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:

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.