The title alone struck me like a ton of bricks: “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” by Gene Marks. I was instantly bothered, gut-wrenchingly bothered. The Forbes magazine contributor waxed poetic about what he’d do if he suddenly became an imaginary poor kid; not just any poor kid, but a Black one. The unspecified poor Black kid is from a very specific city: Philadelphia. I’m not sure why he even bothered to specify a city, since clearly, his one-size-fits-all advice will work for most unspecified poor Black kids in most unspecified poor Black cities.
Marks begins his life-management lecture to poor Black kids with the words of the first African-American president. Surely quotes from Oprah, Will Smith or pre-scandal Tiger Woods were not at the ready at press time. Marks recalls Obama’s moving speech about inequality in which he stated, “This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”
How could Marks’s essay go awry? He quoted Obama for Heaven’s sake!
Well things did go awry, very quickly.
Marks wrote that his kids (presumably white) are no smarter than poor kids (presumably Black). Believe it or not, he actually wrote that on paper. In a credible publication.
He begins by emphasizing his faith in America, writing, “I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor Black kid in West Philadelphia.”
He goes on to explain how if he were a poor Black kid, he’d start by getting good grades. He explains that he heard that some inner-city Black parents have access to computers, but if they don't they should find ways to get a free one. Then Marks would get into a good magnet or charter school, use computer-based study tools and handy Cliff’s Notes for extra help. After that, he'd pick up a technical skill, get a part-time job and get into college. And there you have it. The unspecified poor Black kid’s problems are solved.
Why didn’t he just write “Let them eat cake?” It would have been just as insulting and it wouldn’t have been nearly as time-consuming as the 10 minutes it must have taken him to write his "profound" philosophy.
But perhaps I’ve gotten it all wrong. Maybe the writer’s intentions are good. Well, so are mine. So here’s my own essay: “If I Were a Rich White Kid.”
The problem is that I can’t even begin to write an essay like that. Do you know why? Because it would be ignorant, if not down-right obnoxious of me to think that I can even remotely comprehend the complexity of other people’s uniquely individual life experiences.
I have too much respect for people’s cultural influences, life story and family history to ever think that I could sit in front of my computer one day and tell them how to live their lives.
I am an African-American who was fortunate enough to be raised in a traditional family environment in diverse communities with good schools and great opportunities.
I will never know what it’s like to be a rich white kid in much the same way that I will never know what it’s like to be a poor Black kid. Nothing about my life entitles me to tell a rich white kid how to be.
So for all of the writer's good intentions, I’d bet that poor Black kids have opinions about the life that he leads.
I wonder what they’d have to say about someone like him? But they, unlike him, probably won’t offer their advice. Why? Because nobody asked them.
And to the writer of this ill-conceived article I say this: Nobody asked you, either.
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