfish financial mindset that continues to victimize us when we are not actually victims of anything but what we’ve created in our minds.

White supremacy is a value meal.

Capitalism, patriarchy, ableism, classism, hetero-normativity, colonialism, etc. All these things are connected. In this piece alone you can see how all of these things impact my view of money and particularly my financial situation. I balk at spending any money, period. I constantly feel poor and like I need to mask my “poverty” when I’m around those who make more than I do. But I’m not poor. Not by government standards and not even by my standards. I’m poor by some made up standards that I’m not even entirely privy to. It’s a mindset, but it is not the same mindset as living in actual poverty.

I know, I’ve been there.

You know what makes my financial situation “white money”? It’s not the fact that I’m white. It’s the fact that when my parents and my husband’s parents die, my financial situation will change for the better. Yes, that’s morbid and I try not to think about it, but it’s the truth. We will not go bankrupt trying to care for our parents. We will figure out how to handle my student loan payments after graduation. You know, we might even get enough to move to a slightly nicer apartment someday.

What shifted my position on this? The Economic Policy Institute’s report on the racial wealth gap.

It is specifically because I’m looking at a future where I inherit something – most likely property – that I can change my mind on this. It’s because of the data that shows that I’m more likely to be paid more after graduating than a person of colour.

Honestly, this stuff hurts my white brain on a regular basis. Money stuff. I have to remind myself daily that I’m not failing at life simply because I’m 30 and don’t own a house. That message has been hammered into me for decades and I put a lot of energy into the illusion that I’m alright. But I also put energy into unraveling this sick notion of poverty that isn’t true. Because it prevents me from showing up in meaningful ways.

As white folks we have access to more – more income potential, more wealth, more resources.

Just more.

Here’s what I’d like you to do, as an experiment. It’ll take 5 minutes of your time and you won’t have to leave your computer. See what happens.

Drop $20 into the Black Women Being fund for Safety Pin Box. If your brain just went “I can’t afford to do that.” Ask yourself honestly – is it because you don’t have access to that money, through paypal, credit, or by shaving down your grocery budget this week? Or is it because you don’t have $20 somewhere that you wouldn’t rather do something else with? Is it because you don’t have a surprise $20 in your pocket that you have no better use for?

Take a moment and break down how you think about money and how you think about this ask.

Do you think of this as charity? Are you judging this ask the same way you judge a busker or a panhandler? Is it really a matter of “I honestly can’t spare this money right now”? Or is it actually a matter of “But I don’t want to reach into my pocket to get my change”?

And then think of the black organizers who can’t afford to live in the communities they’re trying to help. Think of the people who spend their time and energy educating in their lives and online and who you judge for dropping their paypal links. Think of those who are in controlling relationships with partners who monitor their finances, trying to learn and support and do as much as they can from their phones in the dark. Now, think of your own financial situation. Are you sure you don’t have $20 for Black Women Being?

How about $5 a month to support someone doing some great community work?

The funny thing is, people think I like doing this. People think that I want to be a “professional social justice warrior”. I don’t. I don’t want to do this work any more than you do. But I do it every day because that’s what this is going to take and this is my skillset in this fight. Is it what I want to do? No. I went to arts school for a reason. I spent a decade as a starving artist for a reason. When I’m in my happy place away from the troubles of the world I sing, and once a week I teach children to sing. You think DiDi Delgado wants to write articles about racism all day? DiDi’s a poet. I guarantee every single person you come across in this work didn’t dream of being a freedom fighter when they were kids. Everyone wants to believe that they would step up if the moment called for it, but no one dreams of fighting for liberation because they have to.

No one asks an accountant to do work for the love it. Because we all accept that accounting is probably boring and is definitely a specialized skill set. This is ironic because one of my husband’s closest friends is an accountant and no one loves anything as much as this guy loves accounting, spreadsheets, and number crunching. We should be asking him to work for free. But we don’t, because his work is work. So is this. You think I do this work so I can scam you out of your money? If I wanted to scam you out of money I’d write a damn diet book.

