If I were a clueless blogger

Latino teenagers in Lynch Park, Brooklyn, in the 1970s.

Forbes.com contributor Gene Marks wrote a silly post yesterday entitled “If I Was Were a Poor Black Kid.” (The original, incorrect grammar in the headline has since been corrected.) The basic premise of the post is that the solution to colored folks’ problems is for their progeny to do really, really well in school with the help of newfangled tools like Evernote and Khan Academy. (Oh, and Spark Notes. I’m sure English teachers did a collective facepalm reading that bit.) There are obvious issues with this simplistic take, but rather than waste my time outlining them all, I’ve highlighted a few responses.

The problem is that Marks seems to think it’s okay to require black kids to be “special” to “succeed.”

Kelly Virella, “If I Were the Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks”

If I was a rich white dude* I would first and most importantly work to make sure I actually saw what it’s like to live as a poor black kid myself before I wrote a condescending column about how we should solve “our” problems.

Jeff Yang, “Opinion: If I Were a Rich White Dude”

*Note: Yes, the grammar here is also wrong.

Update: I’ve come across even more great posts, below:

How in the world can this man create this checklist of things and not realize that he’s requesting that kids do something extraordinary simply to not continue to be in poverty: forget their surroundings.

Elon James White, “Why Forbes’ Column Crossed the Line”

It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings–to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Muscular Empathy”

If I were a rich white motivational speaker, I would first and most importantly make sure that I ignored all historical and social facts about the group of people I was addressing.

Jesse Taylor, “If I Were a Rich White Motivational Speaker”

Brown vs. Board of Education is the most misunderstood Civil Rights case of them all. This was NOT about integration, not about the chance to hold hands with white kids on the playground and attend the same classes. It was about black schools, black businesses and black neighborhoods given the EXACT SAME RESOURCES as their white counterparts, but that somehow got lost in the movement.

Chris Stevens, “Forbes article proudly parrots bootstrap mentality”

There’s also a great round-up of responses at Racialicious. Update: And another one from a Forbes staff writer, who correctly concludes that Marks is trolling.

And from Twitter:

Black in America, Silicon Valley edition: thoughts

Black women in tech gather for discussion

Last night, the much-ballyhooed Black in America 4, which followed the participants of the NewME Accelerator, finally aired. (I caught the 11 pm re-airing after catching up on violin practice and refusing to watch the NY Jets get blown out in the second half of Sunday Night Football.) It generated some advance controversy, courtesy of Michael Arrington (more on that here), but in the end, I thought it was a solid take on the challenges for black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Some random thoughts:

  • I would have liked to learn more about how the accelerator was put together, especially given the pretext that blacks lack influence and stature in Silicon Valley. Despite that, NewME seemed to have a solid set of advisors.
  • That said, what was the real point of Vivek Wadhwa’s talk? All I got from the documentary was “black entrepreneurs should get white frontmen for their companies” and “black folks don’t support each other.” The second point is valid, but I really hope there was more meat to his talk that CNN just didn’t show.
  • NewME co-founder Angela Benton has a really inspiring story: from teenage mother to Web entrepreneur. The documentary makes note of the difficulty of her and Wayne Sutton (the accelerator’s other co-founder) having to leave children/family behind to work on their startups. There has been discussion around whether motherhood is a barrier for women in tech, and I wonder if family concerns are a similar issue for blacks in tech. Plenty of people argue that youth is an advantage for entrepreneurship: there isn’t as much risk in failure because founders rarely have family responsibilities. But that isn’t really true for a lot of black and Latino 20-somethings. And even those without kids of their own may have other family members to support.
    *Note: this is a class issue as much as it is a race one, but of course, race and class tend to be closely linked.
  • In hindsight, it’s really a shame that the Michael Arrington bit got the most attention leading up to the air date, because it was by far the least insightful segment. He was unprepared and made clueless (and somewhat offensive) remarks, but then I wasn’t impressed with Soledad O’Brien’s questions to him, either. Given the scarcity of black tech entrepreneurs, I don’t think asking who Arrington thinks is the “#1 black entrepreneur” was bound to yield a useful response. (Though it is still ridiculous that he couldn’t name any black entrepreneurs at all–really?)
  • I’d really like an explanation of how even the organizers of the accelerator were unprepared for the dragon’s den at the Google event. I agree with Navarrow Wright, one of the panelists at the event, that entrepreneurs should be ready to pitch at any time, but there is a difference between speaking one-on-one with a potential investor/advisor/customer and having to make a formal pitch on stage. Does Y Combinator or TechStars spring this on its participants?
  • Also, I’m curious what it was like for Benton and Sutton to run the accelerator and work on their companies at the same time. How much support/advice were they able to give the others?

If you saw BIA 4, what did you think of it?

The Stephen Colbert of tech

Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report"

“I don’t see race.”

That’s Michael Arrington’s response to the CNN Money post regarding his statement that he doesn’t know a “single black entrepreneur” in the upcoming Black in America 4 special.

