Ta-Nehisi Coates on a Culture of Poverty




I immediately related in many ways to Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent post about almost beating someone up at a professional gathering. In the super short version, TNC was accosted by a stranger. TNC and the stranger had an interaction that got heated and then got superheated. When TNC tried to physically leave the situation, the stranger followed him and refused to end the exchange until TNC made it clear he was willing to move from verbal to physical. The guy left. (Hey, I can admit that I still have the occasional dayflash about beating the hell outta someone.)



Fortunately, I think, I never wore the tough pose very well either. That lack of fit made it much easier to take off when I needed. The notion of code shifting is very important because those of us who do it well simply have more choices than those who don't. It sounds to me that the conversation TNC had at the party shifted into being a confrontation and his default response to confrontation is radically different than his default response to conversation. He shifted codes subconsciously.



This gets to the broader notion of poverty's culture in that TNC had lots of teachers for both the 'street' and 'elite' codes he now knows well. Most kids who grow up poor only get one set. That's one of the core reasons why I believe many elite institutions hold more value for non-elites than for elites. My poor students, Black and White, get much more out of our program than the rich kids do. The poor kids learn academics and culture. The rich kids just learn academics. That's largely because my school replicates many of the norms and themes of elite life. One area where I think we push some rich kids to code shift is our emphasis on social justice. They don't get those kinds of messages from the rest of their culture and the leaps many of them have to make to embrace social justice as a value often mirror the leaps poor kids here make to personal restraint (which I argue is an elite value).



The kind of restraint TNC wishes he'd demonstrated in the story he relates fits perfectly in The Atlantic but would be laughable if he were telling the story to his friends at the domino table. My guess is that he would feel pressure to alter the ending in that setting. In the new telling he'd probably make sure his friends knew a) how serious he was in his threat b) how well the threat worked and c) how much he wishes he'd been able to act out the threat.



But maybe I'm just projecting.





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