By now most people have heard about the tech guy blogging under the rubric of “If I Were a Poor Black Child” where he advises them to get a cheap computer and other such sage advice. NPR speculates that this guy is possibly doing this to create some controversy and hopefully increase his readership. Maybe so but what he is doing, I think, amounts to a cultural meme. Am I using that correctly?
What I mean is that there is a long tradition of white folks, sometimes meaning well, who presume to “solve” the problems of black people. There is inherent in this more than a little arrogance and, I think, a path to self-satisfaction which also allows the benevolent solver to retain a feeling of superiority by condescending to help “those poor black people.” And the best case scenario is that of the bleeding heart liberal types who do mean well and are, unfortunately, catastrophically unaware of how racist and destructive such “well-meaning” acts can actually be.
Let’s look at a couple of popular movie examples, “The Blind Side” and “The Help”. Both are movies which are purportedly positive in the feelings that they express towards black people. Both are very likely well-intended. But both are, like the blog I cited, written by white people and pretty popular with white audiences. After all they do show white people helping poor black people. We do like things that make us feel good. Especially liberal wannabes are attracted to these stories because it helps them feel like they have solved or are majorly solving the ‘race’ problem, that they are compensating for our years of supporting slavery and Jim Crow laws by their laudable benevolent acts.
And I want people to feel good, certainly, especially those with good intentions and at least some desire to resolve the ugly and uncomfortable feelings that we should have as a result of our and our ancestors’ complicity with, if not instigation of, blatant human rights violations. But, if you are really concerned and really want to try to resolve these issues, you need also to be willing to be wrong. You need also to be willing to hear that your good intentions have hurt and/or further complicated the situation. And you have to be willing to try something else, something different.
First I think it’s important that you write and talk about what you know. The writer of the “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” blog makes no secret of the fact that he is a white, middle-aged, middle class accountant. But he still proceeds to prescribe solutions which reflect his lack of understanding of the situation. Suggesting that poor black kids (or any kind of poor kid for that matter) should “buy a cheap computer” is ridiculous. If the man came from an even remotely impoverished beginning he might get that his math is off to say the very least. Impoverished people seek to buy food, clothing, shelter, not computers. They simply can’t afford it. And, more importantly, someone who has not been raised in a black household, in a black community is not likely to know the cultural norms and expectations. (Ya think?!!) And cultural insensitivity is not likely to buy you any credibility and get people to follow your advice even if you are doing the math correctly. (Just ask any anthropologist.) Cultural ignorance and insensitivity will only get you resistance.
Second, think, read and discuss your ideas and intentions. Wait…did you say that’s too hard? Oh, well, wake up and smell the coffee. It is not easy and easy solutions such as the neocon blog which I use as a poster child are patently offensive and inherently racist. Real problems require real solutions. And while it’s ok to feel good sometimes it is profoundly important that we be willing to feel bad, to keep trying, embrace our failures and try again. Racism wasn’t created in a day and it will not be so easily put to rest. Real change requires real work.
And, just for the record, I am a middle class (but not racist) white guy who considers himself to be a liberal anti-racist person. I have tried to undo racist agendas when I can. I have failed sometimes but I continue to try. I reject simple, condescending solutions in favor of something more real and lasting. I am willing to try different things. And I realize that the only person I can be so arrogant as to believe that I can change is myself.