MENU
philly-mag-being-white-in-philly

The Problem With Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly”

Share with your friends










Submit

Race.  The word alone prompts many to break out in a cold sweat, grit their teeth, immediately grow defensive or quickly change the subject. And while some people like to espouse the tenets of color-blindness and post-racialism (words I’ve personally grown to despise), I tend to steer clear of anyone who refuses to see my humanity and who brushes off the fact that black people still face inequities in this country. That some people (still) can’t even hold a productive discourse about racial politics or recognize that gender equality movements should be inter-sectional, yet will gleefully skip around singing about how wonderful and post-racial America is, stymies me. (To me) one of the key elements when having a worthwhile discussion about racial politics is listening. There always seems to be an inclination towards denying, tone policing, shaming, gas-lighting, silencing, and ‘othering’. And othering is among the ‘Race Deconstruction Don’ts’ Robert Huber employed when he penned his controversial piece about what it’s like “Being White in Philly”, for Philadelphia Magazine.

Huber didn’t interview any black folks for this ‘dialogue’. He basically frames his presentation from behind (mostly anonymous) white lenses, some of which are filtered through a haze of racist, tone-argument heavy anecdotes about their interactions without or perceptions about black people. The premise of Robert Huber’s piece indicates that white people are mostly intimidated by participating in frank discussions about racial politics, because they’re ‘afraid’ of being thought of as racist (notwithstanding the fact that some are). Huber further surmises that discussions about race are usually one-dimensional and that we only hear stories from the black perspective.

Huber writes…

“…white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.” Huber contends that he finds himself being “over polite” whenever he encounters a person of color, disingenuously performing courtesies like “holding the door too long”.

In his quest to glean insight about race relations from white people’s perspective, Huber spent time in the gentrified area of Fairmount where he found many middle-class white people eager to answer his questions about how race affects them. In one (of several) anecdotes, he encounters a Russian woman he refers to as Anna, who offered her views on what she believes is the problem with black people …

“On a warm Sunday in October, I buttonhole a woman I’ll call Anna, a tall, slim, dark-haired beauty from Moscow getting out of her BMW on an alley just south of Girard College. Anna goes to a local law school, works downtown at a law firm, and proceeds to let me have it when we start talking about race in her neighborhood.”

“I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she [Anna] says. “Blacks use skin color as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. … It’s a shame—you pay taxes, they’re not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies and smoking pot? I walk to work in Center City, black guys make compliments, ‘Hey beautiful. Hey sweetie.’ White people look but don’t make comments. … ”

Huber also ponders his conversation with a Fairmount widow he spoke with, yearns for the ability to be able to speak openly about race and someday escape the problems he sees among blacks in Philadelphia, and the concerns he has about his college-aged son residing in a questionable neighborhood…

“(…) Claire, the widow I talked to in Fairmount who was walking her terri-poos, doesn’t worry about saying the wrong thing in her neighborhood, about offending her black neighbors, because she’s confident of her own feelings when it comes to matters of race. But like many people, I yearn for much more: that I could feel the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about, say, not only my concerns for my son’s safety living around Temple, but how the inner city needs to get its act together. That I could take the leap of talking about something that might seem to be about race with black people.

I wouldn’t do that, though, because it feels too risky. In fact, I would no more go there than I would stand out on the sidewalk some Saturday and ask a neighbor how much money he has in the bank.

But this is how I see it: We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia—white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks—but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step.

Meanwhile, when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape.

Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?”

Huber undoubtedly thought he’d be offering something constructive to the contentious discourse on race when he conceived of the article, but he only seemed to reinforce the imperialistic attitudes and trepidation white people have towards having co-exist and share space with blacks.  His own doubts seem to illustrate how most white people only want to discuss race with blacks, if they’re able to control the dialogue. While I also wish that we could speak openly about race with one another, the reality is, black people speak with other black people about race, because there aren’t that many safe spaces for us to openly express ourselves without being interrupted, patronized, or where white people will listen without looking to gas-light. We speak to one another first, because dissecting and find solutions within our own community, is essential to our well-being; white people seem to want to talk with other whites about race, because they want to freely be able criticize or deride blacks without being held accountable for their oppressive language, yet will expect to be fully embraced as allies.

