Empathy, Cont.

I wanted to make sure folks saw these two pieces by Megan, both of which have popped up in comments. There's a lot of good stuff there, but I think it best if I focus on these two comments:


Not knowing anything different.  Middle class people have a very strong image of everything they'd lose if they'd end up in a housing project. Kids from poor neighborhoods, who do not see, say, successful people who have gotten out, have a much less clear idea of what leaving would look like. It's hard to work towards something you can't really imagine....

If your peer group accepts bad short-term decisions, you will often make bad short term decisions. I like to think that I work hard simply because I'm such a stellar human being, but the fact is, I would be utterly humiliated if I had to tell people that I got fired. Ditto if I'd had a baby at 21. You can spin this into "bad culture" or "bad values" but this seems irrelevant to me, because there is no way to replace someone's values; there is no context in which the necessary discussion could take place. 

 I don't see much likelihood that we can influence a bunch of 15 year olds to suddenly remake their value matrix to something more pleasing to a bunch of contemptuous affluent white people. If I recall high school correctly, the contemptuous affluent white people weren't very good at doing this even with their own kids.

As I've said before, I've lost somewhere in the range of eighty or so pounds in the last few years. When I think about what's aided me in that process, I don't really think about miles ran, or calories counted. I do all of that stuff and it's fun (especially the miles) and necessary. But more than both of those things, I think about knowledge and peer-group.

Specifically I think about Aspen, Colorado in the summer of 2008. That was the first year I went out to the Ideas Festival (co-hosted by this magazine) and, coincidentally, the first time I met Megan. (We drank a lot of Woodchuck Cider and generally had a ball.) I was not with the Atlantic at the time, but I'd been invited out on the strength of some freelance work I'd done for them.

At any rate, the Festival would have these fancy dinners in the evening where I would sit around with people who were generally worth a gazillion dollars or some such. They were all nice and everything, but subtly--in ways cash can't explain--very, very different from me. For instance, at dinner, no one finished their plate. Many of them went so far as to decline desert, or if they indulged they'd eat half and sip coffee. We are not talking about large plates, or heaping deserts.

For the first couple of nights, I looked at all these rich white people like they'd lost their mind. To my mind they were being wasteful and unappreciative. I was not out the projects but I had--like most of us--come up in a house where you are told to finish your food. By the third night, I started to feel weird. I began to believe that by finishing my dinner and plowing through dessert I was committing a faux pas. No one said any such thing to me. But I just felt like I was sticking out. The next night I came to dinner and only ate half, I nibbled at dessert. I sipped the coffee. By my final dinner, not only had I joined the culture of withholding, I actually felt full and marveled at the fact that I'd ever been any other way.

This was in the span of a week. It was about then that I started to notice that I may well have been the only overweight person in the entire town.

Culture is a set of practices which people adopt to make sense of their environment. I was raised in a house where the memory of going hungry had not faded. I never went hungry, but I was raised around people who'd grown up with that. Moreover, all of my friends and relatives were raised the same way. Everyone I knew for the formative years of my life was raised in the culture of "Finish Your plate." And given the environment our parents had come up in, it made perfect sense. As Megan says, I didn't know anything different. Moreover my peer group didn't know anything different. I would actually go further then Megan and say that there wasn't even a sense that we were making "bad decisions"--even if objectively we were.

"Culture of Poverty" is a poisonous phrase, mostly because it's employed be people who are being glib and attempting to duck a difficult conversation. But, as I've maintained, surely there are practices which may save you on the block, but could also keep you from getting a job. And then there are practices which are, in fact, neither, which time and circumstance have rendered irrelevant.

The point here isn't that rich white people are culturally superior. It's that there was something in a particular set of practices which I found valuable. (I assure you that there are many elements in the culture I was raised which they would also find valuable.) And that value is not an Absolute Good. It's something that worked (and continues to work) for me in a specific context. It is not a Great Moral Truth. It is set of practices which yield great results in one context, but could yield disastrous ones in another. 

Culture is a toolbox, not a Bible.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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