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Learning Black History inspires me to be a Good Ancestor by Kyle Mylius

This is a guest post by Kyle Mylius, co-founder of Humanize Wealth and was originally written for their blog which can be found here. A photo and short bio are available at the end of this post.

I’m a White, middle aged, cisgender male who until recently had only a headline level knowledge of Black American history and the related cultural and structural underpinnings of Black racism. Like many well-intentioned white Americans, George Floyd’s death compelled me to be more curious. I decided I could no longer move through the world lacking a more holistic and true understanding of American history and my role in it – past, present and future. 

Maya Angelou quote: History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if face with courage, need not be lived again."

Learning Black History

With February being Black History Month, I’ve taken time to reflect back on what I have learned about Black history over the last few years, how it has transformed my worldview and how I spend my time and energy differently today as a result.

As someone I respect and admire recently reminded me, White people do not need to know Black history and culture. But Black people have to know the predominant White history and culture simply to navigate daily life, and in some cases, to survive. The hard truth is that we live in a White-centered culture of laws and social norms that dictate who is valued and who is not, who is harmed and who benefits, who is considered safe and who is to be feared, who has opportunity and agency and who does not.

In 2020, I accepted an invitation from a trusted friend to join a group called White Men for Racial Justice (WMRJ). Since then I’ve engaged in a weekly anti-racism practice incorporating deep learning, self-growth, somatic body work, skill building and taking actions. This process deeply informs the work I now do with clients at Humanize Wealth.

A layered understanding of Black history occurred through readings, podcasts, journaling, small and large group discussions and wisdom shared by our amazing Black equity advisors and guests that spoke with the WMRJ community. My initial response to much of what I learned, apparently common, was to feel shame and guilt for not knowing Black history sooner, for being a beneficiary of systemic racism at the expense of others and knowing that I was still part of the problem even though I was empathetic and already taking small anti-racist actions. 

Some of the most profound learning was experiential. Through WMRJ, I had the opportunity to travel to Richmond, Virginia to tour the James River’s Trail of Enslaved People. It’s impossible to describe how I and others in our group were emotionally impacted by this experience. The following year we gathered in Montgomery, Alabama where we toured The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy museum. A day later we marched with thousands of others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma for the annual Jubilee celebration of the Bloody Sunday march that helped spark the passage and signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

Striving to be a Good Ancestor

I recognize I still have much to learn, many trusted relationships to build and more mistakes to be made in the years ahead. But I also now know a good deal more about Black history and can’t unknow or ignore what I’ve learned. Instead of huddling with the quietly bothered on the sidelines, I am committed to actively working to dismantle systems of racism. In short, I now aspire to be a “good ancestor”.

The concept of being a good ancestor is found across cultures, including the ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, is credited with one of the earliest written uses of the term:

”Will future generations speak of the wisdom of their ancestors as we are inclined to speak of ours? If we want to be good ancestors we should show future generations how we coped with an age of great change and great crises.”  

- Jonas Salk

Good ancestors embrace the notion that we live along a continuum of past, present and future generations. We are our history and we help shape history by setting the cultural, social, economic, political and environmental conditions that will impact others for many generations to follow.

So how does a working knowledge of Black history and striving to be a good ancestor  inform what we do at Humanize Wealth?

1. It begins with having a clear eyed awareness that capitalism was built upon racist policies, legal structures and social norms that have proven to be devastatingly harmful and vexingly persistent. 

Enslaved human capital - African American people who had been kidnapped and brought to the U.S. to be bought and sold as property - were for a period of time the most valuable asset owned by (White) Americans, estimated to be worth more than the total value of all banks, railroads and factories across the entire U.S. In this context, it’s understandable why Nikki Haley’s recent claim that “America has never been a racist country” was not simply laughable, but utterly offensive.

“Historically capitalism + racism are interlinked, which is why I call them the conjoined twins + historians like me call them “racial capitalism” in the singular.” 

- Ibram X. Kendi

But everything changed when slavery ended after the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, right? And capitalism is simply a mechanism to ensure money flows to the most productive and efficient uses, right?

Unfortunately the answer to both questions is a hard no. Following emancipation and the theoretical dissolution of “separate but equal”, the laws and norms that dictate how our economy and society work were simply adapted to continue the oppression of and value extraction from formerly enslaved people.

All of which enable White people to maintain the economic benefits and majority control of U.S. politics, natural resources, money management, technology and property ownership to this day. Historical examples include: 

  • Exclusionary property ownership and voting laws. 

  • Share cropping arrangements that made it virtually impossible to escape abject poverty. 

  • Public lynchings for even the slightest offenses like drinking from a white person’s well. 

  • Separate but (un)equal Jim Crow laws.

  • Racially biased banking practices. 