Or maybe I could make $20,000 per video like this guy?

I don’t hide my work behind a paywall because there are a million reasons why someone might actually not be able to afford it. But this whole mentality of doing activist work for the love of it has got to stop. No one loves marching in the streets. No one loves getting permits together for public events. Absolutely no one loves answering the same damn question on the event page 800 times because no one bothers to read. And no one loves endless email chains where at least 30% of the participants don’t know how reply-all works.

We all have lives and dreams and things that we’d rather be doing. In fact, we know that impulse when you ignore our pleas to sign a petition or donate to something or show up somewhere.

We get it.

But people are dying. People are sitting in the dark because they can’t pay their bills. People are scared of what their spouse will do to them if they find out they sent money to someone online. When we ask for help it’s not because we’re lazy, it’s because we need help. Go look at how many people make thousands of dollars a month making youtube videos about how they hate women.

How’s that $20 coming?

Does it still feel like charity?

Does it still feel like we’re lazy keyboard warriors trying to scam you out of your money?

Let’s dig into that a little. You know why you’re scared that someone is trying to scam you? Because you’re stuck. Don’t feel bad, we’re all stuck. We’re stuck in a capitalist mindset where those who have more win, and so by giving to someone else we think we’re less likely to win. We’re busy looking at everyone ahead of us and worrying that we can’t catch up. We are crabs in a bucket because we all want to be part of that imaginary elite.

You know what? Fuck em.

The world we dream of is not a competitive world built on money earned by exploiting others. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to eat, live and maybe buy lipstick once in a while. Support your keyboard warriors, those who show up to the conversation when you take days and weeks off. Support the educators who have put their own dreams on pause in order to save the world from itself. We sacrifice so much – friendships, relationships, opportunities, time with family, and yes, money.

Don’t think of this like another Sarah McLaughlin sob-fest charity commercial.

This isn’t charity, it’s community. The more we let go of this fucked up money mentality, the more we can actually support each other where it matters. Then maybe DiDi can take a night once in a while to write a poem.

 


Places to put money:

Safety Pin Box membership also comes with access to an online community that is consistently moving money towards black women and femmes both through Black Women Being and through direct investment.

Black Women Being

In addition to providing financial support for Black women, Safety Pin Box encourages white people to actively engage in liberation work on a consistent basis. Each monthly box is a form of accountability to call you to action, and the variety of tasks offered make it impossible to say “I want to help, but I don’t know what to do!”

Now We Rise has 100 days of investing in black lives, sign up for their email newsletter to get 100 awesome people over 100 days to support/follow/learn from.

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You will be in Marsha P. Johnson Institute’s First to Fund Giving Circle, meaning you will be supporting the development of curriculum and strategy that will directly influence the lives of Black trans women and society. We want to give you the opportunity to support Black trans women, and the amazing work we do.

I can’t talk about DiDi so much without telling you to give DiDi money.

DiDi Delgado is creating change (unapologetically). | Patreon

Become a patron of DiDi Delgado today: Read 7 posts by DiDi Delgado and get access to exclusive content and experiences on the world’s largest membership platform for artists and creators.

 


My personal stance on money in social justice work here.

For those of you who are interested in unearthing and changing the ways that white supremacy affects you as a white person, well, that’s what I’ll be working on for the next little while. I do this work while supporting the organizers I learn from through Patreon and other avenues. If you would like to support me as I continue to write, learn, listen and educate, you can do so here. I only ask that you prioritize funds. If you do not currently support any women of colour financially please let me know so that I can divert your Patreon contributions directly to those doing the work.

Erynn Brook is creating conversations, essays, & education. | Patreon

Become a patron of Erynn Brook today: Read 11 posts by Erynn Brook and get access to exclusive content and experiences on the world’s largest membership platform for artists and creators.

 

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