Home > Higher Education, students > If I Wasn’t a Rich White Kid – Ruminations on Gene Marks

If I Wasn’t a Rich White Kid – Ruminations on Gene Marks

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of the greatest gifts [curses] white people have is the ability to forget or take for granted the numerous advantages they’ve had in life. I’ve certainly been guilty of this many more times than once in my life.

The same is true of the tech-savvy.  We take for granted all of the things we learned and the many teachers and lessons we had along the way.  We perform highly-sophisticated tasks as rote, and because they are rote to us – we often forget that they’re most definitely NOT rote to others.  That’s why I grind my teeth whenever my co-worker asks me something about basic HTML code.  I forget all of the lessons I’ve learned since I first typed a string of it.

This is what led to Gene Marks of Forbes writing a piece (“If I was a Poor Black Kid”) offering a well-intentioned but misguided prescription for success to the inner-city black youth readers of Forbes (doubtless there are many of them):

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have. (“If I Was a Poor Black Kid,” 2011)

Writers far better than I have already responded (and I recommend you read their pieces over mine: Kashmir Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cord Jefferson, Baratunde Thurston) but I couldn’t let this go, because of the problems inherent in how Marks closes his essay:

Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.

One can literally parse through each sentence of Marks column and come up with a laundry list of obstacles to the tasks he so blithely outlines (insinuating they’re relatively easy to follow).  For the sake of time, I’ll just address the first paragraph in detail.

“I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

No you wouldn’t.  That would require that you had the luxury of time to devote to things as non-essential to survival as “grades.”  It assumes you have some place warm, safe and dry to go back to every night after school (it also mistakenly assumes the school you go to is also warm, safe and dry).  It assumes that you’re not moving every couple of months as your parents (or whomever is raising you) are kicked out of rental dwelling after rental dwelling.

Taking a step further back, it assumes you actually want to be successful at life (which requires experience with examples of success in life that plant the seeds of aspiration in us).  It also assumes you understand that there is an important series of steps that must be completed in order to achieve that success.  It also assumes that you don’t make any poor choices in between each of those steps (like commit a crime – which is basically a life sentence for a youth of color in a way it isn’t for white kids).

Taking a step forward, “good grades” don’t necessarily mean good education.  Thanks to the standardized test-driven curricula we have, it often means that you develop unimportant skills (like memorization and regurgitation – an utter absurdity in the era of Wikipedia access on our smartphones) learning relatively ineffectual information (like what a bunch of old, white academics near retirement think should be ‘common knowledge’).

I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.

No you wouldn’t.  That assumes you understand the importance of reading.  It assumes you can overcome the derision of peers for seeking such an absurd goal.  It assumes you have the time and resources to accomplish this end (and that humiliation doesn’t preclude you reaching out to someone to teach you how to read).  It assumes your parents know how to read and would think or have time to pass along the value of reading to you (and reinforce it at home).

What amazes me about my fellow honkeys is that they think children of color are somehow supposed to inherently have far more discipline, self-control, and patience than their own children.  By that I mean, while they can’t get their own kids to clean up their toys or keep from throwing tantrums in line at the grocery store; they expect the children of the socioeconomic underclasses to be miniature adults with fully-formed pre-frontal cortexes capable of long-term decision-making and reasoning and able to always delay short-term gain for the benefit of long-term gain.

I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.

Cracker, please.  Brock Lesner wouldn’t last five minutes at that school.  You would care.

Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options.

Which assumes that’s common knowledge.  It also means that these students are fluent in the language and culture of academia.  Oh yes, academia has a language and culture – and it’s distinctly white.  Here are just some of the conventions of white academic culture that are often missed:

  • Attendance is important and counts beyond the points the teacher gives.  It can also buy the credibility necessary to ask for an extension on an assignment, or overlook a minor mistake on a test question.
  • Constant communication with the teacher is important; it shows you’re paying attention, and can earn you an excused absence from class if your car breaks down.
  • Participation in class discussion is important – it shows you’re paying attention and that you read the assigned text.  It’s often something you’re also graded on either explicitly or implicitly.
  • There are conventions for every type of work you have to do in a class.  Papers have them.  Tests have them.  Presentations have them.  Knowing where to access resources to better understand these conventions is an important skill not easily developed.  Take tests as one example: it’s not built into our genes to understand that it’s important to venture a guess just in case you get credit, or to skip the hard questions and come back to them later, or to check the wording of other questions in the test for answers to others.
  • Appearance is important; understanding how prone everyone (and I mean everyone – even teachers) are to stereotyping and prejudice based on nonverbal communication is a skill some rich white people (*cough*Trump*cough) figure out – to say nothing of how hard that is for poor black kids to learn.

This also mistakenly assumes inner-city kids are aware of options for their future beyond being a musician or pro ball player.  Even white kids have trouble envisioning other options because of the limited exposure they have to career fields; some have postulated this is why education is such a popular major in college - because it’s one of the only career fields students understand well as a result of continuous exposure to teachers as role models.

With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Yeah but doing well in a lousy school doesn’t increase your opportunities much; you still carry that stigma to every class with you.  Not only that, but you’re completely unprepared for the workload you will encounter when you try to advance to higher education.  Just look at higher education completion rates; only 55 percent of those who go for higher ed degrees successfully finish them.

Beyond the oversimplification of the problem, inherent in this conclusion is a very ugly component of upper-crust white American sentiment toward all others: …so, uh, what about the kids who aren’t smart enough to go for it?

The answer is that the majority of White America is basically okay with those kids ending up in prison or dead (fates they would never tolerate for white children if they were happening as routinely as they do for children of other races).

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  1. December 19, 2011 at 10:46 am | #1

    Derek, as you state, it starts with the importance a child’s parents put on grades and reading. By the time a child thinks this is important (if he or she ever comes to this conclusion), he or she may be so far behind their peers it would be difficult to catch up,especially in many urban school systems with limited resources to help those with special needs.

    If I were to write an essay on this topic, it would more likely be addressed to white people who worry about poor black kids’ grades and provide them instructions about what they should do. For starters, write fewer essays in magazines that are not read by poor black kids and spend more time volunteering in classrooms to help them in their studies and provide strong, adult role models (especially male). Breaking the cycle requires a full-court press and not a bunch of lip service.

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