When Supremacy Demands Thanks
by Jessica Lawmaster Once I was old enough to drive and “had my own money,” I started selecting a child or family each year at Christmas from the “Angel Tree” at the local grocery store. I would shop for them, imagine their life, and find joy in the hope that I could make their holiday a bit better. My love language is gift-giving. It is a way that I show love for others. My favorite thing is thoughtfully making, repurposing, or finding something new that I just know someone I love will love. It’s probably why I just launched a new business focused on thoughtful gifts and cards for the workplace and community. I digress.
Fast forward a decade or so. I knew of a group of women who were gifting someone we knew a gift basket because the person was going through a very hard time. The person who was receiving the gift was disabled and struggling financially. The other women were, at that time, much more financially resourced and saw that they could help. They purchased items for their friend, made a lovely gift basket, took pictures of it, and planned the big surprise reveal. I was not there when they shared the gift basket, so I cannot speak to how it played out, but I did hear from the group of women about how ungrateful she was…about how they could not believe that she didn’t express more excitement and thanks. They were appalled.
Witnessing this rattled me. Being removed from it made it easy to see how much these women’s “service” was self-serving. How their response revealed their belief that they were owed something because of their…goodness? Then I started to think about why they had goodness to offer…at that moment in time, they were enjoying financial and abled privileges, among others. They had more support and time to focus on themselves and others. I began to see the link between privilege and the dangerous and sneaky way it can make us believe we are superior.
Then came a super uncomfortable moment…I started reflecting on my own positionality of giving. It’s so much easier to name this stuff in others, right? This experience has served as a touchpoint in my journey of accountability around my own privilege. I still love helping, serving, and giving. I still love creating and customizing gifts. I just know that I need a lot of reflection, analysis, and accountability around the ways my privilege can manifest itself in the ways I choose to give.
Let’s get to the real impetus of me writing this piece. Julius Jones. If you haven’t been following his story, you can read more, follow along, and support his freedom at Justice for Julius Jones. Jones, a 40-year old Black man, has been on death row in McAlester, OK for the past 19 year for a crime he claims (and evidence supports) he did not commit. In his original trial in 2000, his family was never given the chance to testify that he was at home having dinner with them at the time of the murder. Another man has since confessed to committing the murder. There were overwhelming displays of racial bias throughout his investigation and trial.
Activists have been fighting for years for clemency. He was scheduled to be executed by the state on November 18, 2021.
Because of the overwhelming evidence supporting Jones’s innocence, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended twice that Oklahoma Governor Stitt grant Jones clemency and reduce his sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. However, the governor did not act on their recommendation. As November 18 drew nearer, the whole world jumped into action, calling on Governor Stitt. As the execution day drew nearer, groups gathered at the capitol. Jones's mother pled to meet with the governor, or at the very least deliver a letter to him. These cries were met with silence. The day of the execution arrived, and the preparations began. His family told him goodbye through a glass window. They had not embraced him for 19 years.
As the final hours approached, people gathered at the prison to pray and hope together. With less than three hours to spare, Governor Stitt announced clemency for Jones-with the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
This news was met with intense emotions and relief. Jones wouldn’t die that day. Thanks to the relentless labor of Jones’ family, community, and activists, his life was spared.
Sitting at my desk just an hour and a half away from the prison, I too felt relief. But there was more. I couldn’t get over the cruelty of it all. The waiting until the last moment. The letting Jones’s family tell him goodbye. The unnecessary silence of the governor. The extra jab of ensuring that, while Jones wasn’t guilty enough to die, he wasn't worthy of the chance to be considered for parole. So, I wrote this letter to Governor Stitt and shared it on Instagram.
The sentiments resonated with those who were also holding so many emotions. Gratitude, anger, relief, sadness. It was truly a moment where we could see the complex ability of humans to feel many conflicting feelings at the same time.
