“If I Were a Poor Black Kid”: How About Empathy Without Stereotypes?

The recent Forbes piece, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” written by self-described middle-class white man, Gene Marks, is inspiring heated responses. As a friend of mine put it, “It’s the current outrage of the internet.” People are discussing it on Facebook, Marks’ image has become a meme, and most importantly, several writers have taken to the web with thoughtfully crafted responses. The controversy not only represents a compelling conversation; it also provides an opportunity for educators who want their students to be curious and think critically.

In his article, Marks enumerates the various steps he would take as a “poor black kid” to transcend poverty; steps that highlight the importance of accessing technology…and simultaneously tend to highlight Marks’ lack of understanding of the group he is apparently attempting to help.
 
I was struck by many of the responses I have read, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Muscular Empathy,” in The Atlantic. He notes Marks’ deficit of understanding and applies it to race relations in the United States more broadly. To combat this deficit, he urges us to presume that the behavior of those we do not understand is nonetheless rational, which can – and should – lead to curiosity instead of uninformed assumptions.
 
Curiosity is something Tanenbaum’s Education Program emphasizes. We believe it is important for all students to remain interested in things that are unfamiliar – including but certainly not limited to race, economic class and belief systems. We focus on young people developing the instinct to inquire respectfully of those who have different experiences and learning to acknowledge those experiences just as we value our own. This is a manifestation of the “muscular empathy” that Coates imagines. And this empathy leads to debunking the stereotypes that even the most well-intentioned of us can hold.
 
Marks’ article and the many responses to it should be shared with the population about whom they are ostensibly written: the students. All too often, young people are not trusted with the weight of issues that affect them directly.  But issues of racism, classism and unintended (or intentional) stereotypes need to be addressed. We encourage educators to harness this challenging online conversation and use it as a teaching moment with high school students who can read the articles, examine the positions presented, discuss the contents, explore how the positions relate to their own experiences and enact the empathy that Coates posits as an alternative to Marks’ approach.
– Anshu Wahi
Program Associate, Education