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Christopher Emdin

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Five Lessons From The "If I Were A Poor Black Kid" Debate

Posted: 12/20/11 12:57 PM ET

Earlier this month, a Forbes contributor posted an article entitled "If I Were a Poor Black Kid" on Forbes.com. The post was written by a white middle class man, who offered a bevy of suggestions for "poor black kids" that he himself would take if he were a poor black kid. Almost immediately, a brilliantly written counter story appeared on The Huffington Post. This counter piece, also written by a white male, beautifully described what many who were introduced to the initial Forbes piece took issue with: the assumption that poor black children across the country were making decisions not to take advantage of opportunities that have been provided to them.

I highlight the race of both of these authors for a very clear reason. The issue at play here is just as much an issue of race, as it is of class. Frankly, the suggestions for black children that Mr. Marks described were an updated version of the critiques of poor black children Bill Cosby shared at a 2004 meeting in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Like the Bill Cosby comments, the author of this piece attempts to wrap what can easily be seen and felt as seething remarks in a thin veil of care that is expected to soften the blow of an oversimplified view of the complexities of poverty and blackness. Privilege often blinds people to the reality of being a poor black male while care and interest is often the mask used to shield a disdain for them.

When I initially read the piece, my immediate reaction was to respond by writing a reactionary piece entitled "I was a poor black kid." I wanted to write about my experiences with poverty, and the efforts I went through to connect to school, and the fact that I, like many of my peers, wanted to get good grades and do well academically, but were so hampered by a system that didn't seem to understand our experiences that it overlooked many school-inflicted barriers to our academic success.

However, in the interest of writing to share information and teaching moments to others, I have chosen to provide five lessons that the debate surrounding the piece written by Mr. Marks has generated.

1) Engage in the dialogue about the realities of urban schools and neighborhoods

What Mr. Marks has shown black and brown parents is that people who have no expertise in education and have no ties to black youth easily have found a way to develop the authority and platform to provide commentary on the experiences of these children. As a poor black or Latino parent/teacher/student, if you realize that Mr. Marks' stance does not reflect your experiences or that of your child, it is important for you to provide your commentary as well. Write about school arrests, talk about the fact that grades are terribly inflated in urban schools to mask the fact that the system is flawed. Write about the outdated libraries, and talk about how your child is silenced in schools in order to do well. Those who are writing about your schools should be you.

2) Take the ideas of the misinformed as a tool to argue for equity

While many are so upset about Mr. Marks' condescending (yet caring) tone, the misinformed assumptions about poor black students, and his idea black youth lack the desire to be academically successful, he still highlights some inequities that exist. He has spoken about using technology, visiting the library, having access to books, reaching out to organizations to get computers, getting internet access, and learning web applications. Many of us who are in, or work within urban schools realize that schools do not provide many of these resources, or access to them. Bringing up these inequalities can be used to advocate for having them in classrooms.

3) Present "If I Was a Poor Black Kid" to poor black kids

One of the most powerful motivational and eye-opening experiences to give to youth is to give them a glimpse of what the world thinks about them. Mr. Mark's piece should be a discussion at home and a writing prompt in classrooms. Have students write reactions to the piece, share their thoughts on what it means, and see if it has any value to them. As an educator, I often find that it is powerful to use a tool that can be fashioned to push one down as a tool to uplift.

4) Use Mr. Marks' and Mr. Peitzman's pieces as a lesson in debate and conflict resolution

Beyond presenting youth with Mr. Marks' piece, it would also be helpful for them to read Mr. Peitzman's piece and see how the initial piece was responded to without resorting to name calling. One of the chief issues surrounding urban youth in classrooms has been access to constructive avenues for dealing with frustrations and disagreements, and models for how to constructively do so. Using these two pieces as a teaching tool supports youth in addressing the larger issues the papers are discussing, but also teaches them lessons about respectfully disagreeing with each other.

5) Understand how good intentions can reinforce subtle bias

One of the most powerful lessons from Mr. Marks' piece is his inability to see how and why his piece has caused such an uproar. It appears that the constant references to Obama or the references to his children not being any different from the black youth are a license for him to make gross generalizations. We must all realize that people may be well intentioned (as I assume Mr. Marks was) but just not get it. References to Obama and buzz words about supporting equality are not indicators that someone sees the world in the same way a person of color would. Therefore, it is important that we train ourselves and our youth to move beyond what one appears to be doing and saying, and what one truly represents.

 
 
 

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