Teaching Author Bias to the Kids

15 Dec

I teach in New York City at a transfer public high school.  The kids I work with are over-age, under-credited youth from 4 of the 5 boros (Staten Island still being considered a boro.)  This means I get a wildly diverse group of kids in terms of skill-set (some are there because schools have failed them, or they have failed schools and some are there because they are looking for an accelerated route to freedom…college or the work-world symbolizing freedom.)  They are also diverse in terms of interest (skateboarding, hip-hop, politics, manga, video games, alternative medication, one kid is even obsessed with panda bears).  They are diverse in personality, style, culture, and race (though a majority are Domincan or black.)  Today, a friend of mine from my predominantly upper-class white high school forwarded me a Forbes Magazine article, with the subject “Are these your kids?!”.  The article was titled: “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” A quick look at the author bio/pic and the article title gives you all the summary you need: it is about a successful middle-age white male giving advice to poor black kids about how to succeed.

Now, I am interested in this article in several reasons.  First of all that title!  How could you not be interested in reading when you look at dude’s picture next to that title.  Also, while my students are also incredibly diverse in terms of economic background, I have taught in NYC for five years, including in Juvenile Detention Centers for three (certainly I must have come across a few kids who were both poor and black.)  But what interested me most is that I have been studying author bias with my kids for the last week and I mean, if this isn’t a prime example….I read the article which made sweeping assumptions about urban kids (no mention of poor white rural kids, who suffer oftentimes greater set backs) and the whole time ALL I could think about is, what would my middle-class Dominican kids say to this?  What would the one upper-middle class Albanian kid who just dropped out of my school (his third) think about this?  What would a middle-class black kid who goes to these same city schools think about this?  What would a “poor black kid” have to say to Gene Marks.

Now to be fair, Marks does admit to some of the generalizations in his article, and is very candid about the “advantages” his own kids have had going to one of Suburban Philadlephia’s finest schools.  Some of the ideas in his article I even agree with:

I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed.  Still.  In 2011.  Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.

It takes brains.  It takes hard work.  It takes a little luck.  And a little help from others.

But the majority of the points show a clear bias.  The article is about as “outsider journalism” as it gets.  Marks admits to his history: culturally different, as socially and economically disparate from his subject as could be.  But the assumptions he makes still stand: that “poor black kid” encapsulates an experience the same way “wealthy white kid does.”  That there is no social influence or advantage so great, or individual experience so insurmountable, that hard work cannot overcome it.  I would offer Marks, rather than sweeping generalizations, two concrete examples to challenge this bias.  Freddie and Winfred.

Freddie was a friend from high school whose father was a top executive at a phone company: absurdly wealthy, but also absurdly thoughtful, philosophical and filled with opportunity.  He sought out all of the advantages Marks recommends for the “poor black kids” in his article, like technological tools, accessible books, assistance from teachers and other adults.  He went to college for a year, and dropped out in an attempt to find himself.  Two years later he died from a drug overdose.  I cannot speak for the dead, but I have always believed the social pressures of his background combined with individual struggles were far more toxic for freddie than any drug he ingested.  I have never seen an article titled, “If I were a Rich White Kid,” but if I did I am sure if it had a cure-all prescription like Marks’ article, it would not have helped Freddie one bit.

Winfred, on the other hand, was the type of kid I imagine Marks had in mind when he wrote “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.”  Homeless, jumping between shelters at the age of Eighteen, bounced from school to school, and set about as far back from his social, economic, and racial background as a kid could get, Winfred epitomizes the archetype of Marks’ anti-fantasy.  Winfred–a rare student in his predicament–followed Marks’ issue almost as closely as one could.  He would often even miss school to go to Barnes and Noble to read.  Although he had no computer (or home in which to keep one) he accessed computers at the Public Library, and was one of the more thoughtful and savvy bloggers in my class…when he could make it.  Winfred, I am almost certain, is as close to a tormented genius as anyone I have ever met.  Last month, Winfred had to withdraw from the school (nice term for drop-out).  The obstacles were too great.  He couldn’t make it to school many days because he had appointments with probation officers, social workers, or just had to find a new shelter or money for housing.  When he was in school he was lost, and no matter how hard he tried teachers didn’t have enough time to catch up all the Winfred’s in the school.  He has personal demons, to be sure, and social pressures seemingly insurmountable.  A “poor black kid,” but so much more.  I’d love to see Marks write an article titled: “If I was Winfred.”

I still have not responded to my friend, who forwarded me this article.  His email was sarcastic (knowing his politics I think he must have found the tone and message ludicrous) but sending me the link shows a certain bias in his understanding: that perhaps these are my kids.  His bias, like Marks’ is not his fault, it’s a part of his history.  He has not taught my students: the “poor black” ones, or the many, many others.  And he has certainly never been one of my students.  I, of course, have my bias.  I teach all of my students, with their diverse background having my own: I am white, I am from the suburbs, I am blessed to have had parents who taught at a private school.  I teach my kids with a certain bias: the books I choose, the issues I choose to cover, the skills I believe to be most valuable are inherent in my own history and experience.  They are my values.  Shit, when I share this article with my students, some of them will yawn and go back to thinking about the new sneakers they can’t wait to buy, or how they will get to their job at Starbucks on time, or god-forbid, where they are going to sleep tonight.  I don’t blame Marks or ridicule him for the article.  I disagree with it because my biases tell me what he’s saying is absurd.  Charles Curtis, the former Senate Majority Leader once said: “Bias and Prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not to be avoided.”

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