If I were a middle aged white man

13 Dec

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write articles called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” for Forbes. With a title like that, it wouldn’t matter what points I was making. You are not a poor black kid, tech writer Gene Marks—you never were, and you never will be. The problem with this hypothetical is that a middle aged white person lacks the necessary context to begin understanding what it means to be a poor black kid. You know only what you would do with your means—it’s easy to imagine how you could be “better” at being a poor black kid when you’re doing so from your privileged, middle aged white male perspective.

I imagine the title of Marks’ piece was designed to draw attention to it, and yes, controversy does equal page views. So, you know, kudos. But it’s shocking to me that neither Marks nor his editors at Forbes realized the inflammatory nature of the article detracts from any legitimate points the author might be making. If the attempt were to write a piece about how technology can help students bridge the inequality gap, that’s short-sighted but it’s arguably worthy of discussion. A piece about what Gene Marks would do if he were a poor black kid—that’s a whole lot easier to dismiss.

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write, “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. … I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.” Because no, it’s not just as simple as studying hard. The worst schools may have their best students, as Marks notes, but the challenges those students face far outweigh the challenges of students in more privileged suburban schools. Marks did not go to a public middle school in the worst inner city, so maybe he doesn’t know that those schools are frequently understaffed and always underfunded. Certainly he didn’t consider that the socioeconomic conditions facing the students who attend these schools might make it more difficult for them to focus on their studies, as he humbly suggests they do.

Marks continues, “I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.” And for the inner city parents who can’t afford cheap computers and internet service? Will Marks be inviting them into his home to use SparkNotes and Wikipedia? (These are seriously two of the great equalizing tools he recommends.) Or perhaps there is more than one student living in the same house, and they have to share one computer between them and their parents. I wonder if Marks has ever had to pass his iPad over to a sibling or parent before he was finished using it. If the parents don’t own a computer, Marks notes that students can use the computers at their school libraries—because despite being government institutions in serious financial distress, they can surely afford enough technology to go around, right?

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write, “Is this easy? No it’s not. It’s hard. … But it’s not impossible.” Here are some other things that aren’t impossible: climbing Mount Everest, inventing Facebook, winning the lottery. And lest you think “winning the lottery” is an unfair comparison, Marks goes on to discuss magnet schools and charter schools, which—as it turns out—sometimes use a lottery system to sift through the thousands of students who want to attend. Either way, saying that something is “hard,” even acknowledging that it’s harder for a “poor black kid,” is a cop-out. How does Marks quantify how much harder it might be for someone not born into privilege? He doesn’t. He just notes that someone can. The implication of the article’s title is that he himself could, if he happened to be poor and black and growing up in an inner city.

Once in these schools, Marks suggests that students talk to their guidance counselors about scholarship opportunities and minority programs. What Marks may not realize is that higher education is a seriously troubled institution as well. Public schools once designed to give everyone the chance to attend college continue to raise tuition by the thousands. And in the current economic market, a college degree doesn’t guarantee employment, so the implication that just by getting into these universities, the former “poor black kid” will be set for life is ridiculous. He might have trouble obtaining the kind of job he’d need to pay off the student loans he’d certainly accrue. (Not all schools offer need-based scholarships. Chances are, a student born into poverty is going to be indebted to someone before he’s graduated college.) And need I address the elephant in the room? That a culture of racism and white privilege might make it more difficult for a young black man to get a job over a young white man with the same skills and educational background.

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn’t write, “If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code.” I am a twentysomething white person, and I am terrible at software and code and technology in general. I don’t consider it a personal failing, and no one has ever told me I’m not worthy of success because it’s not in my skill set. Marks seems to be saying that “poor black kids” should neglect their interests and strengths and focus entirely on technology, something he himself has had luck with. And sure, there may be more jobs in the tech sector, but the notion that the underprivileged kids Marks writes about need only sacrifice their personal life goals in favor of “practical” skills is absurd and insulting.

Marks continues with this stunningly ignorant final thought: “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.” If solving inequality were as simple as wanting it badly enough, I’d like to think we’d all be equal. Who in his right mind would put himself at a severe disadvantage? The economic and social disparity in this county has less to do with apathy than Marks might think. Being “smart enough” to know about the resources Marks identifies doesn’t mean having access to them—and having access to the resources doesn’t guarantee success.