 Philly Mayor, Michael Nutter. :

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called the piece a “pathetic, uninformed essay” and asked the city’s Human Relations Commission to reprimand the magazine and Robert Huber, much to the dismay of Philadelphia Magazine’s editor Tom McGrath

Since Huber’s article went viral there have been a slew of people who found his piece problematic, including his own friends and colleagues. In a scathing missive, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called the piece a “pathetic, uninformed essay” and asked the city’s Human Relations Commission to reprimand the magazine and Robert Huber, much to the dismay of Philadelphia Magazine’s editor Tom McGrath, who acknowledged (to TheGrio) that the article was flawed. The commission’s executive director stood behind Mayor Nutter’s critique however, commenting, “The commissioners and I share the concerns of the mayor regarding the racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes portrayed in the Philadelphia Magazine piece.”  On Monday, Tom McGrath will moderate a panel discussion at the National Constitution Center about the issues Huber’s piece provoked.

Philadelphia organizers decided to take somewhat of a different approach to addressing Huber’s article, and plan to set-up a March 20th event in Love Park called “Being in Philly”, to offer another view of what’s actually happening in the city. — “The goal is to have an intellectual dialogue and discourse that promotes a positive outcome and interactive cultural understanding”, lead organizer Chris Norris told Philly.com columnist  Jenice Armstrong.

Norris also expressed hope that Robert Huber would make an event appearance to have his fears allayed, so he can be shown around and introduced to the black-run organizations, that do city outreach and work to change the narrative Huber’s article seemed to perpetuate about black people, as well as “intellectual Black men waiting with open arms to embrace him…”

As well-meaning as ‘Being in Philly’ sounds, I find the event’s main goal problematic in a, “See Mr. Huber? These are the good, smart Negroes. They don’t bite; they’re not like the scary blacks in your article way.  Having an event where black people have to prove their worth and implore white residents (and Huber) to recognize their humanity, is not an intellectual dialogue that promotes cultural understanding.  And it, once again, places the onus of starting such conversations and to teach, on black people.

Good, bad, and ugly; listening to other people offer their views about race relations, from the opposite end of the spectrum, are part of the reality of this dialogue, and that’s the one thing Huber’s piece prompted. It’s a conversation that will remain riddled with tension and uncomfortable revelations. But Huber and Philadelphia Magazine trying to pass “Being White in Philly” off as a constructive and comprehensive contribution to the dialogue is bull. Particularly since it fails to raise awareness and is nothing more than a provocative and incendiary piece that reinforces the stereotypical ideas many whites harbor about blacks, that further divides the city.  And just for the record ‘Anna’, white men do engage in verbal street harassment… I know this from personal experience.

Editor’s Note: Checkout the following interview with Philadelphia Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Tom McGrath, and Dr. Charles Gallagher, professor and chair of race and ethnic relations at LaSalle University.

 
Share The News
Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit

Comments

comments

Written by:

Published on: March 17, 2013

Filled Under: Education, Race

Views: 905

, , , , , , ,

  • Chris Sick

    Great unpacking of a really problematic article.

     
    • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 TiffJ

      Thanks @ChrisSick:disqus!

       
  • Val

    I read the comments on the piece by Steve Volk, who criticized the Being White in Philly story and it seems that many White people have made a huge investment in hating and stereotyping Black people. Those types won’t be swayed by any amount of exposure to Black people. Their sense of self is mostly based on being not-Black. So, it doesn’t really matter if you write solid stories or hack stories about race. Those that get it, get it and those that don’t, won’t ever get it because they have too much to lose if they do.

    http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com


     
    • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 TiffJ

      All of this -> “Their sense of self is mostly based on being not-Black. So, it doesn’t really matter if you write solid stories or hack stories about race. Those that get it, get it and those that don’t, won’t ever get it because they have too much to lose if they do.”

      And it’s also why I reject the expected burden of teaching anybody anything, when there’s so much information readily available to people, about racial politics, and especially when people refuse to unpack their privilege.

       
  • Truthseeker

    I think the displeasure in your article here is based on several fundamental misunderstandings of the original piece and how the average middle-to-upper-class white person thinks. You say in this piece: “(To me) one of the key elements when having a worthwhile discussion about racial politics is listening.” I’m a believer in honest and thoughtful discussion, so I humbly ask you to listen to what I have to say here, because I only seek to foster understanding.