In all seriousness, though, I agree with him that Soledad O’Brien’s question “Who would you say is the #1 black entrepreneur?” was a gotcha. I’m not a big fan of the Black in America series on CNN, and this dust-up is exactly why. Sensationalism wins out over providing any real insight.

That said, I’ve recently heard/read a pair of anecdotes about TechCrunch summarily dismissing pitches regarding black entrepreneurs. (One of them, regarding NewME Accelerator, the subject of the BIA special, is here.) So I’m not 100 percent convinced that TechCrunch and Arrington just aren’t hearing from any black folks.

However, in the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t matter all that much. I’ll have to co-sign NewME Accelerator co-founder Angela Benton: ignore the drama. Better yet, come up with ways to encourage black people to get into tech, wherever they are. Hint: most of them won’t be in Silicon Valley.

Thoughts on the Huck Finn hubbub

Still from 1920 film of Huckleberry Finn
From the 1920 film. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

My friend Kuong recently asked me what I thought about the decision to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the words “nigger” and “injun.” (You can probably guess my opinion from the previous sentence.) After I wrote back (just a while ago), I figured I might as well post my thoughts. Here they are:

I think taking “nigger” out of Huck Finn amounts to bowdlerizing the novel. Writers use words purposefully, so changing them does have an impact on the text’s meaning. In the case of Huck Finn, the term “nigger,” which connotes inferiority and unhuman status, is used repeatedly as a deliberate contrast to Jim’s true, upstanding character.

“Slave” does not have the same impact, because it does not capture one of the unique elements of American slavery–that it sought to dehumanize slaves on the basis of race. This was not necessarily the case in other slaveholding societies, in which slave status was not determined by race. This is a meaningful distinction and is one worth discussing in classrooms. Of course, this means that teachers must be capable of discussing these nuances. But if they’re not capable of doing so, then they probably shouldn’t be teaching the novel, whether it’s bowdlerized or not.

(I am not well versed on the history of “injun,” so I can’t speak on the impact of that word. However, I find it interesting that nearly all the uproar over the work’s integrity or offensiveness has been focused on the word “nigger” and not “injun,” which many also consider a racial slur. I think that says a lot about how (little) we think about Native American issues, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

Beyond etymology, though, I think it’s harmful to assume that students of color–and students in general–won’t be able to understand or appreciate the usage of “nigger” in context and that they will automatically be offended. In fact, if I were a high school or college student presented with this edition, I’d be insulted. (Just like I was when I read some argument that To Kill a Mockingbird was racist and offensive to black people–seriously? How presumptuous of the writer, who is not of color, to speak for black people.)

I do recognize the good intention: to shield students from the pain associated with the word. However, I see one glaring irony here. Many students probably hear “nigger” regularly in music lyrics. Many black folks use the term themselves in reference to each other. Clearly they understand the importance of context: there’s a big difference between a group of guys hanging out and calling each “my niggas” and someone calling Rep. John Lewis a “nigger” for supporting the health care bill. And there’s a big difference between reading the word “nigger” in a historical novel and reading a letter that refers to you, personally, as a “nigger.” Let’s not underestimate students’ ability to make that distinction.

Also, I can’t help but point out that plenty of black writers, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, have used “nigger” liberally in their work. Yet I don’t see any arguments for bowdlerizing their work or banning their texts from the classroom. I think we should think long and hard about sending the message that it’s OK for black people to use a certain word, but that word becomes offensive if anyone else uses it. That’s a pretty problematic double standard. I do think there are important questions of ownership and license to be addressed in regard to racial terms, but I don’t believe the distinction is nearly as cut-and-dried as “only black people can say or write this word.”

All this controversy surrounding Huck Finn, I believe, says a lot more about adults’ inability to speak honestly about racism rather than any concern about students’ education or emotional well-being. Most white folks recoil at the term “nigger.” But too many have no qualms talking about how they avoid black neighborhoods, or how black people are less desirable hires because of affirmative action, or how the rude men on the street are always black. I think we focus too much on words themselves rather than the thoughts and meanings behind them–which is what English class should be about.

Responsible writing, stereotypes, and data

African American family playing a board game

This week has been very busy, with us closing our November issue, and I’ve already fallen short of my goal to blog at least once a week. Oh well. When I finally had the time to catch up on some of my favorite non-business blogs, I noticed a lot of discussion involving a campaign called No Wedding, No Womb. I immediately disliked the title, because it calls to mind a very annoying Beyoncé song: you know, the one accompanied by a dance routine ripped off from Bob Fosse.

But beyond that, the whole campaign rests on the weird notion that black women, unlike everyone else, don’t consider the consequences of pregnancy outside of marriage and that, somehow, just airing the idea that “you should raise your child in a committed relationship*!” will change things. (‘Cause we’ve never heard that one before.) It’s pretty fogeyish, in my opinion. Notice I didn’t say “conservative” or “reactionary.” There are fogeys across the political spectrum.

