If I Were a Middle Class White Guy Writing About Being a Poor Black Kid

A response to Gene Marks's "If I Were A Poor Black Kid" in Forbes

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If I were a middle class white guy writing on Forbes.com about being a poor black kid I’d be clueless. I’d be so clueless that I wouldn’t realize that I’m clueless, so I would not know that I should really, really step away from my expensive computer and not press send on my condescending, paternalistic and simplistic little essay that breezily fixes the problems of poor black kids. I wouldn’t think, well, if these steps are so easy — use the Internet to get more learning and try real hard — then why don’t more kids do that? I mean, wouldn’t some of them have thought of that already? No, they wouldn’t because none of them are middle class white guys.

I wouldn’t think about how my cheery advice doesn’t really interact with the challenges of being a poor black kid — from the lack of role models to poor schools to depressed employment opportunities to the lure of the drug game to the day-to-day difficulties of being poor that makes it hard to get out of being poor because of a system that’s constructed to keep you poor. I wouldn’t think about those things because I wouldn’t really know anything about them because I don’t have to. I could potentially solve some of my ignorance by interviewing some poor black kids before I write about them, but I wouldn’t go do that because, you know, what if I get robbed. I saw that happen in a movie.

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In my pithy, encouraging, bootstrappy message to the poor, black kids of America I wouldn’t include a discussion of overcoming the challenges of racism — from the mind-numbing messages society sends to broken families to the paucity of opportunity to the overpolicing of poor black communities, which leads to the prevalence of criminal records which makes it nearly impossible to get jobs. I wouldn’t realize that black people who are applying for jobs with a clean criminal record are treated the same as white people with a criminal record, so the struggle to find a job is complicated by black skin. I wouldn’t know that the recession has hit blacks harder than it hit whites, so no matter what a black kid does he cannot find a job if few exist.

I wouldn’t think about these things if I were a middle class white man because I never really think about racism because I don’t have to. Racism is something that happens to other people and I don’t really think about it that often because it’s complicated and it makes me uncomfortable to think about. I don’t even think about how race impacts my life, but I have a race card. You didn’t know I have a race card? Of course, I do. I don’t even have to pull out my race card for it to work. It works automatically. It’s accepted everywhere you want to be. Membership has its privileges.

If I were a middle class man writing about a poor black kid I would assume that anyone who knows the world in the way that I do would make the decisions that I would make so I need only share with them the knowledge that I have. I wouldn’t think about how their environment might impact their ability or willingness to use that information. I mean, everyone has access to the Internet, right? Just turn it on and become a Google Scholar, and then Skype away to a better education. I wouldn’t think that some of them may lack Wi-Fi. I mean, everyone has Wi-Fi, right?

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Look, I’m a middle class white guy on deadline at a big-time magazine, with no idea of the hornet’s nest I’m about to step into — I’m just trying to be nice and give some advice to some poor poor black kids. I’m doing the right thing. I’m not even aware that the very gesture and the breezyness of my discussion is insulting because I’m wrapped up in a cocoon of white privilege that blinds me to the realities of being a poor black kid, so I’m not even aware of how difficult it is to be a poor black kid because my life has never been anywhere near as difficult. Thank God for that.