14 December 2011

How Not to Write About Privilege

Gene Marks writes in Forbes:
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 that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city.  It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them.   Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind.  I don’t believe that.  I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed.  Still.  In 2011.  Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia. 
It takes brains.  It takes hard work.  It takes a little luck.  And a little help from others.  It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available.  Like technology.  As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this. 
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 #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.   I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.  Even the worst have their best.  And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.  Getting good grades is the key to having more options.  With good grades you can choose different, better paths.  If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
There are too many reasons to be disappointed in this article, but it starts with the fact that he has no understanding of how privilege works.  The whole thing feels like an exercise in "I'm not racist, but..."  I make no claim to know all in these regards, but having worked for a few years with the population that Marks describes. I can say with certainty that he is completely wrong.

What is sad is that there are many Americans who read the article shaking their heads in agreement as Marks spouted his uninformed nonsense.  I wish I could say that hard work has brought me to the present point in my life.  It would be a nice feeling, but I recognize it to be entirely false.

HT Dan Solomon