Conceptual Artist Natasha Marin

The conceptual artist joins us to discuss her social experiment website entitled “Reparations.”

Natasha Marin is a poet and interdisciplinary artist. Her written work has been translated into several languages and has been showcased in exhibitions, performances and events around the world. Marin is a Cave Canem fellow and a Hedgebrook alum who has been published in periodicals like the Feminist Studies Journal, African American Review, and the Caribbean Writer. Marin has received grants from the City of Austin, Artist Trust, and the City of Seattle for community projects involving text-based, visual, performance, and multimedia art. Her current project, "Reparations" is a social experiment website intended to explore "white privilege" and provide aid to persons of color in need.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Natasha Marin is a conceptual artist who, back in July, started a Facebook group called “Reparations”. Within days, the group boomed into a website and has since drawn international attention, including condemnation, as you might expect, from those who see it as a racially divisive tool that exploits white liberal guilt.

She joins us now to talk about reparations.me, the site, which she describes as a social experiment intended to explore white privilege. Natasha, good to have you on the program.

Natasha Marin: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Take me back to the beginning. I’ve read all about this, but tell me how you came up with the idea for this and how you rolled it out.

Marin: Well, like many people, I spend my evenings scrolling through social media, you know, seeing what everybody else is doing in the world. I’ve noticed that the temperature, the sort of emotional temperature of my feed, has gotten progressively colder and more haggard as people are constantly bombarded with negative imagery in the media, police brutality, mass shootings.

And there was a point when it seemed like there was something happening every single day, you know. To me as a human being, that’s kind of overwhelming and I noticed that people on my network were also feeling overwhelmed. They didn’t know what to do.

I’m not sure that just feeling sad or angry or upset is really that constructive, so I thought to myself, what can I do with my hands and my abilities and my skill set that would help my community heal and reconnect at this time of like great conflict and tension in our country?

So I put up a Facebook event page. I do a lot of social engagement work and digital engagement work. You know, I had very little expectations. This is the sort of project that I’ve done before and nobody paid any attention [laugh].

So I was really surprised that within three days, like thousands of people were participating and sharing this project. You know, by that following Monday, it became clear I needed to put up a website so the user experience would be good.

Tavis: And the project initially was what?

Marin: The project is the idea behind my “Reparations” project is that many of us feel broken and we feel wounded and this is a way to repair that in an interpersonal way, just individuals. Not like a big government intervention, but like what can you and I do in our communities to make everyone feel more connected and healthier and happier?

Tavis: And that works how? The process?

Marin: Well, the process is pretty simple, actually. If you want to make an offering, any one can make an offering. People of color were the first people to make offerings as part of the experiment and people who identify as white can also make offerings. And these could be anything, you name it.

It could be I will go with you to buy a used car. It could be I will mentor you. I will send you an Amazon gift card if you need to read some books. Do you need to play a video game to escape? Do you need a massage? Do you need help with your tuition? I mean, it runs the gamut, right?

And requests are made by people of color and people of color have requested–again, it’s incredibly varied. Anything from crisis intervention to, you know, pet sitting. It can be like life and death or I really just need a massage so that I can feel like a human being again.

Tavis: Let me ask a strange question. This is social media, so we can’t see who we’re talking to, obviously. So does the melanin in your skin qualify you to make the ask or does your need qualify you to make the ask, or both? Or am I missing something?

Marin: No, you’re not missing anything. There is definitely a racial component to the project. I feel like people who identify as white already have many institutions and projects and social pathways that cater to them already.

Whereas people of color don’t historically have those same sorts of networks. And I don’t think just in general that Americans are very aware of the discrepancy between a life lived by a person of color and a life lived by a person who identifies as white.

So, yes, I am calling attention to that. Need isn’t really the crucial thing because, you know, you have a great job, but you might need to vent to somebody.

Maybe you’ve experienced some micro aggressions at work and you just want to talk to somebody who you’re not connected to at all, have no professional connections with, and you just need to kind of go off for 20 minutes. That is a valid request and/or offering. Catharsis is something that many people have asked for. See, somebody might not think that you “need” anything, but, yeah.

Tavis: I love the concept. I guess the other question I have is how do we know that these requests are “legitimate”, however we define as legitimate? It is social media. People could be asking for $2,000 to pay tuition. I’m just trying to figure out who’s policing the legitimacy of the requests?

Marin: I have the most amazing group of volunteer moderators, so every request either comes to me directly through email, reparations.me@gmail, or it goes through the Facebook event page, and the Facebook event page gets a lot of traffic. So many people choose that route and it’s like sending a text message.

