The project by a Seattle-based artist lets strangers help a person of color with anything from childcare to taxes, and has attracted both praise and criticism
Enne had no expectations when she posted her request for an engagement ring.
She had posted it to Reparations – a half art project, half social experiment, the idea of which is this: people of color can request help or services, and others (white people, other people of color, anyone) could offer help.
Posts on the site include offers of childcare, tarot reading and tax help. One reads: “Just want to chat over coffee or dinner, make a new friend, feel a little more connected, learn something new about someone you might not otherwise meet.”
Other posts ask for help. A musician seeks an electronic mixing-board. The organizers of an art class for the homeless seek art supplies. And then there was Enne.
“I want to marry this amazing woman,” Enne wrote. “I want to spend all the moments being her wife and partner in this life. But I cannot afford to get her a ring. I am struggling so hard to pay my part of the mortgage, and pay on a loan to rebuild my credit, as well as financial needs of my kids.
“I would love to give this woman a beautiful engagement ring,” her post ends. “Perhaps you could help me make that possible.”
On the Tuesday after she posted her request, Enne received an email from a white woman who also lived in Seattle. The woman and her husband had been married two years, the email read, and though they were still very much in love, they never wore their rings any more. Would Enne like to have them?
Reading the email while sitting at her desk at the non-profit where she works, Enne began to cry.
Reparations was set up by Seattle-based conceptual artist Natasha Marin. “I was nursing at the teat of social media on a Friday night, becoming more and more depressed by what I was taking in,” said Marin, who is a black woman born in Trinidad who also holds Canadian and American citizenship. “Being of the ‘doing’ tribe of mankind, I decided to do something.”
Marin is at pains to separate what her project does from the politically charged idea of reparations that float around in American public discourse.
“I’m trying to create moments of solidarity between people of color, and between people of color and people who are white,” she said. “I’m not into polarizing. I’m into people working together for solutions … who can you help, who can you connect with, how can you offset your privilege.”
Right now, as a black person, I’m tired of answering 'how do you feel'. Shit hurts so much every day
Inevitably, though, the politics have found her. The project is not connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, which recently included reparations for slavery in its platform, but the movement has been influential on Marin personally.
She said her project was “very present tense; it’s about the present time, what’s happening right now, today. How do we repair ourselves after being exposed to all the violence we are exposed to? All the tension, all the strife? Surely there’s a way all people can heal together.”
The semantic complexities of the word “reparations” are both core to the project’s artistry and at the same time surplus to its execution. The website specifies that the recipients are people of color, but many of the early offerings of kind acts all came from people of color too.
The woman who emailed Enne came to her office on Tuesday with two rings, gold with purple sapphires. (Enne requested her full name not be used for this article because she has not yet proposed.) “We talked for a little bit,” Enne said. “She said: ‘I don’t have any expectations. I just want you to have them.’”
“I just bawled,” Enne continued. “I just cried. Because, for how much really awful things – how much just ridiculously disgustingly awful things that are happening – here’s just this small piece, from this one person, who’s like – it’s like she’s offering a light.”
She said that the two of them, this complete stranger and her, had a partially unspoken understanding – a connection. “We hugged so much,” she said.
“Right now, as a black person, so many people are like ‘how do you feel’, and I’m tired of answering questions,” Enne said. “Shit hurts so much every day.”
She said when she first saw the project, “I was like, this is kinda brilliant. Of course not everyone is going to be happy, and maybe it’s not for every single person and that’s fine, but … it’s like, here you go, offer something, respond to something, this is you doing something.”
“It’s not going to make up for everyone’s hurt and everyone’s pain,” she added. “But it’s a step.”
Inevitably, the project has become the target of a backlash. Marin herself has received death threats from white supremacists; she started a Facebook group, Shrine of Asshats, to chronicle some of them. They range from basic reactionary – “get a job! no one owes you a damn thing!” – to violent screeds of hatred.
“I discovered along the way that the word ‘reparation’ itself is like a trigger-word for white supremacists,” Marin said. “There is a lot of energy and emotion connected with that word.”
The trolling wasn’t limited to Marin, nor was it limited to abusive messages. Some gave fake donations, designed to get someone to their requested target and then bounce, leaving them with nothing. A veteran raising money to get a service dog had to re-post his request three times because of this.
“It is the most despicable kind of person who is reacting that negatively to the word ‘reparations’,” Marin said. “Because who, honestly, has a problem with a veteran getting a service dog? Who are these people?”
She has set up a “troll fund” where, for every abusive message the site receives, people pledge to donate a dollar to someone in need. The tagline for the fund is: “Hate can buy groceries now.”
“It is clear we are not OK as a culture – as Americans – and it’s racially-based,” Marin said. But the hatred she saw was outnumbered by the good, by people who have had requests fulfilled coming back to help others.
People, she said, “get high on the joy of human connection”.