Background: On Monday, Forbes published what might be the worst article of all time, "If I Were A Poor Black Kid" (original title, "If I Was A Poor Black Kid"), written by tech writer, consulting firm owner and lifelong white guy Gene Marks. Okay, it's probably not the worst of ALL TIME, but it is just terrible; it's an extended demonstration of the concept of "whitesplaining," only done with zero irony.
There have been exceptionally thoughtful, valuable, clear-headed responses posted on, just to name a few, Good, Dominion of New York, The Root, and Scientific American. (UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates' response has resonances well beyond this stupid article, and Baratunde Thurston's sarcasm puts mine to shame.) I have nothing to add to these because they are great and in comparison, I can but splutter. But since the original article was practically an Onion op-ed, I thought I'd nudge it the rest of the way. Some of the following sentences are direct quotes, or direct quotes with the punctuation cleaned up, so it's worth holding your nose and reading the original first.
President Obama’s recent speech on income inequality got me thinking: The president grew up a poor black kid, and yet through grit and intellect and not really being all that poor, he was able to raise himself up to the highest possible moral category: a person with whom I, a rich white man, sometimes agree. That got me thinking about all the poor black kids who have never had the benefit of being agreed with by a rich white man, and what I might teach them to agree with me about if I had a chance.
The first thing I’d tell them is that being a rich white man means that even if you’re a tech and business writer, you can get your ungrammatical tin-eared sociological meanderings published in Forbes. It’s great! But the second thing I’d tell them is that everyone, even a black kid from West Philadelphia, deserves a chance to move to Bel Air. All you have to do is laboriously seize the opportunities that, if you were me, would be handed to you. That’s what I’d do, if I were you.
Of course, I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle-aged white guy who comes from a middle-class white background. So life was easier for me. But acknowledging that this might have had an effect on my resources, my opportunities, my priorities and my support system would mean admitting that my success is at least in part a result of privilege. I don’t believe that. Why would I? I believe everyone in this country has a chance to succeed, and I just happen to be better at it than they are.
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 number one priority to learn how to properly use the subjunctive in English. Rich white guys often find that when they make a grammatical error in the headline of their generally disastrous opinion piece, an editor will come along and fix it for them after the fact, lest it compound their embarrassment. As a poor black kid, I wouldn’t had that luxury. Sorry, I mean I wouldn’t have that luxury.
I’d also make use of the technology available to me. If I were a poor black kid, I might not be able to afford my own computer, because I would be poor. So I would just have my parents buy it for me. I’ve heard that some people don’t have the money for up-to-date home computers, but that seems far-fetched -- after all, I’m the poor black kid here, and everywhere I go I see fancy computers I can afford. But I’m sure my parents would do whatever it took to get me one, even if it meant waiting until my birthday. That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home then on the streets. See? There’s another example of the kind of monstrous sentence I’d never be allowed to get away with as a poor black kid trying to prove I’m special enough to succeed.
Or maybe I’d use public library computers, which should be perfectly adequate for completing Khan Academy courses, listening to TED talks, practicing online flashcards, trawling Wikipedia, Skyping with other students on the library computer next to me, and reading the Cliff Notes of the Western canon. If I were a poor black kid, I’d get my books for free at Project Gutenberg, on the computer I’m using in the public library. Boy, how could we ever get books for free without the Internet? My fellow poor black kids are pretty lucky I’m here to teach them about technology.
I’d have lots of after-school free time in which to do all this, of course, because I am a Forbes columnist who has plenty of money. Not every poor black kid can have the leisure time of a rich white Forbes columnist; some of them have to get paying jobs or take care of siblings when they’re not at school. But I can pull it off, because I’m just such a dedicated worker.
Is this easy? No it’s not. It’s hard. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed. It takes the kind of kid who's a poor black kid but actually a rich white man pretending to be a poor black kid.
Poor black kids don’t have to go to public school. They probably don't know other kinds of schools exist, but I do! If they apply for a magnet program, they have the chance to be accepted, then have to turn it down because the school is an hour away and they have no transportation and need to be home to look after their siblings. If they apply for a scholarship program at a private school, they have the chance to win a partial scholarship and have to turn it down because they can’t afford the rest of the tuition. Maybe they could even get a full scholarship because the board of trustees needs a black kid to put in the brochure! And all they need to do in order to seize these opportunities is listen to me, the poor black kid who’s a rich white man who knows what’s best for everyone.
Once admitted to one of these schools, the first person I’d introduce myself to would be me, the rich white man. This is the person who knows everything there is to know about everything I ought to be doing if only I were dedicated enough to have been born rich and white. This is the person who could get me an unpaid summer internship at a law firm or business or Forbes, which would set me up for life, except for the summer in question, when I would starve. Or at least he would, if he were actually willing to pull strings to get a poor black kid an internship at a law firm or business or Forbes, but let’s be honest: If I had the work ethic for a law firm or business or Forbes, I’d be a rich white man, now wouldn’t I?
Also, I would make sure I didn’t talk like a black kid. Because come on.
A poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part-time job, becomes proficient with a technical skill, and is a rich white man will go to college. Technology can help these kids if they want to be helped, and I’m living proof: It’s technology that allows me to sit here in my Aeron chair, not only pretending like I know shit-all about poor black kids’ lived experience, but actually having the fucking nerve to lecture them about how they would have all my advantages if they could only see their way clear to having all my advantages.
Because let’s face it: President Obama was right, and so am I. The division between rich and poor is a national problem, and only a rich white man knows the secret to being a successful poor black kid: being a rich white man.