I’ve been hearing all the commentary on talk radio, and seeing interviews on TV about the controversial “Being White In Philly” article that was recently published on PhillyMag.com.
Knowing that I wanted to comment on the subject, I had to read it in it’s entirety to make sure that I was speaking from a position of knowledge, rather than just a fly-by “oh I heard” rumor type response. So I read it, if you want to read it for yourself, click here.
So now that I’ve read it, here’s what I think…
From the 10,000 foot view I think the author (Robert Huber) was trying to encourage and spur on conversation about race relations in Philadelphia, and I don’t think he was being ignorant about anything. I think his commentary was blunt and unfiltered. Unfiltered, is a word I want to highlight here.
I think most people tend to filter what they say to a level that is socially acceptable, and unoffensive. Now, with this comes a more friendly version of the conversation (whatever the topic is that day), and we do this because we’re not out to start trouble, we want to engage the other person in conversation and share our thoughts. I’m saying this in regards to people in general, and any topic du jour.
When it comes to race relations, people talking about people of different colors, races, ethnicities… it seems as though the stakes are higher (of course), as does the risk of offending someone. Nobody wants to think that another person is negatively viewing them based on their skin tone.
I think that most white people are scared to even mention their opinion (if negative) about something to a person of color for fear that person would get upset and throw the race card on the table, seriously!
Even if that same white person wanted to say something nice, to compliment someone (of color), they wouldn’t – because they don’t know enough to think they might offend that person. Sounds silly, but it’s very real. I do think most of that fear is totally unfounded, because all the people I know are smart enough to tell the difference, but that comes from my experiences in life. Most people don’t have that basis, so they remain very racially and socially timid.
So as society gets older (and hopefully wiser), we tend to take more risks and trust our friendships more, so the conversations get more lively, and more of those conversations become more “in-depth” and have greater detail & meaning. Once people have enough friends with different racial backgrounds…and have some of these intimate conversations, they more they’ll know and be able to share that with others.
Specific to this article, I don’t think the commentary was bad or insensitive, rather I think it offended people who don’t like to talk about it. I also think people’s perspectives on race is wildly different here compared to other places in America, but I’ll get to that later. After living here for such a short time I can easily say that Philly is different than any other city, but at the same time it shares some of the same elements that other bigger cities have. We have crime, inequality, strife, bad streets, good streets, and neighborhoods with predominantly THIS or THAT, and people of all colors.
From this “big picture” viewpoint I think the author has accomplished his main goal, which is to get people talking. I think on that level, it’s a HUGE success. Does this mean that everyone will read it and suddenly have the urge to grab the nearest person and start to dance and sing Kumbaya? No. It’s a start to a process of understanding that takes a long time to reach everyone. There will always be inequality amongst all men, but race relations is an ongoing diatribe that needs to be fostered, and sometimes kicked in the ass to make some steps forward. Maybe that controversial article was one of those ass-kicks, maybe not.
From the street level perspective… this is a different conversation altogether. I do think that some people are anxious about how they treat others in their area, when opening doors, meeting people on the street, passers-by, walking on their streets and in their neighborhood, and more. I think it’s natural to want to present yourself in a good light, and to be a good citizen. I do think we watch what we say, because our whole world has gone totally PC and to such an extreme that important conversations don’t happen, and that’s a bad thing. Do we need more honest and “unfiltered” conversation – yes!
What happens in your neighborhood is more of a real concern compared to what is talked about in coffee shops and debated in college lectures. People see what is really going on outside where they park their cars, where the kids are playing, etc… and so truth and reality comes into play.
If I had to choose where to live based on my own health and safety, I might consider just about anyplace, I’m a big guy and I’m not scared of too much, so I could handle any neighborhood if I had to. But as I’m a father of three, I have to consider my wife and the children too, so I’d choose safe suburbia over city living any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
The residents of North Philly and other areas (places I have not spent any time in, so I can’t comment fairly about it), probably feel more insulted than anything else, but, is that a bad place to live? I don’t know, but I can say that it’s obvious there is conversation going on there that is different than the conversation in Huntingdon Valley, where I live. I’m sure of that. Are people here in HV different? Not really, but we don’t have such racial division and other things associated with living in the city, that’s for sure. I’d bet I’d feel alot different if we DID though. I’m also sure that people would act differently if there was a different racial makeup, simply because the social landscape would be different.
People are different, depending on where you are – Well, at least this is my own hypothesis. My family and I just moved up from Miami, FL to Philly, and race relations here are WAY different than down there. My wife isn’t white (I am) and down there that didn’t mean anything. We were anybody’s couple, and we were treated the same as anyone else. Up here however, suddenly I’m married to a black woman. Huh?
My wife is Trinidadian and Chinese, so she’s a bit Island, and a dash of asian. In Miami, you wouldn’t blink twice when you looked at us together, we were like every other blended family. Here in Philly, there’s no definition of culture or background when people look, it’s all based on COLOR.
I have another thought which I’ll share, and it maybe somewhat incendiary… Black Americans (African Americans) don’t celebrate “Culture” and history like other people of color who are from the Caribbean, South America, or Africa.
What do I mean? Well, simple, ask anyone from the Caribbean “Where you from? What’s your background?” and they’ll happily tell you they’re from _____, and go on and on about how wonderful it is, the people, their history, their culture, the food & drink, and so on…You can hear the pride in their voices.
You ask an African American (someone of color who was born in America) and they’ll tell you “I’m black” and I live on the other side of town. The conversation comes to a screeching halt (the sound of the DJ stopping a record comes to mind), and that’s it. No mention of culture or anything like it. Nothing about their parents, where they’re from, how large or small their family is, what language they speak, specialty foods, nada… Nada damn thing.
My own theory is that this is a result of the black American experience, and the poor history behind it. So it’s hard to be proud of your culture if you think the roots of them are bad. I think it’s time to change that and start a celebration, to start to see the GOOD and talk about it that way, rather than throwing sharp jabs and criticism back and forth (that’s not race relations, that’s BS)!
While this is a topic deserving of it’s own blog post (you could probably write a book on this alone), I think it relates to the article on Being White in Philly. People are different everywhere you go. You take the same person of color from Philly and take them to Atlanta, and they’ll be treated differently. That same person in Miami, again – totally different. My point is simple, I can sit here and say this without hesitation, that race relations are talked about differently depending on who you’re talking to, where you’re at, and where that person has been.
I think more people (white and of color) need to step out of Philly and see the rest of the country (and maybe the world), and come back to Philly and re-start the conversation, then and only then will that same conversation have more meaning. I personally treat everyone the same, black, white, tan,purple, it doesn’t matter to me. I open doors and smile for anyone who I come in contact with, I’m just a fan of man.
You can’t stare at the same four walls and see anything different. People need to get out and experience something new, to add to that conversation.
By Louis Wing