I’ll put it this way: If I were Gene Marks, I’d be ashamed of myself.


6 Responses to “If I were a middle aged white man”

  1. clarely December 13, 2011 at 1:59 pm #


    Seriously, this guy is an ignorant, privilege-addled idiot. You counter his points most excellently and I love your title 😛 I just… how can this guy not even THINK about how his privilege skews his views? Kids need to work hard to get good grades, focus on technology, etc. etc… well, how the hell is a “poor black kid” (or poor ANYTHING kid, living in the inner city) supposed to do any of these things if they are at a disadvantage from the start? Yes, they need help and guidance and tools, but the kid with the full time working single mom (who maybe didn’t finish high school herself) who goes to shitty daycare (if he’s lucky) and then attended the over-crowded, under-staffed, under-funded elementary school… he might not have even learned to READ until he was 7 or 8, let alone do maths, etc. How is THAT kid ever supposed to get the best grades in middle school and high school and even have a SHOT at the opportunities offered to the best and the brightest? And even if the poor kid DOES get into the swanky college, how is he/she supposed to pay for the things that aren’t included? Including rent/food during that time after graduation when he/she can’t find a damn job?

    Not to get all lower middle class white (female) privilege over here, but I used to believe in the whole IF YOU WORK HARD AND YOU ARE SMART YOU CAN SUCCEED! malarkey, too. And I’ve been really, really lucky, all things considered, particularly to be raised by a parent who was college educated and was able to teach me things at home, like how to read. But NOTHING is/was more depressing than graduating from college (which I went to on a scholarship) and finally realizing that money was the great equalizer. That being the best in school and hard-working and talented meant jack when it came to getting a job in the field I wanted and supporting myself (answer: I couldn’t). It’s taken me FIVE YEARS LONGER than my peers to get where I want to be (and I’m still not quite there), because they could afford to intern for free in NYC on their parent’s dime, and I simply couldn’t. And I, regardless, have had a LOT of advantages in my life. I’m lucky, but still behind. Some kids start so far behind, it doesn’t MATTER how hard they work or what “opportunities” there are out there. They’ll never catch up. (which is why I believe we should work harder to strengthen public early childhood education NOT tell everyone to go to freaking college) So, yeah, this guy is an idiot.

  2. R December 13, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    You’re so right. I teach in an inner city middle school. I try my best to mentor them about college, but for many, it’s just a foreign, almost unrealistic concept. I reach who I can, and I wish I could reach so many more. Many have to work as soon as they’re able to help pay the electric bill, or rent. It’s hard to give your full attention to school when you have to care for sick siblings, or just worked an 8 hour shift cleaning hotel rooms. Most of my students are Hispanic. Our top grad cannot go to college because she doesn’t have a social security number. Despite all of this hard work, she’ll never go to college unless some miracle intervenes. She can’t get loans or fin. aid. It’s so hard when you start life on the bottom. I wish that I could do more.

  3. Chuck Becker December 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    I’m thinking that if being a middle aged white guy confers so much privilege, that would explain why anyone … any random person … who isn’t a middle aged white guy might not achieve the success they desire. I’m thinking what a bummer it would be, as a non-middle aged non-white non-guy, to be getting advice from someone who has more of what I want than I have, on how to get more of what I want than I have. I can only try to imagine how irritating it would be to hear this advice from this nominal middle aged white guy and realize it’s the same advice he gives his own children, who will likely grow up to be modestly successful middle aged white guys (and gals). The world, it’s not fair, and I can prove it,. But I don’t need to, because this moron Gene Marks proves in his own words that the world rewards certain things, and not other things. The world should reward all things equally!!!

  4. Briana Love December 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    This was so good……my teacher actually made is as a assigent read both of these articles and o loved one…..me being a poor black kid did not appreciate some of the thing he wrote and am glad to see pellets thought so to.

  5. lifeinbmajor December 16, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I would say that if Marks maybe framed his piece as ‘Creative Writing’, then maybe I can see him getting a ‘conditional pass’, but his article wasn’t framed as such, and in the end Marks’ article just reads as “Sensationalist Journalism” as it fully lacks the complexity of the troubled education system


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