Being White in Philly: I can’t believe it’s not racism!Posted: March 19, 2013
Robert Huber, of Philadelphia Magazine, has taken a ton of flack for his cover story Being White in Philly. It may stun some of my readers to learn that white people in Philadelphia don’t just sell innovative cat-related products and compose epic allegorical rock operas while huffing paint… apparently, they sometimes say stuff that, if interpreted uncharitably, sounds an awful lot like racism!
Surely Huber didn’t mean for himself or his interview subjects to sound racist? I’m sure that, if only he had the opportunity to clarify his points, we’d realize this was all a big misunderstanding. Well – as a fellow Philadelphia resident, white person, writer, and also not a racist, I’ve taken the opportunity to make that opportunity happen for Robert Huber!
What I’ve done is applied literary “close reading” critical techniques to Being White in Philly to extrapolate Robert Huber’s personality, beliefs, and “voice” (his “character”, as we call it in the writing biz). After that, I’ve used my “creative” writing skills to expand on Huber’s original essay, and extrapolate how Hubert might clarify his not-racist argument. I assure you, reader, that I have executed this process with scientific rigor; it is totally infallible, in no way legally actionable, and above all NOT RACIST.
Quotes from the article will be presented in quote boxes; Hubert’s hypothetical clarifications will be given after the quotes.
Later, driving up Broad Street as I head home to Mount Airy, I stop at a light just north of Lycoming and look over at some rowhouses. One has a padlocked front door. A torn sheet covering the window in that door looks like it might be stained with sewage. I imagine not a crackhouse, but a child, maybe several children, living on the other side of that stained sheet. Plenty of children in Philadelphia live in places like that. Plenty live on Diamond, where my son rents, where there always seem to be a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing, where it’s clearly not a safe place to be.
RH: “I can’t emphasize enough: I did not at any point imagine a crackhouse while scrutinizing that sketchy ghetto domicile. At no point did it even cross my mind that crackheads (of indeterminate ethnicity) might be shooting or smoking crack inside, their forearms bulging, their crazed eyes veined with red. I only imagined innocent little brown babies, tragic victims of America’s racial injustice, pooping hard enough to stain that meager sheet with sewage. Just babies poopin’ everywhere.
“Also: note that I did not specify the race of the ‘men milling around doing absolutely nothing.’ There were just a whole lot of suspicious men, of indeterminate ethnicity, loitering. You know how it is. Grown men, drifting. Guys acting all lackadaisy. Bros getting their lollygag on. Fellas skipping with a spring in their step, whistling a merry tune, footloose and fancy free.
“I find that… suspicious.”
Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy”…
Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.
RH: “It’s disgusting how these ruffians abuse the Racial Slur Victim Disciplinary Immunity Act of 1995. Sadly, once these rapscallions are subjected to even a single instance of racially questionable language, they receive total exemption from detention, wrist-slappings and spankings. It’s a disgrace.”
Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s.
RH: “No, I don’t consider myself a hero. Why do you ask?”
Everyone does have a race story, it turns out, and every story is utterly unique.
RH: “But none of them are racist. (Also: when I said ‘everyone’ I meant ‘every white person’. It’s an easy mistake to make!)”
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 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. … ”
RH: “First: I cannot overstate how sexy this racist was. On the universal scale of hot racists she was like, maybe not a Prussian Blue, but at least a Dr. Laura. I’d ‘buttonhole’ her any day, a-wink-wink.
“Second: at first I assumed she was exaggerating - I figured this little Moscow mama had a little too much vodka under her ushanka - but as I spent the afternoon following her silently to observe her from a distance (looking, but never making comments!) I was stunned. Every single time she passed an African-American man, the fellow produced a joint as if from nowhere, made a beeline for the nearest porch, plopped his ass down and proceeded to complement her. Every single time. Black businessmen, cops, priests, everyone. It was surreal.”
I motion Claire down 26th a few doors, out of earshot of a black guy standing at the corner…
“No,” she says. “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” A black woman comes out of the rowhouse behind us, and Claire adds, certainly loud enough for the woman to hear, and probably the guy on the corner, too, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.”
RH: “No, Claire doesn’t consider herself a hero, why do you ask?”
Jen took a look at Bache-Martin, the public school four blocks from her house and 74 percent black: Teachers engaged. Kids well-behaved. Small classes. Plus a gym and an auditorium and a cafeteria, a garden, a computer lab. She enrolled her kids there.
Jen was not in the majority. Other mothers told her, “There is a lot of Greenfield pressure.” That pressure is from fellow Fairmounters: pressure to send their kids, collectively, to the right school. Greenfield test scores are a bit higher. It’s also not nearly so black.
Another mother told Jen: “I didn’t want to be the first”—in other words, the first to make the leap to Bache-Martin. “It takes a special person to be first.” Another told her: “Not everybody is as confident as you.”
RH: “Jen, on the other hand, totally considers herself a hero. And rightly so.”
Most Fairmounters, of course, aren’t trying to push up into Brewerytown, and their concerns are a little more pedestrian.
RH: “So there’s a neighborhood in Philly called ‘Brewerytown’ and get this, it’s a black neighborhood. I know, right? You hear that name and you figure it’s all beer gardens with tattooed waitresses serving you vegan burgers.”
Brewerytown residents tend to stay above Girard, they tell me. “At Halloween,” Eileen says, “that’s the only time we see them. Lot of little kids from the other side of the tracks—African-American kids. People still give them candy.”
“People get upset,” Bruce says. “We used to have a parade on Sunday afternoon, kids would get nicely dressed up, and kids from up there”—he points north—“would come barely dressed up.”
Eileen says, “People say—”
“At least dress up,” Bruce says. “Unless they’re working here, most of them don’t come in this direction. They seem happy to stay in their little lot, as it were.”
RH: “So when I say white people on Fairmount have ‘more pedestrian’ concerns I mean stuff like this: little black kids on Halloween and their unbelievably shitty Halloween costumes. It’s disgraceful. Eileen told me she had two or three kids show up pulling that ‘sheet with eye holes’ ghost shit. Seriously, in this day and age you can get a Batman costume at CVS for like 25.99, who dresses up as a ghost? She didn’t give them candy and good for her.”
…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.
RH: “I can’t emphasize this enough. This is the real problem. This is the root (or maybe “the Roots” – I love those guys on Jimmy Fallon!) of all of Philadelphia’s racial strife. The inner city needs to get its act together. It’s so obvious! Why can’t the inner city just get its damn act together?!”
Given the monumental changes he’s seen and his declining health, John no longer risks venturing alone beyond his block. There is a monumental spread, too, in his thinking, when he considers the range of black people who have entered his neighborhood.
He tells me about the time, a Saturday afternoon more than 10 years ago, when he came downstairs to his living room to find a stranger had come in through his front door—“It was a nigger boy, a big tall kid. He wanted money.”
“…yeah, that one guy was a little racist.”