THEY MAY BE AMERICAN, BUT THEY’RE SMART
by Todd Hartley
It’s been a good week for smart kids. There were two stories about clever teens that made headlines in the past few days, and in the telling of those stories I think we can learn a thing or two about race and culture in our country.
(At this point, I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it, too. You’re thinking, “Don’t do it, Todd. You’re a white guy from Connecticut, and you usually write about boogers, wieners and farts. Please don’t say anything about race.”)
You’re absolutely right, and those are valid points, but I think if I tread lightly we all can get through this without feelings being hurt too badly. And by that I don’t mean anyone in particular’s feelings; I mean everyone’s feelings — because I’m talking to you, America.
First of all, both kids are American. One, Suvir Mirchandani, is a 14-year-old from the Pittsburgh area. The other, Kwasi Enin, is a 17-year-old from Long Island. They’re both products of an American public school education, which somewhat belies the complaint that our schools are all broken.
Suvir, whose ethnic background was not specified by CNN.com, has light skin and a last name that is most likely Hindu in origin. I would venture to guess that his parents or his parents’ parents came to America from India or thereabouts. He’s the one who figured out that the federal government could save hundreds of millions of dollars in printing costs by switching its official font from Times New Roman to Garamond.
Kwasi, whose story was reported on April Fools’ Day but who apparently is real, is a high school senior who was just accepted into all eight Ivy League colleges as well as a few others. Kwasi has dark skin.
It’s telling, to me anyway, that CNN didn’t feel a need to inform us of Suvir’s background — as well it shouldn’t because it doesn’t really matter. But it’s almost as if CNN is saying, “Whatever. He’s Indian. You already know they’re smart. They win all the spelling bees.”
But in Kwasi’s case, it was important for CNN to let us know that, “His parents, who immigrated from Ghana in the late 1980s, are both nurses and pushed Enin to receive the highest grades possible and follow his dreams,” as if that’s something out of the ordinary for non-immigrant black parents to do.
I’m not calling CNN racist. I’m just saying that it seems like a symptom of the low-level national racism we all appear to be afflicted with. We think it’s no big deal for one ethnic group to be smart, but when another one is, we’re surprised, and we need to know how it happened. It’s as if we don’t have anything against either group but we have different standards for them.
I’m as bad as anybody. I don’t have a problem with anyone based on their race, and I try to be colorblind, but it always makes me happy when I see blacks or Latinos skiing. I suppose there’s something wrong with that, but I can’t help it. It’s ingrained in me.
Also telling is the fact that no one in America will think it odd that Kwasi got into every school he applied to. He scored in the 98th percentile on his SAT, plays three instruments, sings, acts, participates in student government and throws the shot put and discus for the track team.
Of course, if he did all that and was white, you’d still be a little surprised that every Ivy League school accepted him. That’s a pretty rare feat, after all. But when you throw in the fact that he’s black and his parents are immigrants, you’d have been surprised as hell if a school rejected him. He’s the perfect candidate.
I think most telling of all, though, is what this says about us as Americans. To me, the least surprising thing about both stories is the fact that both teens are of recent foreign descent. It seems like almost a given these days to learn that parents from other cultures value education more than most American parents do.
I’m not saying we don’t care if our kids are dumb; I’m just saying that we don’t seem to care enough if they’re smart. We award mediocrity, and we’re afraid to push our children because we’re worried they’ll resent us for it.
Anyway, if I hurt any feelings, I apologize. I really do wish the best for Americans of all colors, even if I just wrote something stupid.
Todd Hartley hopes this gets printed in Helvetica Neue UltraLight to save even more money.