I resisted reading this week’s Forbes piece by Gene Marks “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” until today. I knew it would enrage me, and boy it sure did. But I was surprised about how very sad it made me.
After looking at some of the comments and his response to them I think Gene Mark’s heart was in the right place. So how did he miss the mark so completely? Well, he showed a complete lack of imagination and empathy. He outlined what he would do if he were a poor black kid who was actually a middle aged white man. Yes, I think his heart was in the right place, but his astonishing naïvety, his inability to understand the realities of poverty in this country were breathtaking and left me completely disgusted.
I’m embarrassed to say that he reminded me of who I was in high school. I grew up with parents who coddled me so completely that I didn’t have a job (other than babysitting) until the summer before I left for college. I barely did chores, had no idea how to do my own laundry when I went away to school. Every moment was spent doing schoolwork, or activities that would enrich my resume and get me into a good school. The summer between my junior and senior year I even attended a theater program at Northwestern University. And when I landed at Sarah Lawrence I was sure that discrimination didn’t exist. Why would we possibly need an ERA? I was a woman and nothing held me back! I have written about my IBS, my mental illness, my assholic-ness, but admitting who I was back then is the most humiliating disclosure I’ve made yet.
We are all products of our upbringing. Yes, I got into a terrific college. But I was groomed for it my whole life. I did work hard. My parents didn’t do my homework, write my essays, or do my extracurricular activities. But they made it easy for me to succeed. And I was too myopic to comprehend that the circumstances surrounding my achievements were as significant as my hard work. Just like Gene Mark has disregarded the realities and nuance of growing up poor in America be it hunger, homelessness, unsafe public housing, crime, no parents, drug addicted parents, foster parents, parents with multiple low paying jobs who want to be there for their kids but can’t because they are trying to put a roof over their heads. It is fantastic that Gene Mark had his basic needs met and was able to concentrate on education, but does he really think that school can be a child’s number one priority if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or if they have a bed to sleep in? That sort of callousness dressed up as concerned advice truly nauseates.
So yes, I used to think the same things as Gene Mark back when I was a teenager. The thing is, I grew up. I gained the ability to look beyond myself and understand that even if I didn’t face discrimination that doesn’t magically make it not real. To understand I live a charmed life. To know that any success I achieve cannot be credited to me alone. To wonder what choices I would have made if I grew up as a poor black kid and to reach the uncomfortable conclusion that it is easy to make good choices when you have a safety net the size of Montana, but if I grew up in poverty chances are I would still be there as an adult. I am astonished that he hasn’t been able to realize the same things. Shame on him for not growing up.