On Street-Smarts: Stop Patronizing My Intelligence

(Young boy in Baltimore slum area, 1938 |  Shorpy )

(Young boy in Baltimore slum area, 1938 | Shorpy)

We must come down from our 10,000-foot view and stop patting people on the head.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

This is not to discuss the particular characteristics of street-smarts or its intellectual merits. Rather, this is to point out what I consider to be a backhanded compliment. "You're pretty smart for being from the streets.” Calling someone "street-smart" is no different from telling a woman "she's smart for a girl," or calling the nice part of a black community, "Black Beverly Hills." What about just smart or that it's just a lovely area — period. No conditions, no comparisons, no patronizing.

For the 257th time, another person shared with me their insight/ observation on life: that there are two kinds of people, people who are book-smart and people who are street-smart. I actually don't know if it was 257 times but it has been notable, and each time the person said it as if this view was uniquely theirs. They were even cautious: "This insight gives you an unfair advantage. Is Sam cool enough to share this with?" I tease. But, is this really a fresh idea? Or is this a trite repackaging of an old prejudice?

The Initial Way to Break People Down

The "book-smart/ street-smart" worldview is fairly obvious. It's something we learn as school children. We may not be aware of the colloquial terms, but we recognize that there are two distinct types of cleverness: kids who are good at school and kids who are good at things outside of the classroom. The old expression for "book-smart" was "learned." Children, for the most part, have limited life experience to draw knowledge from. To speed up the learning process, we have school, books, TV, internet, and our parents. Since it has yet to be lived, it is more theoretical, but someone previous to us has already experienced it. Though without personal experience, "book-smart" is abstract.

The other type of cleverness is one learned from the "streets," or rather, from experience — sometimes from the collective experience of the "street." This type of child may be less protected, learning mostly from trial and error. They have gathered more experiential knowledge than peers of similar age, which gives them an edge necessary to deal with the potential difficulties or dangers of life — especially urban life. However, this is usually out of necessity, based on their life circumstances. It is not ideal and not a path they might have voluntarily picked for themselves. And without proper safety nets, even if they do learn from experience, they may still get trampled by societal systems.

To put it into terms of social class: one is rich and clever, the other is clever for someone poor. You can't say someone is "street-smart" without also implying many other things about them, none of which are flattering (i.e., "For someone uneducated, you're not that dumb.")

This, of course, isn't the rule, this is a rough view of intelligence, with one form being superior. It's easier for a person with "book-smarts" to gain experience. As they get older they naturally will, perhaps even more worldly experience from travel and access. It's much harder for a person with only "street-smarts" to catch up academically. There are more barriers to entry. We are not comparing equals, everyone understands learning in school is better than learning on the streets. (The School of Hard Knocks is fine if that's all you have but it won't give you the advantages Harvard will. And for your children, you would prefer elite education over a tough life upbringing.)

Access to better information, better schools, more technology, better mentors, this is a privilege. (Warren Buffett calls this the "ovarian lottery.") To pretend "street-smart" is weighted equally to "book-smart" denies there are people who have less access. It pretends they can acquire the same education because: "See, they can be street-smart." If we are to create equal opportunity, we must be willing to see unfairness, and the "book-smart/ street-smart" paradigm treats things as being fair.

A Maturing Worldview

The modern Baltimore slum, as represented by   The Wire

The modern Baltimore slum, as represented by The Wire

People with "book-smarts" are obviously bright; "street-smart" was only important to recognize that other types of people can be talented as well. (HBO's The Wire is masterful in playing with these themes.) The thought of poor people, immigrants, minorities, and kids from the wrong side of the tracks having the capacity for intelligence may have at one time been considered progressive thinking. This is no longer the benchmark, now it's just condescending.

In historical context, one could say a more primitive, romanticized version of this idea was the "civilized savage." The progression from field slaves to house slaves. With Native Americans, there was the popular sentiment of "kill the Indian, save the man." There is familiarity with the notion that this "other" who is "raised on the streets" (raised in the wild) can still possess a form of intelligence. They can love, feel, bleed, and be taught to read.

Yet, what about being plain old smart and leaving whatever we perceive (stereotype or assumption) regarding a person's background out of it? "Hey, you're smart," and just leave it there. Why must it be conditional? Why must certain people have to earn the right to be intelligent or respected? Why can't it be an immutable right? Why do we need an epiphany to see what should be already clear? This is why I am less than enthusiastic when someone comes to this conclusion late in life. "Hey, they can be smart, too! In their own way, of course." I usually tell them, "Check out the works of Martin Luther King Jr. or Thurgood Marshall, they take it a step further than intelligence and say all people are created equal."

Recognizing equal capacity in our fellow human beings is critical, otherwise, instead of seeing them as fellow human beings, we see them as "other" beings. Only going as far as "street-smart" means we haven't given it more thought or we didn't consider it significant enough to give it more thought.

There Are More Than Two Options

The only options aren't "street-smart/ book-smart," you can have a person who is educated, well-read, and stupid. A false dichotomy is a logic fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views in such a way that they seem like the only possibilities. If one is true, the other is false and vice versa. This is the problem with the "either-or" paradox: did you commit the crime or were you just the accomplice? Those aren't the only options, you could also be innocent.

There are people who are cruel, people who are kind, people who can be either based on the time of day. We see the complexities of our own group, but we reduce other groups into inane tropes. We assume whatever little we know, is all there is to know. "There's only two things you need to know about: black people, Mexicans, women, homosexuals, and any other marginalized group." We don't expect much from someone who is "street" and when they surprise us by not totally being inept, we think they must have some rudimentary "street" intelligence.

The Problem With Tolerance

What we're really talking about here is tolerance. Tolerance is about tolerating a group or person. We may not like them or we may find them inferior, but we are tolerating them. This is not equality, in fact, it can only exist in the absence of equality. Then, at least, there's tolerance. It's something we build up, like having a high tolerance for pain.

Tolerance requires no love or understanding. It comes from dislike, "I don't like it but I'm willing to tolerate it." "Well this is about as much as we're going to give." "We won't respect you as an equal, but we will tolerate you." "We won't respect your intelligence, but we will acknowledge that you are smart in your own way." "Well, he's not smart-smart, but he is street-smart." But it is a necessary stepping stone from dislike to empathy.

Imagine, if thinking that people are created equal causes an "aha" moment, then what were we like before this moment? To recognize that someone is "street-smart" means we were wrong about our initial assumption. But it also means we weren't entirely wrong, they're still "street" or of a lower-class. We're not completely abandoning our prejudices. I hope one day we no longer start out with a default set of assumptions that people from backgrounds different from ours are somehow inferior until proved otherwise. There is a reason why Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, not a plan. We can only grow if we all individually reflect on our own biases.

We must come down from our 10,000-foot view and stop patting people on the head.

(If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting this site.)