    First of all, I don’t think the original piece was intended as a “dialogue.” It seemed to me that it was intended more as the initiation to a dialogue. Huber was putting his perspective as a white man out there and hoping others would contribute their perspectives to the discussion in the future. Its one-sidedness isn’t a fair criticism, because it was never intended to be anything but one side of the story.

    Second of all, you seem to miss the fact that both Huber and just about all the American-born white people he talked to in the article tried to be as fair to blacks as possible. The fact that you apparently didn’t observe that is rather amazing to me. When I read it, all I could see were the words of a concerned man who honestly hoped for all racial communities to be uplifted. Most of the whites he interviewed seemed averse to direct criticism of blacks, even when talking amongst themselves.

    Take, for instance, the 87-year-old man who claims that his neighborhood used to be as safe as anywhere when he was a kid. He observed that once blacks moved in, crime went up and living conditions declined. He tells of numerous bad experiences with blacks, yet still says that he “[has] no problem with blacks” and makes sure to compliment his black former neighbors. What does that tell you?

    You need to realize that contrary to popular belief, most whites are inundated every day with messages that they must never, under any circumstances, be unfair or unkind to people of other races. Even those whose experiences with blacks are more negative than positive would often rather die than think ill of them. Our culture tells us that you’re a bad person if these thoughts ever enter your head, so most of the time, whites refuse to entertain them. You may not believe it, but it’s the truth. Even the whites who are less concerned with being thought a “racist” are generally fair-minded and want to see people of other races succeed if they can do so on their own merits. Which leads me to another point…

    “Having an event where black people have to prove their worth and implore white residents (and Huber) to recognize their humanity, is not an intellectual dialogue that promotes cultural understanding. And it, once again, places the onus of starting such conversations and to teach, on black people.”

    What you have to understand is that most white people come from a culture that views self-determination as the key to success. They’re raised to believe that if you want something, you’ve got to earn it. I’ll leave aside the absurdity of you thinking that whites don’t view blacks as human, but I will say this: When the statistics consistently show that blacks have much higher rates of crime and poverty, most whites see that as the sign of a community in disarray. If blacks don’t want to be viewed as dysfunctional and violent, then it should go without saying that they need to show a better face to those outside the community. If you want respect, it’s not going to be handed to you, you’ve got to earn it. Whites see crime and poverty as negatives, and we presume blacks do as well, so we don’t understand why blacks don’t raise themselves above those conditions, especially after whites have been trying for so long to help them do so.

    You also think “Anna’s” comments reinforce negative stereotypes, but ask yourself this: Why does she view blacks the way she does? Did she just concoct such a view because she’s an evil person, or did she have experiences which led her to it? As a non-American, she doesn’t have the same conditioning for racial sensitivity that American whites do, so she presumably just bases her judgment on what she observes firsthand. I can certainly understand a black person hating such stereotypes, because I wouldn’t want people assuming I was that way, but instead of getting angry at the existence of the stereotypes, perhaps the solution is to ask where they come from, and whether there are problems at the root of them that can be solved.

    I think race is an important issue in our country today, and everything I say here is a reflection of my belief that people of all races will be better off if we can honestly and thoughtfully discuss various perspectives as mature adults. I hope that, as you say, you are willing to listen and consider what I’m saying.

     
    • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 TiffJ

      Thank you for your well-thought out comment
      however, much of what you wrote illustrates what I said about white people wanting to control the dialogue about race and not wanting to accept partial responsibility for why these discussions are often contentious.

      You speak of black people as if we’re all a monolith and that we’re *all* violent and shiftless and therein lies the problem with many white people who engage blacks about racial politics; and you also fail to realize that the problems some inner-city blacks are saddled with, isn’t as black and white (no pun) as simply saying, “well if THE BLACKS would just stop
      killing and do for themselves, they’ll be better off.”

      A lot of the problems are systemic and institutional. When you’re up against a system that often resource hoards and
      further marginalizes and pathologizes you, then the result is disenfranchised and frustrated people. Since you come from a place of privilege (I’m assuming you’re white, and if not then I stand corrected about the presumption), you obvious can’t relate to that struggle.

      Also, the blatant cookie-begging and imperialist attitude in this statement: “Whites see crime and poverty as negatives, and we presume blacks do as well, so we don’t understand why blacks don’t raise themselves above those conditions, especially after whites have been trying for so long to help them do so.” Bothers me… particularly the last part, because it deflects responsibility and suggests that white people haven’t and don’t marginalize based on race and are the saviors of black people.

