Reparations Daily (ish) Vol. 20
An interview with Rachelle Zola, a 73-year old white woman willing to die for reparations
Happy Friday! There are three things to celebrate this week. We made it to the end of another week; for starters, this is Reparations Daily (ish)’s 20th volume, and it’s also our first edition featuring an interview.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the most interesting people I’ve ever talked to. Her name is Rachelle Zola, and I came across her story in this Chicago Tribune article titled, ‘She’s white. She’s 73. And she’s on a 40-day hunger strike for slavery reparations: ‘Am I willing to die for this?’
This newsletter somehow made its way to Rachelle, and she reached out (something she often does) to me to introduce herself, and I just had to follow up for an interview. You can head to the Hot Takes section to see the full interview, but there were a few themes that stuck out to me during our conversation that I want to highlight:
She understands the importance of building bridges with people who do not look like her. Throughout the interview, a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quote kept coming to my mind. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Abdul-Jabbar said, “if you want to change this, make a friend with someone who doesn’t look like you. Find out who they are and understand this humanity, and we will get over all of this fear.” How many people, particularly white people, can look around at their circle of friends and confidently say that they have more than five people in the friend group who don’t look like them? Zola understands the importance of building bridges across racial lines to truly be an authentic ally in this work.
She has educated herself in a short amount of time. In the interview, you’ll read that Zola didn’t make her first Black friend until 2015, when she was in her late 60’s. Despite this, she spoke confidently and eloquently about the racial wealth gap and the plight of Black people in America, citing experts like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi. We often hear this idea that racism will die out with the Boomer generation, but Zola is a testament that it is never too late to fight against racism actively.
She is dedicated. In our conversation, she spoke about having these callings (though she’s not religious) when she just knew she was meant to do whatever was calling her. It is clear that fighting to educate people about reparations and advocate for the passing of H.R. 40 is not a pet project, but her new passion project, and I hope that comes across in our Q&A.
She wanted me to share this video with you, Whitewashed: Unmasking the World of Whiteness
I would love any thoughts you all may have on the interview.
In the news today, here are some articles I think you should check out:
Steph Curry joined the group NinetytoZero, an organization that aims to provide a roadmap for companies and organizations to close the racial wealth gap. It’s huge that one of the biggest NBA players globally is aiming for the racial wealth gap. I’ve always envisioned the NBA being the largest influencer for reparations in professional sports, and I think this move puts it on that track.
I haven’t watched the full interview, and some may scoff at DJ Vlad from Vlad TV and Freeway Rick Ross (former drug kingpin, not the rapper) talking about reparations. But this is exactly the kind of content that I think we need. I’m sure this interview will introduce a new audience to the topic, and I frankly am looking forward to hearing Freeway Rick Ross’ position on this.
This piece in Yes! Magazine that talks about the importance of monetary and symbolic forms of reparations.
With radical love,
Yes Magazine: Why Reparations Are About More Than Money
New York Times: How Reporting About Food Led to a Story About Slavery
New York Times: How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Be Racist
Democracy Now: Jamaica Seeks Reparations for Slavery from Britain
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? What was your career? How has that impacted you?
My career was a mixed bag. I have a short attention span. My passion is working with families with children who have special needs. That really is my first love. I have a brother who has cognitive disabilities, and he was my heart. He was 6 years younger than me, and no one was going to mess with him. That is where my tenacity also comes from; it’s behind why I did the hunger strike.
I came to Chicago and saw that all this harm was done, and I realized that I was part of the problem. So I realized I have to use my voice and my body in whatever way I can to repair this harm.
I grew up in New York, and at 25, I went cross-country where I met my future husband, and I started to teach, but the classroom didn’t seem to fit, but the advocacy that I did in the classroom did. So one day, one of the kids I was teaching was crouching down and moving side to side as if she was going to run away, and I called up the mom, and I asked, “does your kid run away from you a lot,” and she said, “yeah how did you know?” And that started this idea of being a fly on the wall, watching the dynamics.
When I was 59, I knew I was supposed to leave the country -- I went to Jordan even though it was a tough decision. I’m adventurous, and some people would call me fearless. I don’t know if I would say that; it’s just that I’m not fearful of people, I feel as if I can talk to anyone, and that’s what’s important for white people to realize, that Black people go up to us, they approach us to make us feel comfortable. I would have never thought about those things; there is so much that I wouldn’t have thought about until I got it from people’s lived experiences.
When were you first introduced to the idea of reparations for Black Americans?
It was just recently. My friend Will, a Black man, just started talking about it, and he's a few years younger than me, and he told me that he never thought this word would come out of his mouth -- "reparations." So I started off doing a letter campaign, writing to Senators who hadn't signed on to HR 40.
Then, I just started looking more into the idea of reparations, and it just became a no-brainer. Reparations are a holistic approach to addressing racial inequality, and right now, we do everything so piecemeal.
If you hear the whole story and get to the root and the foundation, you understand why all the systems are built the way they are. They're built off of white supremacy, but we try to solve these issues individually.
Where did you meet Will?
I met him in November 2019, and we did these restorative justice circles where we asked ourselves, "how do we repair the harm?” So instead of sending someone off to jail, you sit in circles with the community, and sometimes you even sit with the person harmed and the person harmed. As a community, we ask ourselves, how can we heal because the harm did not happen in isolation.