As my post was circulated, it also drew criticism. The comments and messages that I just couldn’t shake were these ones, which appeared to be made by white people:
“You get the result you want yet you’re still not happy with the result. Makes sense.”
“So the governor went out of his way through all of the other matters he deals with on a daily weekly monthly and yearly basis (to include a current battle involving personal freedom with the fed) to pardon this man so he can further appeal and plead his case. The governor didn’t have to do anything but he sought out that result.”
“Either be grateful or not.”
“He should say thank you and so should you.”
I couldn’t help but think back to that group of women, who saw themselves in a position to give and therefore felt entitled to a display of gratitude, simply because they chose to grace the recipient with their choice to give.
It also reminded me of a couple of years ago when New Jersey Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll said, "If slavery was the price that a modern American's ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one's knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid."
There is the centuries-old trope of “the thankful slave.” In the 18th century, this trope was crafted and perpetuated through fiction, travel writing, and pamphleteering. This myth promoted the belief in a sense of inherent racial difference; it humanized and justified slavery; and it reassured white folks that they wouldn’t experience backlash from freed enslaved people. “Seemingly sympathetic to slaves, the trope actually undermines their cause and denies their humanity by showing African slaves as willingly accepting their condition.” (George Boulukos, The Grateful Slave).
Thanksgiving was just two weeks ago and schools and families around the country perpetuated the myth of friendship between English settlers and the Wampanoag Peoples. The story of the “welcoming Indians” continues to make us white folks feel better about colonization. If we believe the Wampanoag were grateful and abiding, we can not only ignore the violent theft and genocide waged by our ancestors, but we can also position ourselves (and our ancestors) as contributors to and benefactors of collaborative progress. We literally shaped a whole holiday around it-the lengths we will go to.
Ruvani de Silva defines toxic gratitude as, “a way in which marginalized people are diminished, pigeonholed, held back, and controlled through the idea that they should be thankful for any and all privileges afforded to them by the dominant group, usually white cis men.” In her piece, “Toxic Gratitude: A Clapback to “Be Thankful for What You Have,” she highlights even more ways our society expects BIPOC, women, and poor and disabled people to just shut up and be thankful.
I cannot wrap up this piece without touching on similar dynamics that play out in philanthropy. Those of us with resources to give are positioned by the system of philanthropy (and other systems) to be the bestowers upon and saviors of people who have less. Nonprofits have entire departments of people whose job it is to make donors feel appreciated in just the way they need to so that they will keep giving.
Many donors expect this, and more. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for over a decade, I heard my fair share of stories of foundations and donors who withdrew their support when they weren’t thanked in an “adequate manner.” (To follow some amazing thought leaders around shifting these dynamics, follow the Community-Centric Fundraising movement.)
Donors also tend to limit their giving to specific parts of nonprofits’ work that make them feel good, rather than what is actually needed. For example, a donor chooses to give to a diaper bank and restrict their donation to purchasing diapers for poor moms. The diaper bank is actually doing great with their stock of diapers but needs resources to pay for car insurance for their delivery vans, as well as their warehouse electric bill. The donor instead chooses to dictate how their dollars must be spent based on what feels more satisfying to them, rather than what the actual need is.
This holiday giving season, let’s be vigilant in our discipline about giving and our (conscious or unconscious) expectations and beliefs about it. Joyfully giving without centering ourselves is liberating…and it may take practice. Our capitalistic systems condition us to believe that we are always entitled to something in return, even when we give charitably. When we unpack and undo those belief systems, we free ourselves to truly position ourselves with community, rather than to or for community.
Gratitude is a practice, not a destination, event, or performance. Gratitude doesn't live on the paper of a thank you note; it is revealed in the way we express care and love for others. It doesn't live on a to-do list, it lives through us, in the small ways we are in relationship with one another every day.
If you are with an organization or business who would like support in decolonizing your practices around giving and/or volunteering, check out Breauna’s work at Connecting the Cause.