A month ago, I watched an interesting documentary about the taboo subject of intelligence and race. In it, several revered, award-winning scientists, psychologists, and all-around smart guys, made the case that some races (East Asians and Europeans) are genetically predisposed to be intellectually superior to other races (Africans and just about everyone else).
Each time, the men (and they were all men) were met with scorn and considered racist by their detractors. They also found supporters, mostly of the white supremacist variety. The truth is any number of factors contribute to whether a person is going to be intelligent or not, and even so, intelligence is not synonymous with wisdom, motivation, and empathy, all of which are needed to live a well-rounded life.
A powerful indicator of how intelligent a person is going to be is their environment, not their race. Case in point, I grew up in a middle-class household with two college-educated parents. Education was always important to my mom and dad, and it showed. They met with teachers, attended every parent-teacher night, and took an active interest in my and my brother’s schooling.
My parents grew up in an era when young black students were encouraged to forego college and “take up a trade”. My mother’s guidance counselor told her that she was an “articulate young girl” and that she would make an “excellent secretary”. Instead, she went to college, got a degree, and became a nurse. My father was shy and withdrawn, so he was placed in a few remedial courses early on. This, in spite of the fact that he had an affinity for math, particularly geometry and calculus. Fast forward 40 years, he’s a successful contractor, who was told in his drafting class that he had the capabilities to become a great architect if he were so inclined.
I grew up with parents who valued knowledge. Since they valued knowledge, my brother and I did too. Even though, I left college 3 years short of earning my degree, I never stopped learning. I am a product of my environment, and where I live, being well-informed is important.
I also am aware that a disproportionate amount of young black children–from all over the world–live in environments where knowledge isn’t valued. (And where it is valued it isn’t easily accessible) In my house growing up, I had thousands of books at my fingertips: an entire set of encyclopedias, children’s books, novels, my mother’s old nursing text books, plus everything I ordered from Scholastic. Not every child is as fortunate as I was, and it is unfair to blame their deficiencies on race, when the real culprits are income, surroundings, and education.
I know a lot of teachers, and one thing they all say regarding the education of black students is, “Not enough parental involvement”. When I was in high school, I decided that homework was a waste of time. My English teacher called my mother and set up a meeting to discuss my lack of motivation, and they worked together as a team to get me back on track.
Needless to say, I did the necessary work to get a good grade. I could have done a lot better, but, I wasn’t wise enough to know how much of a bearing my grades in high school would have on my chances at attaining a scholarship. If I had to do it over, I’d have done more to apply myself.
Sadly, the belief that Latinos, people of African descent, and indigenous peoples are intellectually inferior is still common. Naturally, any person from a disadvantaged background would have a more difficult time in school than their privileged counterparts. The deciding factor is their privilege, not their race.
Last year, I read a book entitled, What’s A Black Critic To Do II, by literary journalist, Donna Bailey Nurse. It was a compilation of book reviews, interviews, and essays. In one particular essay, Nurse told a story about a job interview she had with a prominent newspaper in Ontario. The interviewer, who was white, told Nurse that the paper needed a person who could write about a wide range of topics, like classical music, for example.
Nurse had studied classical music in university, and told the interviewer. The interviewer then said, “I also need someone who can write about the ballet.” Nurse also studied ballet, and again, told this to the interviewer. Finally, the interviewer said, “You also need to know about architecture.” Nurse replied, “Well, you’ve got me there.”
She wrote that, in the course of one job interview, that woman managed to infer that she was an ‘N-word’ several times without ever saying it. The interviewer assumed that, because Donna Bailey Nurse was black, she couldn’t possibly know anything about classical music or ballet. The scientists who insist there are vast differences between the races regarding intelligence will say that people like Donna Bailey Nurse and me have benefited from growing up around the intellectually superior Asian and Caucasian people.
However, as I said before, growing up around two black parents who went to college and expected me to do the same, made a marked difference in how much I appreciated acquiring knowledge. If a person grows up in a home with a family who does not value education, that individual is more likely not to value it either, regardless of that person’s race.
In North America, black people had to fight for the right to be educated. Indigenous people were “educated” against their will. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s reason enough for some of us not to trust the system. Then again, I was always taught by my activist parents that if I really wanted to make a change, I had to start from within. One way I have done this is by challenging preconceived notions about the person I am.
I also hold my ancestors in high regard. I come from a long line of maids, labourers, and indentured servants. They were the ones who laid the foundation that made it possible for me to attend university, and earn a living doing something other than cleaning and building things. If any of my ancestors wanted to rise above their designated station, it was a given that they had to fight an infrastructure that was hell-bent on keeping them from moving ahead.
My grandfather was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. He had to drop out of school in fourth grade, but because he valued knowledge, he could learn new things quickly and apply them. He did more with his elementary school education than many do with university degrees. It wasn’t just what he knew that made him successful. It’s what he did with what he knew. When he died at the age of 84, he was still healthy, and he still had a sound mind because he kept learning new things.
That type of wisdom transcends race. For that matter, intelligence does too. What really shapes a person is their environment, and it would be reckless to argue differently.
I have been able to learn what I’ve learned, not because I was following the example of my white and Asian peers, but because I was following the example of my parents.
When I was in ninth grade, every student had to do a series of standardized tests to see how well our province’s educational system fared at imparting knowledge. When the results we’re returned, I found out my score was in the 90th percentile for English. Ranked among every 9th grade student in the province, I was near the top of the bell curve. When my (white) classmate found out, she shrieked, “You scored higher than me? That’s impossible!”
I just shrugged it off because all I did was provide the correct answers for most of the questions on a standardized test. Questions I would not have known the answers to if I had not read for most of my childhood with parents who respected education and supplied me with lots of reading material. Not too shabby for a black girl.
As it turns out, the intelligent race is the human race.