Monday, December 19, 2011

IIWAPBK and Privilege 101

I think Gene Marks has now been thoroughly excoriated for his column "If I Were a Poor Black Kid" on the Forbes web site last week. In his effort to explain how it's still possible for underprivileged kids to succeed, he succeeded only in displaying a shocking lack of empathy. By that I don't mean that he demonstrated a lack of concern for the poor black kids of the world and their needs-- I mean that he literally failed at perspective-taking, in such a spectacular way that it's hard to believe that he was serious (though apparently he was), which has made the column a golden opportunity for mockery. Jenée Desmond-Harris writes in The Root:
Middle-aged, white Forbes contributing writer Gene Marks, in his recent piece, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid," presented some now-infamous ideas for how he would personally rise to success if he suddenly found himself young, African American and poverty-stricken.  
Marks would "get technical," learn software," "learn how to write code," "figure out where to learn more online," "become an expert at Google Scholar" and regularly peruse the CIA World Factbook. He would then get himself into a top school, and he would "succeed." The end.  
Oh. If only Marks had given out this priceless advice before, we would have eliminated racial inequalities long ago.  
Not really.  
As a curious side note, it's unclear how this is any different from what he would do if he were a poor white kid. But also, there's no word in the piece on how Marks imagines that he would, as a poor child, suddenly be infused with the perspective and sophistication of a middle-class adult. In addition, he, perhaps unintentionally, admits that his advice is useless to all but a select few gifted, mature and lucky children. (He doesn't have any thoughts on what he would do if he were not a "special kind of kid" who miraculously became aware of the admissions processes of magnet schools and the value of TED talks and the Khan Academy.)  
 Melanie Tannenbaum, on her blog psysociety, puts it this way:
My immediate reaction was to hate the article. I found it insulting, ignorant, and just plain short-sighted. As I commented in my own link on Facebook, “[To summarize], ‘This is what I would do if I were born into a completely different set of circumstances, a completely different family, a completely different social support system, a completely different school district, a completely different body with a completely different skin tone and a completely different way that people in public respond to me, yet I somehow still retained all of the benefits, knowledge, and access to resources as a middle-aged, middle-class white man.’”
Indeed. Marks' column reads as if he was attempting to describe what would happen if he had body-swapped with a poor black child in a movie...the most boring body-swap movie ever, if what he says he'd do in this different body and environment is true. And, it goes without saying, not terribly useful when it comes to addressing what he was addressing, which are the opportunities available and likely to be utilized by people who are actually born in the bodies and environments in question. Having acknowledged this, however, Tannenbaum the doctoral candidate in psychology studying "the effects of power, status, and social class on attitudes and behavior" goes on to observe the following:
However, upon re-reading the article and giving it a little more thought, I’ve come to realize that the real issue with the article isn’t that the author, Gene Marks, is necessarily racist, or even really ignorant. After all, he acknowledges right off the bat that the system is unfair, and that children from other areas of town have it much harder than his own, privileged children do. Marks clearly has some knowledge of the unfairness of “the system.” So the real question is, how could he then go on to write such a short-sighted article, completely missing any sort of perspective on what it means to actually be a member of the community to which he is proselytizing?
What follows is essentially an unpacking of the psychology of privilege. And privilege, it seems, is what we're talking about here-- specifically, the unconscious ignorance of the ways in which advantage and power affect one's perspective. Tannenbaum goes over two experiments in which subjects were primed with (prompted to have at the front of their minds) notions of self-empowerment, and shows how this actually causes people to assume that others know what they know:
In other words, powerful participants were more likely to overweight the special, privileged information that they had, and they subsequently predicted how other people would (or should) respond to certain situations as if the other people had access to that same, privileged knowledge as well.   
Sound familiar?   
To be momentarily blunt, powerful people often fail to correct for the fact that other people don’t have the same special knowledge that they do. When they think about how other people should respond to situations, they are significantly more likely to overweight the information that they happen to have (like, say, knowledge about the vast amount of educational technology that is available, assuming one knows where to look for it), and less likely to consider the fact that not everyone else has the same knowledge base.  
Well, that's not news, comes the reply from any of the not-so-privileged among us. The most powerful people are often members of the majority, which allows them to make their experience the "norm" which everyone else comes to know whether they want to or not, but there is nothing compelling them to come to know the experiences of minorities. The other important aspect of privilege is that the privileged are not forced by anything in particular to see through anyone else's eyes, to acknowledge that their own experience in life is not universal.

Still, it's one thing to think that what you know and experience is more important than what others know and experience. It's quite another to be unconsciously ignorant of the fact that other people have different knowledge and experiences, which is what the experiments suggest. That's what I mean by "failing at perspective-taking"-- being unable to process that someone who is not you has a different perspective than you do, perhaps a very different one. Most of us have had the experience of talking to someone about our problems and hearing that person say "Well, if it were me, I would..." followed by a description of some course of action that we would never pursue, assuming it is even possible for us. One has to wonder what exactly they believe the benefit of offering such an observation to be. That is basically what Gene Marks did in his column, causing its readers to collectively scratch their heads and wonder what the benefit of that was supposed to be.

There are two fundamental short-cuts to empathy (really understanding things from someone else's point of view) that have proven themselves time and time again: similarity and familiarity. If you're very similar to the person in question, it's not very much of a stretch to see things like they do because after all it's almost how you yourself see things. Alternately, if the person in question is not much like you but you know him/her really well, it's easier to see things from his/her perspective just because you're used to doing so. Privilege means being similar to most people, or at least most powerful people. Never being the "other," the one who is marked as different. But that doesn't mean empathy is impossible-- the moral progress of a society is marked in part by the gradual realization by the privileged that they have this status to begin with, and this is accomplished by becoming familiar enough with the different experience of "others" that it is possible to see through their eyes and recognize how similar they actually are. Where this realization occurs, you will find members of majorities fighting for the rights and interests of minorities. Where it fails, you will find apathy and hostility born of that particular kind of ignorance that privilege conveys.

At the end of her post, Tannanbaum acknowledges the ways in which she herself is privileged. I have my own. One of them-- access to education-- is how I can afford to analyze the mechanisms by which privilege affects perspective in the first place, which might be ironic but hopefully does not invalidate such an analysis. Empathy and sympathy are often conflated for a reason-- the former can lead quite naturally to the latter in the process of understanding allowing for recognition of similarities, and it becomes harder to be angry and blame when you find yourself identifying with the target of such. But we can blame and empathize at the same time. We really can, and both are important for mutual growth-- the blame so that the blamed can recognize their error, and empathy so that accusers don't perceive themselves as errorless. In this way, the conversation can be elevated.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I think you're right about the role of empathy in diminishing the biases arising from privilege and knowledge.

    I'm working on something that touches on this subject and how it can be interwoven with insidious prejudices. For some reason, I'm finding my view a bit unwieldy for a post, so it's still too clumsy to publish.

    My thoughts were prompted by a segment on Rock Center this week. A group of American Muslim comics are touring the South, attempting to educate people. At about 3:20 into the video, there is a rather familiar exchange with a local that is very much related, IMO.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've got the time and the inclination.


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