Review: “Being White (and Condescending) in Philly” (via Philadelphia Magazine)
When I bought the March issue of Philly Magazine from CVS the other day, I truly had high hopes for this article. Finally an authentic white opinion on the race issues plaguing the city. With its lone, blaring headline what else could I really look forward to?
Unfortunately for myself and thousands of other readers, Robert Huber’s article, “Being White in Philly” came across as yet another cry from the whining gentrifiers that have popped up throughout Philadelphia’s inner-city making natives feel like foreigners. The issue of gentrification has been used as the shield for systematic racism for years and the opinions provided throughout the article seem to be the result.
I was born and raised in the heart of North Philadelphia until I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school seven months ago. The interesting part about the move is that complaints that I had as a resident in the Temple University area are the same ones that residents around USC have about students such as myself. However, in Huber’s article, those “hipsters” moving into traditionally African-American neighborhoods are depicted as the unsung heroes of areas that would be in ruins without them.
Throughout the entire piece his tone is condescending, arrogant and almost sarcastic about the racial issues in Philadelphia. “Being White in Philly” disturbs me so much because I can see its flaws from many different aspects. At the basic level, I see them as a journalist. There’s absolutely NO journalistic balance in this story and its almost as if it was explicitly written to provoke controversy. I don’t doubt that it was, but at least be subtle about it. The second is as a black woman. One of the first things that I noticed was that there were no interviewees of color and in a city touting a 44% African American population, I’m positive that there weren’t a lack of sources.
The last and probably most upsetting perspective that I’ve had of this article was as a lifelong Philadelphian. The idea of “brotherly love” in the city seems to be long gone and instead of shedding light on racial debacles, the article painted African Americans as the issue, while white resistance to true integration was just an after thought. However, this analysis could go on forever, so it’s better to break it down with the standout fails of the article.
- "My younger son goes to Temple, where he’s a sophomore. This year he’s living in an apartment with two friends at 19th and Diamond, just a few blocks from campus. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. Whenever I go see Nick, I get antsy and wonder what I was thinking, allowing him to rent there."
Like I said, growing up in the Temple University area myself (21st and Diamond), I know that the neighborhood is no suburbia, but at the same time it also isn’t the worst area in the city. Flooded with college kids, it’s actually becoming one of the most diverse areas in the inner-city. By Huber becoming, “antsy” when visiting his son, while admittedly not knowing much about the area, he only proves his own ignorance, not the actual danger that he’s faced with.
- 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. A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.
I’m not that black person that feels like if a white person doesn’t hold the door, they’re automatically “racist.” I may call you an asshole, but that’s about the jist of it. However, if you have to go out of your way to be overly nice then you make yourself seem as if you have something to hide. Why are you doing that? What’s the point? The mistake many white people make is trying to overcompensate when they don’t have a reason to be doing so. If you’re a shitty person, be a shitty person. Don’t do me any “favors” by trying to pretend that you’re not because I’m black.
- What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.
A large part of why race gets examined one-dimensionally is because many white people refuse to be honest about their feelings towards the subject, whereas people of color are generally more open when talking about it. However, in this case I guess Huber felt that the answer to this one-dimensional view was to do the polar opposite for the white race. Not really.
- A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.
The assessment of this neighborhood is one of the biggest issues. “Fairmount” and the “Art Museum” areas are both a part of the predominately black North Philadelphia neighborhood and within the last 10-15 years the neighborhoods have become gentrified. The article makes it sound as if those neighborhoods have always been predominately white and beyond Girard Avenue is the “big bad wolf” of this poor little middle class community. The reality is that many caucasians moved out of the city to the Main Line years ago to escape the melting pot of city life. However, when it became evident how accessible, convenient and promising North Philadelphia could be they starting migrating back, building and in turn raising property taxes to an unaffordable rate, forcing the previous residents out. If you’re gonna tell history… tell history.
- A man of perspective, Paul, a very evenhanded guy. But that night, something dawns on me: Confronted with a drug dealer in his new neighborhood, Paul understood that the guy had to find a way to get by. That he was struggling. That he had made an economic decision. But the “guy” who wanted to sell Oxycontin to Paul was a child—one probably in seventh grade.
This image of ‘crack-dealing kids’ lurking the streets at 3am and offering up drugs to anyone who’s around is ridiculous and purely superfluous. Now believe me, I’m not sheltered nor blind enough to think that there isn’t a problem with youth crime in the city, but the way that Huber perpetuates the situation makes it seem like “Nightmare On Elm Street” and it couldn’t be farther from reality.
- There’s a very good elementary school in Rittenhouse: Greenfield. And that’s the school the parents in Fairmount—the white, middle-class parents, which is Fairmount—shoot for if they’re going public. 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.
Being a Greenfield alum, and one of the few black faces there, I find it ironic that once again Huber managed to tell the viewpoint of the heroic white woman who went against the grain and send her kids to Bache-Martin. Why not tell the story of the dozens of mothers who insist on Greenfield and later on, Masterman? Don’t sugarcoat the “white plight” with small anecdotes of one person. This section goes back to what I said about balance. There simply is NONE in this story.
- 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.
And that’s how it’ll continue to be. After reading this story, I really feel like what’s the point? You said all of these things to say… what? What have you personally done to change the dynamic of race relations in Philadelphia? Huber speaks a lot about how Philadelphians should “band together” but how do they begin to do so if as he puts it, all races tend to stay in their own lot? Along with readers, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter has spoken out against the article and its lack of views that represent the city. But maybe as a Philadelphian, I’m biased. What do you think of the piece?