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Why the Wellness Case for Reparations Goes Far Beyond the Paycheck

Nicole Cardoza

Photo: Getty Images/Tetra Images

Once upon a time, I was property.

To be more specific, I wasn’t property, but the notion of me was. And the bodies that bore me were. All were considered, just over 150 years ago, something, not someone. An asset that could be owned by someone—an investment like a house, or a car, or a 401(k). Although I may have more agency over how my body moves through space, as a Black person—a Black woman—I carry the weight of the abhorrent trauma, harm, violence, and degradation done unto generations before me in addition to oppression that persists today. And now, amid the racial reckoning following the May 25 murder of George Floyd, the concept of reparations has surfaced widely, but it’s often tied to political agendas or conservative opposition. At its core, though, reparations are both critical to our well-being and necessary for reaching health equity in our nation.

That said, reparations won’t fix the wellness industry, which actively contributes to the legacy of oppression and discrimination that needs reckoning. From appropriating practices and erasing true lineage to centering able-bodiedness and whiteness, this industry offers few examples for how to move forward and ensure all people can live well, despite its name. It has prioritized personal responsibility over collective care, eschewed elders in favor of influencers, and supported the notion that well-being is a commodity for purchase. The only “we” you’ll find in this $4.5 trillion space is in the wealth it accumulates for the elite few.

Clearly this is a wellness issue, and yet it’s one that the wellness industry itself doesn’t even support. How could the wellness space, which is so ripe with harm, bear the fruits of a reparative system? Are my efforts to create space and grow capacity here, most recently via my education- and action- oriented newsletter Anti-Racism Daily, merely complicit in an industry too rotten to transform?

Reparations are not a discount or an occasional Venmo transfer to alleviate white guilt. They are a call for payment that’s long overdue, with interest.

These same questions provide a framework for how to analyze our society as a whole in terms of the wellness case for reparations. In capitalism and pop culture alike, contributions from Black people throughout history are comprehensive yet are rarely compensated, celebrated, or even protected. Consider the past year alone: Our health has been traded for the economy, our land for energy, our safety for “law and order,” our labor for convenience, our livelihood for power. We may not be enslaved, but our bodies are still commodities, traded, and sold in exchange for goods that serve white people and whiteness alike. This country has grown and fulfilled its promise of prosperity to few, but it’s us—alongside the Indigenous communities disenfranchised from their native lands and many other communities of color—that have paid the price.

Although the amount for repayment may be considered nebulous at best, the cost is easily quantified when we analyze the gross health disparities between Black and white communities. Comparatively, we are not well. We’re over-indexing on chronic health conditions. Our children don’t have the same opportunities to breathe. On average, we’re losing more of our future generations than the white communities to maternal mortality. The multi-generational pattern of racial weathering is evident in health data, but we’re also less likely to receive help. We don’t even get the same opportunities to rest, despite bearing the burden of generational trauma in our bones.

And we are still paying. With flesh and blood, bodies and breath.

I’m uninterested in arguing the best way for reparations to be implemented. It’s principle, not policies that I’m advocating for. But I know that all current efforts to do so—whether by cities or states, or small businesses and universities, are inadequate. However, commendable acts of community organizing do set powerful precedents for broader reform. To be clear, reparations are not a discount or an occasional Venmo transfer to alleviate white guilt. They are a call for payment that’s long overdue, with interest. And they need to come with sweeping, unanimous acknowledgment and accountability. The significance of that decision, the gravitas of that statement, cannot be fragmented across state and local governments.

They also cannot be reactionary transactions, but a responsive and consistent component of moving forward. And that’s because this debt is still accumulating. Consider: How will payment for Tulsa protect Detroit? How do payments to descendants of those enslaved compensate for those still detained by our criminal justice system? We can’t spell “reparations” without “abolish,” without “defund,” without the necessary healing work of dismantling that a paycheck alone can’t do.

Writing a reparative check should include a commitment to let Black liberationists and healers reshape what this nation looks like to ensure we don’t add to the tab. Paying reparations isn’t merely an action but a practice, and it’s one we must repeatedly choose to keep Black well-being nurtured in everything we do.

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