Way back in December 2011, Forbes Magazine technology columnist Gene Marks penned a piece with the title "If I Were a Poor Black Kid," and which went downhill from there. The Cliff’s Notes version (get it?) is that black kids could end education disparity overnight if they’d just go to better schools. No, really.
We ran two pieces, one by our Gender Matters columnist Akiba Solomon and one by our favorite comic (and ARC board member) W. Kamau Bell. Akiba and Kamau were able to stop rolling their eyes long enough to write two provocative, incisive responses to Mr. Marks’ blindered optimism. And the Colorlines community turned out in force to contextualize, debate, and giggle.
In all honesty, I debated whether to pick on Gene Marks these weeks later by highlighting him in Reader Forum. But let’s be real — the fight against privileged condescension didn’t end when the New Year’s ball dropped. And besides, you commenters were on point!
Let’s start with the reactions to Kamau’s "Five Signs You’re Acting Like A White Guy, Or, How Not To Be Gene Marks." Here’s reader Shannon LC Cate:
This looks so familiar, as a teacher of white guys (among others). The girls (of whatever race) will come to class uber-prepared, then hem and haw and pre-apologize that maybe "this isn’t the right answer" then the guy with the backwards baseball cap who stumbled in ten minutes late and never even bought the books let alone opened them, starts opining without even raising his hand.
Ha! My favorite – in a women’s studies literature class we were discussing female creativity, and the prof asked if we felt a difference in creativity during our periods. First person to answer – was a white guy! And yes, it was a trick question because he always answered questions first and at length…
More signs you are acting like a white guy:
1] you move to Arizona or another state that once was Mexico.Then you decide there are too many Mexicans there.So instead of packing your stuff and moving back to SnowFalls, you pass a law forcing us to show papers to prove we belong.
2] You move to a large southwestern city close to Mexico.You get mad because so many people speak Spanish.So you yell out loud at Walmart "Speak English.This is America" Because… you didn’t look at a map to see where you were before you came here? White male privilege means never having to check where you are before you open your mouth.
hmmm… I thought tolerance was all about not treating people differently based on race.. I guess I was wrong.
Let’s end racism with racism.
Karari Kue contextualizes:
I understand your sentiment. Believe me, I appreciate that there are folx out there who genuinely believe that racism is wrong and shouldn’t exist.
The problem is, the definition of racism that we are taught in school ISN’T what racism really is. In order for racism to work, their has to be institutional power ensure it happens. Without POWER it really isn’t racism.
I know it’s hard for most folx to understand, especially when we have been brainwashed in grade school to believe that racism effects everyone and anyone. The problem is NONE of our discussions on race include the important notion of white privilege.
THAT’S what this piece is tackling, not his racial identity. It’s about his privilege of being white. THAT’S what give him the courage to speak out about something he has no personal experience about. THAT’S what makes him THINK that he can and should always say something.
jeremy springer agrees and dissents:
Racism is the systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement of one group of people by an establishment which holds power. If you are disenfranchised, you don’t have immunity for discriminating, but you have no real power to hold back someone of a different race as a result of your discriminatory feelings.
With that being said, I AM a white guy, and don’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience racism, but I was still offended by the discriminatory nature of this article. If you take the worst attributes of any guy who has ever been white and attribute them to white guys, even those of us who don’t share those attributes, you’re going to piss off a lot of white guys who might even agree with your core point.
For which W. Kamau Bell, um, ‘apologizes’:
I am truly sorry, white guy. Please forgive me for offending you. I will try to do a better job of pleasing you and all other white guys in the future. You are correct to note that it is not smart of me to piss any white guys off. Thank you for the correction. I hope this didn’t ruin your Kwanzaa.
And Kermit dissents in the opposite direction:
1) Bell always backpedals a bit, probably as not to alienate the more "understanding" members of his white audience. Like this: Now of course, you don’t have to be white or a guy to act like a "white guy." Appeasement. There’s a reason it’s called "acting like a white guy", right? Let’s not let them off the hook by saying "Oh BUT, everyone does it!" No, everyone does NOT do it, and that’s exactly the point. White men tend to be entitled, oblivious, paternalistic jerks, and it is precisely BECAUSE they are white and male. We didn’t all draw straws and they just so happened to pick the ones that said "Jerk" on them.
