If I were a rich white guy …

I would think twice before spewing uninformed crap that reveals what privilege smells like.

There’s no shortage of white folks who think they could do poverty better than us poor underprivileged minorities.   Because we don’t yank on our bootstraps hard enough.  Take Gene Marks (pictured above) as an example.  Marks writes for Forbes Magazine.  And he is full of advice on what he would do if he “was [sic] a poor black kid.”

What would I do if I were a rich white guy?  Well, I started to write out a bunch of witty rejoinders.  But then I just couldn’t.  Because this is a serious issue that deserves a serious response.  So here goes.

Both my parents were big believers in the bootstrap myth.  This is something I struggle with even today, because I feel it reveals the depth of internalized racism.  They understood only too well that our family and families like ours were one step from disaster.  An accident.  Serious illness.  Loss of a job.  So often something that would be an inconvenience inside my middle-class life would  have started a downward spiral in the past.

Say that through no fault of your own, the gas company disconnected service.  It made a mistake and got the wrong apartment.  So now it’s 30 F inside and the gas company says it can’t come out for five days.  During which time you can’t cook and you don’t have any heat.  But you still have to go to work, so you take freezing cold showers.  You pour table salt in your bathtub drain to dislodge the chunk of ice in the pipe.  And you can’t cook any food so you have to eat take-out.  Which costs more money.  You try to survive with a space heater.  But now your electric bill doubles.

See how this works?

Not to mention you have to take an unpaid day off because the gas company won’t reconnect your service unless you are present.

So can people get past this?  People can and do all the time.  They typically don’t think of themselves as exceptional, although I wonder if I could have survived my father’s or my mother’s life.  My father was an orphan at sixteen; he enlisted in the service because he felt he had no other option.  He sent money home to support his family, and said he felt “lucky to have three square meals.”


I have a sib who has a genius-level IQ but who was placed in remedial classes.  They didn’t believe my mother’s account, because what could she possible know?

The whole “study hard” thing sounds great in theory, but if your teachers keep suggesting you should go to trade school or maybe a bad state school, you start to believe them.  Even if you did have some of the highest test scores.  Like my friend’s husband, who was told to go to a vocational school and ended up graduating from Harvard Law.

Sometimes they end up at the vocational school.  Happens more than you think.  Even to kids who studied hard and did everything right.

And it turns out that colleges are full of rich white guys who are eager to tell you that you don’t belong.  Because it isn’t enough that you studied harder.  Let’s face it:  you’re just stupid.   So in addition to struggling through school and supporting yourself, you have to be emotionally assaulted on a regular basis by people who are only too quick to remind you that you were an affirmative action baby.  Except you weren’t.

During the summer you get a job and try to save enough money for the next school year.  You find the white guy with whom you work makes hundreds more than you do, although he does less work.  He doesn’t really need that extra money, either, because mommy and daddy pay his way.

Despite all of this, you still cling to the bootstrap myth.  You end up working in some of the worst public schools in the city and take your asshole privileged thoughts with you.  But your education is about to begin.

It is really, really humbling to find out that you have been a cocky asshole all your life, who never truly thought about the plight that other people face.  Your education comes in fits and starts and sometimes slaps you square in the face.

Because there is no preparation for seeing what real poverty looks like.  No preparation for finding out how ill-equipped the schools and the teachers are.  No preparation for the realization that of all your do-gooder plans, the only one that makes any significant impact is providing three meals a day for the kids.

I wonder sometimes how I could have been so damn stupid.  I look back over my college career, and I realize that eating on a regular basis might have been helpful.  What I remember most about college is how sick I was all the time.  Sick from working two jobs and trying to go to classes and study.  Sick from trying to ration a loaf of bread over a week just because somebody screwed up and forgot to send my paycheck.  Sick from trying to sleep in an unheated or underheated apartment in the dead of winter.

Yeah, maybe the kids need computers.  But first they need food.  Maslow’s hierarchy and all that.

But they don’t have the computers either.  In this meritocracy we call America, we expect these kids to do just as well as kids with computers.  Because they should have work ethic and the desire to learn and a culture that supports education.  Because if they did, they could get past the lack of skilled teachers and the classrooms that are boiling hot in summer and freezing in winter and the 1950’s encyclopedias and outdated textbooks.  They could survive moving every six months or being evicted.  They could live on one meal a day.  They could believe in themselves despite people constantly telling them otherwise.  Because they could rise above.

That is, if they were rich white guys.


7 thoughts on “If I were a rich white guy …

  1. The thing I object to the most is that this kind of uninformed crap is designed to prevent real change or putting any kind of resources into our school systems or at fighting poverty.

  2. I heard on Public radio this morning that as a Forbes “contributor” he gets paid more for the column as it gets more hits. This is one middle-aged white guy who may not be as clueless as he appears. Cynical and soulless and manipulative, yes.

    See colorlines.com for a good rebuttal, titled, “If I Were a middle-aged White Guy”

  3. @Anne M: Which would make his “rebuttal” make sense, since it’s apparently even more incendiary. (I don’t want to give them traffic for their crap, which is why I refuse to read it at the site)

  4. Why not take advantage of this piece, and write about the real solutions to our entire education system. I think the focus should be a rebuttal of Marks viewpoint but also, a list of things he himself should be doing to improve education for the children he knows nothing about. If I could write well, I would. I think you should send your blog post to the comments at the Forbes site, Resistance.

  5. Some people have noted that Marks is a professional troll, getting paid by page hits. Therefore I have unlinked. Thanks for the note, Anne M.

    I write lots of letters. If I were a rich white guy, maybe those letters would be published more often.

  6. A very well-written and thoughtful piece that shows up the myth of meritocracy – I feel sad whenever politicians talk about policies that “level the playing field”, when the basics of life are not even met. And some people aren’t even allowed onto the playing field.

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