      I agree that Huber’s piece provides some uncomfortable revelations, like I wrote in my piece, and honest discussions about race aren’t supposed to be easy, but to suggest that his piece *isn’t* furthering the divide in Philadelphia, is an idea I don’t agree with.

      As if, once again, blacks are wild animals without the ability to engage in productive dialogue. As far as my statement about blacks seeming to always have to implore white people to recognize our humanity, it was me referencing the Three-Fifths Compromise.

      You wrote: “You need to realize that contrary to popular belief, most whites are inundated every day with messages that they must never, under any circumstances, be unfair or unkind to people of other races.”

      – Well, *you* also need to realize that most blacks are inundated every day, for hours on end, with messages dictate; that no matter how any of us navigate this country, we will never be considered worthy enough, that our opinions don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, that we’re expected to, by people operating from places of privilege, “just get over” being marginalized and that we must, under any and all circumstances, pussy-foot around most whites, for fear of being profiled, SHOT, killed, denied a job, or stereotyped and that our voices are constantly being oppressively silenced because of the fear of being stereotyped
      or pathologized.

      I also stand by what I wrote about the Love Park
      festival. Why should black people have to *prove* to Huber or any other white Philadelphia residents, that we’re rational and capable of engaging peacefully?

      The organizer stated they wanted Huber to make an appearance to “introduce him to organizations like Rising Sons and to introduce him to the Black Male Engagement (…) To introduce him to people like Gregory Walker (…) That’s the goal. Not to make him feel scared, to make him feel like there’s going to be an angry black mob waiting for him.” — As if, once again, blacks are wild animals without the ability to engage in productive dialogue. As far as my statement about blacks seeming to always have to implore white people to recognize our humanity, it was me referencing the Three-Fifths Compromise.

       
      • Truthseeker

        Thank you for your response. If I may, I’d like to address some of what you said.

        First of all, I apologize if some of my comments came across poorly to you. The way you seem to have interpreted them was not my intent.

        –“You speak of black people as if we’re all a monolith and that we’re *all* violent and shiftless and therein lies the problem with many white people who engage blacks about racial politics; and you also fail to realize that the problems some inner-city blacks are saddled with, isn’t as black and white (no pun) as simply saying, “well if THE BLACKS would just stop killing and do for themselves, they’ll be better off.””

        I never intended to imply that all blacks were bad. I would hope that I don’t have to preface every single criticism with a disclaimer that it’s not a blanket statement about all individual blacks. Simple statistical evaluations can tell us though, that blacks have higher rates of violent crime, poverty, out-of-wedlock births, etc. none of which, I believe, is conducive to a generally successful way of life. On average, American blacks are more likely than other races to live a problematic lifestyle.

        You say you don’t want blacks to be viewed as a monolith. Fair enough. Let me ask you this, though: We hear statistics about how something like 96% of all blacks voted for Obama (and some freely admit his race was the only factor), we often see blacks referring to their “people,” we hear black celebrities like Jamie Foxx openly saying that his world revolves around race, etc. If you weren’t black and you saw this, wouldn’t it at least appear to you that blacks tend to have a lot of group loyalty and similar thought patterns?

        –“A lot of the problems are systemic and institutional. When you’re up against a system that often resource hoards and further marginalizes and pathologizes you, then the result is disenfranchised and frustrated people. Since you come from a place of privilege (I’m assuming you’re white, and if not then I stand corrected about the presumption), you obvious can’t relate to that struggle.”

        I may be white, but I know what it’s like being a minority. I’ve spent time living in a country where I was a minority, and certainly, there were times when I sensed I was discriminated against. I don’t take it personally though, because it’s just human nature. People are going to have a natural affinity for those who are most similar to them. It’s not some malicious conspiracy, it’s just the way the human mind works. I’m willing to bet that if blacks controlled all the institutions in this country, then blacks would receive favoritism in our society, not because they’re discriminatory bigots, but because it’s a human tendency.

        The fact of the matter is, white people generally do all they can to be fair and meritocratic. It’s impossible to be perfectly fair, but people who prove their worth can likely succeed in a society run by whites. East Asians, for instance, are a non-white group that’s done well in America, so it’s easy to be skeptical of this idea that whites are systematically keeping down non-whites.