  • A post-WW II GI bill that excluded most Black people from valuable education and housing benefits.

  • Redlining of Black neighborhoods.

  • Sunset laws. 

  • A system of mass incarceration built by and for private prisons owners to earn profits. 

This is but a small sampling of how over 400 years of racism is embedded in the design of the American economy, capitalism and investments - resulting in vast differences in economic, social, and political power and wealth between Black and White Americans.   

2. We now see how White centered wealth and power is further entrenched by class vis-a-vis a caste system. 

Isabel Wilkerson is the journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. She is widely recognized for her insightful perspective on the relationship between race and class (or caste) in America.

Wilkerson’s research demonstrates that both race and caste are human inventions and social constructs that have become completely normalized, rather than being biological realities. Human genome analysis concludes that humans are 99.9% the same, but across time and cultures, these race/class constructs including skin color have been wielded by dominant classes to solidify their advantages over others.

By examining caste systems in other countries like India and historical contexts including Nazi Germany, Wilkerson describes America’s own artificial caste system as a strict social hierarchy that perpetuates privileges of wealth and power disproportionately held by White Americans over Black, Indigenous and other People of Color.

Naming this artificial race/class construct feels overwhelmingly big and unsolvable to me. The proverbial, “How do you boil the ocean?” scale problem set.  But knowledge is power, and we’re encouraged by the growth of emerging race/class solidarity movements across the U.S. including here in Seattle through work being done by grassroots organizational leaders like the People’s Economy Lab, Front and Centered and Statewide Poverty Action Network.

“Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.”

- Isabel Wilkerson

3. We acknowledge culture and systems change work is exceedingly hard, but required to achieve a state of shared prosperity for the many rather than the few. 

Black history teaches us that the U.S. economic and capital market structures and systems are built on a cultural foundation of what author Marjorie Kelly describes as “wealth supremacy.” The rules, norms and power dynamics at play that overwhelmingly center and prioritize the needs of White wealth owners and business interests.

Shifting from a regime of wealth supremacy to a democratic economy that serves the needs of people and the planet in a way that is equitable and just requires culture and systems change work - both of which are hard. I would not have been motivated to do the work I do today at Humanize Wealth, or be able to sustain this work, without having first developed compassion for Black lived experiences. My participation in WMRJ facilitated and accelerated this process. 

Each of us engaging and investing in this work - whether community members, grassroots organizers and activists, wealth owners, philanthropists, nonprofit and public agency service providers, policy makers - must hold compassion both for ourselves and for others across the socio-economic spectrum. This includes having compassion for those we may otherwise label and treat in ways that only further divides us. 

crowd of protestors at Edmund Pettus Bridge

Concluding Thoughts

How do we move from building knowledge and developing compassion for our unstable home – to taking actions to stabilize, repair and remodel it? 

This might include participating in mutual aid and reparative work including direct financial gifts and non-extractive investments designed to distribute  power and wealth allocation decisions more democratically. 

There is also a growing range of multi-stakeholder organized impact investment opportunities supporting Black people and communities in building generational wealth, fostering agency over Black maternal health and better access to mental health, supporting emerging Black asset managers of publicly traded and private investment funds, investing in Black entrepreneurs, small business owners and real estate developers seeking start up and growth capital, providing catalytic funding for Black community owned and co-op organizations, and more.       

The knowledge and compassion I’ve built in learning Black history has truly been a gift. The fact that it has been a gift and that I’m privileged to know Black history, or not, is not lost on me. But I’ve moved beyond the initial shame and guilt I felt when I first waded into these waters. Instead, I am now feeling empowered, motivated and energized toward becoming a good ancestor. And I’m grateful to be in a position to use this knowledge to support our clients as we collectively invest in a future of shared prosperity.


Kyle headshot

This guest post was written by Kyle Mylius who co-founded Humanize Wealth to fundamentally shift the way wealth owners think about, manage and apply the full power of their resources as a force for good, for themselves and the communities in which they work and live.  

Kyle is passionate about taking actions to dismantle systems of racism and being a supportive member of culturally diverse spaces and places. He currently serves as a community steward and co-facilitator of peer circles for White Men for Racial Justice, and as a member of the finance committee at Washington Farmland Trust. Previously, he was a founding board member of Community Credit Lab (now an affiliate of Common Future) and served as an independent board director for Green Canopy NODE. When not working to humanize wealth, Kyle is often with family and friends enjoying food, music, travel and outdoor adventures including cycling, hiking, kayaking and fly fishing.

If you're new to learning about the role of race in our capitalist economy, he recommends you read Wealth Supremacy by Marjorie Kelly.

To learn more about Humanize Wealth, visit their website where you can subscribe to their newsletter or follow them on their socials at Instagram and Linkedin.


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