2) The first point doesn’t apply to Marks, because he did give "solutions". They were just shortsighted, stupid, and blatantly obvious. Black kids should do well in school? Well, golly, Gene, why didn’t they think of that! He’s implicitly calling them all poor black kids stupid for not coming up with his revelatory solutions to their problems. And the real problem is that Marks isn’t looking at systemic reasons for low achievement.I know Bell’s a comedian, but if you’re gonna venture into the sticky realm of social commentary, especially on matters as charged as race and privilege, you can’t squint or cower from what needs to be said. Take off the kid gloves, homey.
On Akiba’s "If I Were A White, Male, Middle-Aged Forbes Columnist," here’s reader Andrew Ridley:
Gene Marks is prescribing advice based on a fictional world he has invented where black kids simply exist, completely free from all outside forces and influences. Marks makes no reference to nor shows appreciation for the true context in which they live.
As a Chicagoan, one place his ignorance REALLY lept out was his blithe recommendation to look into a magnet or charter school. Magnet/charter/classical/SES etc. schools in Chicago get literally a thousand-plus applicants every year, to fill a very small number of seats. One magnet that’s been closed because of neighborhood school overcrowding has 70 open seats each year, and 1500 applications. So even if a kid does take it upon themself (or has parent/guardians who do it) and apply, the chances of actually getting in are VERY slim because those seats are mostly taken up by children of affluent families who’ve had access to tutoring and extracurriculars and all the things money can buy.
An except of a long, thoughtful comment by soulwork, which y’all should read in full:
Capitalism is based on the exploitation of labor; this means that capitalists must work to either keep people working at a low wage or unemployed. This is just a fact of capitalism, and racism is a convenient justification for closing the doors on Black people, and assuring that Black students have less than a fair shot. The American Dream has always been a nightmare for someone. For capitalism to run at 100% efficiency, that is, full employment, the bosses would have to forego their astronomical profits. And if they were going to do that they would not have taken their companies overseas to exploit a near starving labor force; one to whom they could pay a much lower wage, and so drive down the wages and job opportunities for the entire global work force. Racism is not an accident, nor is classism. They are justifications for the abuse of minorities, working, and poor people.
I’m a Lakota male who got the high GPA’s, went to community college, transferred to a University, got a BA and STILL had a hard time finding employment opportunities. While I have currently found work for the past 8 years in education, and a job I love working with our Indian youth, I still make considerably less then the median salary of an "American" worker. Yes, education can help, but it is no silver bullet.
If I were a poor black kid, I sure as hell would not be able to afford a copy of Forbes Magazine at $4.99 an issue. Nor would I be from any community that would easily afford me access to "resources that are available. Like technology." So to whom exactly is Marks preaching? Maybe he’d like to remove all limitless opportunities afforded his own children–private schools, tutors, after school programs, the dignity and self-assurance of an upper middle class lifestyle, 3 guaranteed healthy meals a day, a safe neighborhood, the security of knowing you aren’t and won’t ever be a police target–and try this sink-or-swim by your bootstraps test on them.
Perhaps too risky a test? Yes, I think the poor black kids are well aware of that.
Gene Marks is the reason I can’t read Paulo Freire enough! Mark’s next essay: "If I wasn’t a white privileged paternalistic bigot."
If I was a white and entitled Forbes columnist, I would whitesplain to poor Black kids about struggle and pain that I know absolutely nothing about. I would then ignore all substantive critiques from people of color and antipoverty activists, and continue to insist on my right to talk down to poor Black children who catch more hell on their best day than I could ever imagine. I would then assert that I stand by the original whitesplaining nonsense column that I published earlier.
Wait a minute—that’s already happening! Never mind.
How about, "if I were an upper-middle class white guy, I would hard to understand my privilege, do my best to dismantle systemic racism, and commit myself to being an ally, which means sitting at the table w/people of all backgrounds, actively listening, and promoting self-determination for all. I will use my privilege to be both subversive and overt in my lifelong efforts to create a more equitable world. I will not be paternalistic, patronizing, or pretend that I am an expert on situations with which I have no experience whatsoever. Explicitly, I vow to…" Damn, this dude got me all fired up…
last word goes to Javier Chajon:
[…] What white folk like Gene Marks doesn’t recognize is that whether intended or not, his comments fit a long-running narrative constructed by neoconservatives that that implies that socioeconomic inequality is ultimately based on a lack of effort, smarts, determination or enterprise on the part of black and brown folk — and fails miserably in understanding how systemic racism works or in identifying institutional barriers faced by young children of color.