Another aggravation is that the data around this topic are frequently miscontrued. In fact, it really annoys me that stats are tossed out so cavalierly, not just regarding this particular issue, but in general. One series of instances that irks me—especially since Inc. covers it in the October issue—is OkCupid and its OkTrends blog, which has released incredibly deep insights such as that black women aren’t desirable and that Protestants don’t write good. Of course, they give no information about their sample sizes for particular demographics, which is why several observers have raised their doubts. But ultimately, that doesn’t matter, as long as the company can make bank. CNN has even made a running franchise out of the practice.

Anyway, back to No Wedding, No Womb: I believe the campaign is well-intended. But given that black women have become the media’s second-favorite punching bag lately (Muslims are still tops), I just have to say: its participants need to do better than this.

*Although the campaign is called “No Wedding, No Womb,” apparently it’s not going for “marriage at all costs,” like another infamous campaign targeting unwed black parents.

Do what you love, especially if you’re launching a startup

Father and sons at children's computer

This morning, thanks to Matt Mireles of SpeakerText, I came across this post on why a journalism start-up called NewsLabs folded only two months after its site, NewsTilt, launched. It was a compelling read. I was struck particularly by this admission:

But we didn’t really care about journalism, and weren’t even avid news readers. If the first thing we did every day was go to news.bbc.co.uk, we should have been making this product. But even when we had NewsTilt, it wasn’t my go-to place to be entertained, that was still Hacker News and Reddit. And how could we build a product that we were only interested in from a business perspective.

What? Why would you build a product you wouldn’t use? As so many of Inc.’s stories attest, starting a company basically takes over your life, so if you’re launching a venture, it better be something you care an awfully lot about. (Even Paul Graham of Y Combinator, which funded NewsLabs, has said, “It sucks to run a start-up.”)

There are tons of strong points about business and technical issues made in the post, but the personal ones really jumped out at me. The author, NewsTilt co-founder Paul Biggar, was working on his PhD thesis and planning a wedding, all while trying to get a company off the ground. That’s already insane, but then again, many entrepreneurs love extreme multi-tasking. (I’m reminded of one CEO I profiled who started a non-profit to collect war veterans’ oral histories at the same time he launched his management consulting firm.) But, if you’re not all that into your day job, it’s probably near impossible to pull off the juggling act.

Biggar also makes a personal aside that ties into policy: namely, the startup visa that several politicians and figures in the entrepreneurial community have proposed. As he points out,

If you support the Startup visa take note: if the startup visa does not allow a founder’s significant other to work, then many founders won’t move. I can support my wife on a H1B because it comes with a high salary, but good luck on a founder’s salary, no matter how good the funding is.

I think that’s an important observation, and it raises (yet again) questions about where families fit into startup life.

Do black entrepreneurs just need better ideas?

Man and woman looking at laptop in office

This Huffington Post story on black entrepreneurs and angel investment caught my eye a couple of days ago. I was particularly struck by the interview at the end with Lauran Bonaparte of Lauton Capital Group. In her response to the last question, she made a couple of statements that contradict what I’ve heard from many investors I’ve interviewed (primarily for Inc.’s Elevator Pitch column):

Q: If an entrepreneur stems from a background of poverty, poor education and the relational family is similarly situated, what steps can they take to overcome those types of challenges in getting their idea to a level of funding?

A: Wow. That’s a great question. I believe, in my experience, it’s all about the idea that you have. If you have a great idea and a great concept, you can overcome poor management in a myriad of ways. […]

While Bonaparte’s contention is that good ideas generally prevail, most investors I’ve spoken to and read have been quick to point out that they invest in promising people more so than even promising businesses. And how do they determine who is promising? By looking at who’s in their inner circle. Therein lies the rub for black entrepreneurs—most are nowhere in these investors’ social networks, so they have to work much harder to convince them to take a leap of faith. Women entrepreneurs face a similar (though perhaps not as stiff) dilemma, which has been discussed in many columns and conferences.

I also find curious the notion that good ideas outweigh poor management, given that there are several companies (e.g., eBay, Yahoo) that have lost their luster due to leadership woes. One prominent example is a little site that predated the likes of MySpace and Facebook but now is pretty much forgotten, at least in the U.S. (Otherwise known as Friendster.)

Often it seems to me that blacks in the entrepreneurial field are reluctant to bring up mentions of any barriers to success, for fear of sounding like whiners. I totally understand this concern. But it often ends up with them dismissing obvious points, such as those above, or worse, throwing out stereotypes about black people’s laziness. Thankfully, Bonaparte does not do the latter, but I’ve seen egregious examples along those lines. One horrendous guest post on The Black Snob, a blog that I otherwise enjoy, comes to mind. Many years ago, Inc. committed a similar sin—and it was rightfully lambasted by Earl Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, for doing so.