Money as Medicine

Forbes just released its annual list of the wealthiest folks on Earth, who have an average net worth of $4.1 billion. Every time one of these lists comes out, the first thing I do is scan for names that are not white men, and every time, I’m disappointed. You could hardly find a more striking visual to demonstrate that colonial dynamics are alive and kicking here in the 21st century, dividing the world into haves and have-nots.

The system of capitalism, by its nature, uses wealth as a tool to divide, control, and exploit us. And unfortunately, even the white knights of the money world—the institutions of philanthropy and ethical investing—can perpetuate trauma and spread what I call the “colonizer virus.” At the core of this affliction is a sense of dividedness or separation. It correlates with fear, distrust, scarcity, and blame—all of which arise when we think we’re not together in this thing called life. And when those afflicted with this virus devalue some forms of life and certain kinds of humans, they can control and exploit them.

With few exceptions, funders reinforce the colonial division of us versus them, haves versus have-nots, and mostly white saviors and white experts versus poor, needy, urban, disadvantaged, marginalized, at-risk people (take your pick of euphemisms for people of color). I know this because I’ve spent the past 14 years working in foundations and advising high-net-worth individuals, but the statistics also speak for themselves: Ninety-two percentof foundation CEOs and 89 percent of foundation boards are white, and only 7-8 percent of foundation funding goes specifically to people of color

The same dynamics basically hold true across what I call the loans-to-gifts spectrum, including bank loans, venture capital, municipal bonds, and even social and ethical finance, impact investments, and humanitarian aid. Here the statistics are equally dismal: The management of financial services is 81 percent white, and 86 percent of venture capitalists and more than 96 percent of angel investors are white. On the receiving side, 42 percent of minority-owned firms are denied bank loans as opposed to only 16 percent of white-owned firms. A measly one percent of venture capital goes to African-American and Latino entrepreneurs.

To sum it up: When it comes to getting or giving access to money, white men are usually in charge, and everyone else has to be at least twice as good to get half (or less) as much.

As a Native American (an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina), I believe humankind and other forms of life are all relatives; we are literally all related to one another. To heal what hurts, to come back together as one human race, and to restore balance to the land, we need to decolonize wealth and use money as our medicine.

Across American history and through the present day, the accumulation of wealth is steeped in trauma. Since at least the 1400s, white supremacy has been the justification for colonization, the conquest and exploitation of non-European lands, backed by a claim of divine sanction. Asserting that paler people deserve more—more respect, more resources, more opportunity—for no reason beyond the utterly arbitrary and ultimately meaningless pigmentation of their skin, colonizers spent centuries marching around the world, using whatever means necessary to amass and consolidate resources and wealth.

Now, in a time often termed “post-colonial,” funders add insult to injury, as Indigenous people, people of African descent, and many other people of color—those who colonists frequently stole from or exploited to make that wealth—must apply for access to that wealth in the form of loans or grants. We must prove ourselves worthy. Many funders demean us for our lack of resources, scrutinize us, and often deny access after all.

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