        –“Also, the blatant cookie-begging and imperialist attitude in this
        statement: “Whites see crime and poverty as negatives, and we presume blacks do as well, so we don’t understand why blacks don’t raise themselves above those conditions, especially after whites have been trying for so long to help them do so.” Bothers me… particularly the last part, because it deflects responsibility and suggests that white people haven’t and don’t marginalize based on race and are the saviors of black people.”

        Imperialist? Cookie-begging? Again, there seems to be a misunderstanding here.

        You say the last part deflects responsibility, which implies that you feel whites have some responsibility toward blacks. In the same sentence, you get offended by the idea that whites think they need to do things to help blacks. Perhaps there’s more nuance here than is clear on the surface, but statements like that would give the average white person the impression that “we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

        For what it’s worth, I agree that white people aren’t the saviors of blacks. Blacks are ultimately the only ones who can solve their problems. As I’ve already said, I think most whites do all they can to be fair to people of all races, so the opportunity is about as good as it’s ever going to be for non-whites to get a piece of the power structure pie, if they can prove themselves capable.

        –“I agree that Huber’s piece provides some uncomfortable revelations, like I wrote in my piece, and honest discussions about race aren’t supposed to be easy, but to suggest that his piece *isn’t* furthering the divide in Philadelphia, is an idea I don’t agree with.”

        How would you suggest the divide be bridged? These white people in Philadelphia shared their honest perceptions of blacks and they were told it was out of line because it cast blacks in a bad light. Perhaps the whites’ perceptions are flawed or unfair. It’s possible. However, if that’s legitimately how things appear to them, you can’t fault them for being honest. Are they supposed to ignore what their experiences tell them? What else are they supposed to go by?

        –“I also stand by what I wrote about the Love Park festival. Why should black people have to *prove* to Huber or any other white Philadelphia residents, that we’re rational and capable of engaging peacefully?”

        Because if the impressions others get of them, fairly or not, are negative, then race relations will continue to be strained. White people, as the article demonstrates, mostly want to give blacks a fair chance as neighbors and fellow citizens, and they try to prove it with their actions. If blacks reciprocate the desire for friendship, then taking action to prove it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

         
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=664350271 Billy Kamerman Hanlon

    I think Tiff’s argument is vividly illustrated in the interview video following her article. Asked whether he thinks Black people may also be afraid to talk about their true feelings in public, the magazine’s editor awkwardly stutters: “That’s a good question. I’m actually not sure about that.”

    And there you have it.

     
    • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 TiffJ

      @facebook-664350271:disqus — Thank you.

      He stuttered, because coming from a place of privilege, of course he wouldn’t consider the opposite end of the spectrum, particularly since blacks are accused of being the ones always on edge and combative. Most of us (blacks) *don’t* want to openly discuss race with most white people due to our own trepidation: we’ll be silenced, accused of being “angry”, tone-policed, gas-lighted, have to answer for the crimes of those segment of blacks who commit crimes, thought of as a monolithic group, and called “reverse-racists”.

       
  • Tim

    The thing that as a white I find disturbing is that at the root of the problem is the breakdown of the family.Black leaders refuse to broach this subject and acknowledge that the lack of a positive male influence is a major cause of inner city crime. The fear of my fathers wrath kept me on an even keel thru out my childhood and I assure you without him my mom would not have been able to control me. This is not a white or black truism,it is a human truism. Until the black community addresses this issue it will not get better .

     
    • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 TiffJ

      Once again, while you touch on a very important point, the problem(s) aren’t as cut-and-dry as penning them *solely* on an absence of positive male leaders, although that is one fraction of what’s wrong.

      “Until the black community addresses this issue it will not get better .”
      –You presume to think these issues aren’t being addressed or attempts aren’t being made to remedy the situation within within black community. They are.

       
      • Tim

        Tiff if it is being addressed then i will take your word for it. I do not have a pulse on the black community. My only resource is what i hear in the media and I hear very little . You are correct there is more to it but I feel it is more than a fraction of the problem. Until it becomes “not O.K.” to have babies out of wedlock then we are on a downward spiral, in ALL of our society, not just one segment.

         
  • http://twitter.com/Coffey0072 TiffJ

    From 2012:
    “Jenice Armstrong: Perfect SAT score for Cameron Clarke, Germantown Academy senior in Philadelphia”

    http://articles.philly.com/2012-12-18/news/35871335_1_student-government-cross-country-perfect-sat-score