On August 16, 2017, Chanelle Helm published an Article in the Leo entitled “White People: Here are ten requests for a Black Lives Matter Leader.” In this provocative article, Ms. Helm outlined a number of ways that white people have the opportunity to consider giving back to black folks, families and communities.
I firstly want to note that this article appears to be at least partially satirical – she starts the article with a line “…in that southern black grandmama voice.” I’ve never had a southern black grandmama, but the fact that Ms. Helms led with this statement seemed to me to be a loud declaration of her intention to be a tad bit tongue in cheek in tone.
I also suspect, although I do not know, that her article as intentionally provocative. Now, being provocative is not a bad thing (unless, apparently, the one being provocative is black and/or a woman). I for one, often need to be provoked in order to grow, examine my beliefs or attitudes, or learn. I rarely do it of my own good intentions.
I, like a lot of other folks (especially those of uw with white skin) for one, was indeed provoked by Ms. Helm and her article. As is often the case, when I sit still through my initial reactions, I find reason to be grateful for being provoked. In this case, I was provoked to think and feel more deeply and more personally about reparations than I ever have. I was provoked to consider in different ways that privilege that I have, and the degree to which those privileges have been based on my skin color and gender. At the end of the day, Thank-you Ms. Helm for your article and your provocation.
Now I know Ms. Helm has experienced some pretty hostile reactions to her piece – up to and including death threats. It seems to me from what I’ve seen and heard of these response (mostly from men with white skin) that Ms. Helms is being held significantly higher level of accountability than are the people (men) who are reacting to her. This is not uncommon – Black and brown people, and women in particular, are often held to a higher standard. This imbalance of accountability is how people who abuse maintain their dominance in the relationship (be that abusiveness at the interpersonal level between a husband abusing his partner, or dynamics of abuse that occur within systemic racism or sexism). We need to label this as a part of the dynamics that establish and maintain abusiveness.
We also need to make sure we aren’t unintentionally reinforcing this dynamic in our efforts to be of support. Such as focusing our suggestions, or recommendation on how women should keep themselves safe(r), or how black or brown people should act in ways that don’t entice that kind of response. These suggestions/recommendations are misplaced (coming from men or people with white skin). Our suggestions/recommendations really need to focus on how other men and/or people with white skin should respond when provoked. Being provoked is an invitation for further reflection and introspection, not aggression and intimidation.
Ms. Helm, here is some of what I gleaned from your provocation:
My mother grew up in south Texas in grinding poverty. She was able to escape that by going into nursing school in San Antonio. My father’s story is much different. He was the first child (and first son) of an established Irish-German Family in the South Side of Chicago. He grew up in the hotel that his grandparents had formed and his parent inherited. My grandparents owned the hotel, restaurant/bar and liquor store.
Until I read your article, I never considered the privilege that that wealth afforded me. My parents pretty much shielded me and my siblings from that wealth – I never got any inheritance when my grandparents died. But in so many significant ways I have benefitted tremendously from this multi-generational wealth. Wealth that still exists and which, if life goes according to plans, will directly benefit my child.
As far as me, my parents (mom a nurse, dad a social worker) never appeared “wealthy” — I often say that for me, growing up, back to school shopping consisted of trips to GoodWill. And yet, we always owned homes. In retrospect, homes that my parents likely couldn’t have afforded based solely on their income. I grew up in this context of really never having to worry so much about money – tho it was never explained to me, and we lived as if we needed to pay attention (such as shopping at Good Will).
Looking back, and knowing what we know, I have to wonder how white supremacy conspired with my great grandparents (and perhaps their very behaviors and actions) that they were able to come to own that hotel, bar and liquor store. What did redlining look like in South Chicago in the late 1800’s? How did racist violence intersect with loan policies that blocked black families who were similarly positioned to my white ancestors from owning the very hotel, liquor store and bar that was past down to my grandfather?
What does it mean to me, an aspiring ally, that I continue to live concretely benefitting from this heritage? That this heritage is part of how my child will be paying for college (should he decide to go)?
As I reflect on these questions, and the meanings of the answers that emerge, the requests that Ms. Helm made in her article seem a lot less provocative…and certainly far from extreme.
© 2017 Rus Ervin Funk