You just send in like I need–let’s say you do need $2,000 for tuition. You’re going to get a message from a moderator that says, “We’ve received your request. All financial requests need to be accompanied by a Go Fund Me or similar crowd-funding campaign.”

So if you are just kind of hustling, you’re going to have to put effort into it. That takes care of a lot of people who are kind of just trolling. Also, if there’s any question, we engage people in dialog, you know. And just like you would ask me questions to find out sort of is she legit, we do the same thing, you know.

And if you’re not genuinely in need of anything, you’re not going to last very long in an intense dialog with somebody who’s kind of asking you like so where do you go to school? And could you send me an email from your school address? You know, how much do you need for tuition? What’s your degree in again?

Tavis: I suggested in my introduction that you’ve gotten some pushback–no surprise. Any good idea gets some pushback. What kind of hate you been catching?

Marin: I feel like there should be a dropdown list for White Supremacist trolls because it’s basically like one of five faces. You know, there’s the typical, the standard, “You’re lazy. Get a job.” “Go back to Africa.” And by the way, if anybody wants to send me back to Africa…

Tavis: I’ll take a ticket.

Marin: I’m open to that.

Tavis: I’ll visit Cape Town anytime, yeah, yeah.

Marin: Just back it up with the dollars. And, of course, like all sorts of terribly racist language. Up to the point where I created this project, I could count on one hand the times in my life somebody had called me an “N” word. As soon as this project launched, I mean, thousands of times. Now I feel impervious to that word. You know, like is that all you can come up with?

So, yeah, the most interesting feedback I find is when people say, “What about me?” So you’ve just listed that I’m lazy, I need to get a job, I need to go back to Africa, and then you follow it up with “What about me? What about the fact that my grandparents were Irish or Italian or Jewish. Where are my reparations?”

And that to me reveals kind of a fundamental misunderstanding of the project I’m doing. But also it reveals sort of the newness of this white identity in the United States. You know, if you go back 75 years, a lot of the people who are identifying as white today would not necessarily be doing that.

Tavis: Assimilation.

Marin: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I’ve been one of these persons who, for years now, you can imagine I’ve been asked a thousand times. Every time I give a speech or every time I show up anywhere, there’s somebody who wants to ask, “What about reparations?” You know, sometimes Black, sometimes white. I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count.

What got my attention about it was that I think that this notion of reparations, there’s no doubt–let me back up. There’s no doubt about the fact that America owes Black folk a debt that it can never repay, period, point blank, no debate with me about that.

The question is how do you define what reparations is? How did you come to terms with that notion of having a uniquely different definition of reparations? Does that make sense?

Marin: Yeah, it totally makes sense. You know, for the record, I am with you and I think that the government policies, the attempt, the long history of seeking reparations in a policy kind of way, is something that I completely support.

But as we can see with American politics, it’s convoluted, it’s complicated and everything seems to take a really long time. And to date, nothing has happened. And certainly this conversation started immediately after slavery, so it’s been a while. We’ve had enough time to do something about it.

But for me, I’m interested in making sure that the average individual feels empowered to make positive change in their communities. It doesn’t matter what color you are. Just stop and ask yourself how can I add value to my community? And for many people, we go to work all day, nobody appreciates us, nobody stops us and says, you know, thank you so much for what you’re doing.

Here’s a way that you can get that, you know, enigmatic appreciation and gratitude just by asking yourself what can I offer? What can I give? You know, if you’re a doctor, if you’re a dentist, if you have any kind of professional job, you could work at an airline, you know. Offer somebody a buddy pass. You don’t know whose grandmother just died and who needs to go visit.

You know, you don’t know who’s in a point of crisis. What might be small to you could be huge to somebody else. So my whole philosophy is really about what is it that each one of us can do in empowering the individual.

So I’m not so concerned about what can happen on a government level because it feels slow and unsatisfying to me. But I know that communities are made up of individuals and governments are actually supposed to represent us. In the meantime, what can we do to help each other?

Tavis: It’s a great idea and everybody’s talking about it from The Guardian over there to the L.A. Times here and a lot of other media outlets. The story is starting to gain some traction. People are going online to actually check it out. You might want to do it yourself. It’s called reparations.me founded by one Natasha Marin we’ve been honored to have as a guest tonight. Congratulations. Good to have you on.

Marin: Thank you.

Tavis: Thanks, Natasha. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: September 13, 2016 at 3:25 pm