For example, a young person may have broken into a home because they didn’t have a job or transportation to the job, so we try to figure out the reason for breaking into the home and committing this harm. We really try to get to the root of the harm.
These circles are considered sacred spaces, and we got that from the Indigenous people. It’s kind of like sitting around a campfire, so there's a candle to keep the focus in the middle, and no one comes in with a title. So maybe on the outside, you may be the boss of someone, but once inside the circle, we are all equal.
What's incredible about it is that people have shared things that they haven't shared with anyone in these spaces.
So, where did the idea of a hunger strike come from?
I get these knowing’s. I knew when I was living in Tusan that I was supposed to come to Chicago. I could've chosen not to come to Chicago, but I just had a strong feeling to come here and listen to Black and Brown communities.
One day, I read this article about the restorative justice community court, which sounded like a good starting place for me. And then, for the hunger strike, I had been doing the restorative justice zoom calls with a very diverse group of people every three weeks, and a man was helping me produce it. He told me that we could have 2,000 people on these calls, and I didn’t think anything of it, but with reparations coming up more often and often, I thought maybe I should go back to this man and ask him how to do that, how to get more people involved, and what we came up with was doing a hunger strike.
This was a different type of knowing because it wasn't even a question. It just felt like I was supposed to do a hunger strike. So, I read a couple of articles and asked a couple of people what I would drink throughout the strike, and a few people said I was going to die, and I told them that that wasn't in the plan. I told them that I was going to be just fine, and I was. I drank water, Pedialyte, and I had bone broth. So, I would have about 110 oz of liquid a day, and I did that for 40 days.
It was an incredible experience for me.
I would come into the local church at 10:30 am ET, and people would honk for me, Black or white, and what I realized is that most people didn’t know what HR 40 was. So I had plenty of discussions, and these discussions led to what reparations could look like.
I have an idea of what they could look like. But, still, my mission is the commission -- and as a white person, I want the commission established so that Black Americans have a national platform to share about all the harm that has happened since 1619 and the legacy of slavery. I want people to really hear the truth on a national level, and as you know, people are trying to change our history, and part of our history is not wanting to hear our history, and people don’t want to hear that.
I want to hear from the government that Black people in America were stripped of so much, and that fact needs to be acknowledged. They were beaten, whipped, shackled, imprisoned, the women were raped, the children were sold, and I want people to really hear this. We have this narrative that remains today that Black people are the ones who are dangerous, but we had these lynchings that remain up until the 1950s. So if we’re honest, we have modern-day lynchings with George Floyd and so many others, and that truth has not been told to white people.
People would say you're willing to put your life to me, but what is one 73-year-old versus the millions of African Americans that have suffered in this country?
So how do we go about getting white people, particularly white people in your age range, more aware and involved in the reparations fight?
My first Black friend was in 2015, and it was after my husband, and I separated, and I went back to Virginia because I had friends there. So I was looking for a roommate, and I got on the phone with a woman, and she said, ‘Hi, I’m Joyce, and I’m Black,’ and I said, “Hi, I’m Rachelle, and I’m white, want to meet?”
After we met, she told me that she wakes up every day as a Black woman who has to try and figure out how to navigate the world as a Black woman; what about me? I said that I either wake up cranky or in a good mood. I never thought about being white.
So I would ask the white progressives to really think about what it means to be white, or if they ever think about the fact, they don’t have to think about racism?
To the person who says I didn't own slaves, I would point out that we are still getting cheap labor today, and we got loans that Black people didn't get. A Black man I was talking to said it beautifully. He said he told a white person to write down everything he’d like in life, and the white man asked him where his list was and said, you're looking at it. He told him, “whatever you wrote on that, I want that too. I don't want anything that's yours. I want what's equal.”
So, I would ask those people what does it mean to be white. When did they first realize they had benefits because they were white? Or the fact that they don't have to think about racism or race because they are white. These are questions we have to ask ourselves.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to reparations?
People see it as a handout. That's the biggest obstacle. They don't see the effects policies have had on families for generations. Wouldn't you fight for that? To right a wrong? Why aren't you angry that we have been doing this forever?
What comes next for you? Another hunger strike?
I am going to travel. The hunger strike meant something, and if it made a difference, I would absolutely do that again. Everything that I am doing is, to tell the truth. My message will be ‘are you willing to hear the truth and hear another narrative than the one you're used to? I'll be going down South in August. Chicago will still be my anchor and home base, but I need to continue learning and listening.
I want to keep poking people.
When I go to the South, I want to go with some questions and hear different perspectives, not to alienate, but I want white people to admit the racism.
What does the phrase of radical love mean to you?
It just makes me laugh every time I hear in, positively. To me, it means to love someone truly.
I used to do this when I saw someone from a distance and thought to myself, ‘you are easy to love,’ that is what radical love is. But, if you look at someone long enough, you will see their beauty, love, and truth, and that is what I think of when I hear radical love.
Do you think HR 40 will be passed in your lifetime?
I think it will be passed before 2022. I'm 73, and there is a sense of urgency for me. But, when I’m talking to white people, I ask them where is that sense of urgency. We are drowning, we are going under, and we are very complacent.