If I Were Something That I Am Not…

Earlier this month, Gene Marks, over at Forbes.com, wrote a “provocative” (read that as “deliberately controversial to garner page views”) piece entitled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” and set off an internet firestorm of heated responses. In it he notes he is a privileged middle aged white man with none of the hindrances he seeks to help this unknown “kid” overcome.  You can read it yourself here..

I responded on Facebook and light years later, here’s my blog response:

This piece is well-intentioned AND incredibly condescending and insulting. It appeals to the dream of meritocracy that says people are where they are because of “hard work”.

Let me tell you why I’ve had a pretty successful life:

a) I was born to Nigerians for whom education is the Holy Grail,

b) I was a smart and pleasant kid,

c) My public school teachers adored me,

d) Because they loved me, those teachers looked out for me like I was their own child,

e) When they found out about Prep for Prep, they made sure my mom knew about it and I applied,

f) That’s where the challenging work started–during the rigorous admissions process,

g) I got into Prep and completed their tough academic program,

h) I entered an all-girls private school in the 7th grade upon completion, thanks to Prep,

i) School was easy as pie compared to Prep and I did well there (mind you, this school is quite academically challenging but school has NEVER been hard for me–get the picture?),

j) I gained acceptance into an Ivy League college and so forth and so on.

I could go on about what happened in my life but I’d like to point out the following: I got to where I got because of luck and circumstance.  I’m bright, great.  I worked hard at times, but I didn’t do any of the things this individual suggested a child do.  I had the good fortune of strategic opportunities and a supportive community.

I’m not arguing about what it takes to be successful.  I’m interested in why this individual overlooked the classism that rules the fate of so many people in this country regardless of race.  Also, why does he look past the glare of his own privilege that would allow him to write such a thing?

People aren’t poor because they don’t work hard.  Poor people work harder than any set of people I know.  There are a multitude of factors and lost opportunities that leave people stuck in poverty.

The construct of classism is dynamic in its ability to keep people working hard and getting nowhere to the point where some people don’t bother.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It is only by the Grace of God that I have the parents I have.  I’m Nigerian.  Messing around in school is not an option.  I have the best friends in the world.  I have always been surrounded by people who support me.  THAT is the difference.

No amount of condescension from an out of touch beneficiary of the very skewed system that deprives “Poor Black Kids” of resources and opportunities will galvanize generations of disenfranchised youth of any race.  Instead, I call for the ones that “made it” to reach back to those that making their way.  A conversation and compassion go a long way.  I wonder if Mr. Marks can find that at the library.

As we come to the close of 2011, let us commit to being grateful for who and where we are in life and giving back to those who aren’t quite there.  Happy New Year!

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