Being White (and Racist) in Philly

Being White (and Racist) in Philly

Jamilah Lemieux looks at a controversial Philadelphia Magazine piece that examines the plight of the White urban dweller

Jamilah Lemieux

by Jamilah Lemieux, March 06, 2013

Being White (and Racist) in Philly

In a rapidly gentrifying city, race is a major issue...just not in the way Robert Huber seems to believe. 

Due to the widespread refusal of Whites to address, acknowledge or even comprehend the persistence of racism, there is often an absence of White voices saying much about race… unless it’s along the lines of “We’re over it! It’s not a big deal anymore! Why are you people so mad, get over it? Slavery was, what, 800 years ago?”

A new story in Philadelphia Magazine is set to change that, baby. Who said Mumia Abu Jamal could be Philly’s only “voice of the voiceless”? Writer Robert Huber is finally here to provide White people the opportunity to have their say. From “Being White in Philly” (emphasis mine):

“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.

“Everyone might have a race story, but few Whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.” 

You see, for Huber, the real tragedy of Philadelphia’s race problem is not the systemic racism that has funneled his Black neighbors into the prison industrial complex, populated broken schools, generational poverty and early death… it’s the inability of the city’s Whites to be heard. Oh, and he awkwardly holds the door for Black people at Wawa so they don’t think he’s a racist. The struggle is real.

My first instinct upon reading “White in Philly” was to slam my head against my desk. My second was to fire off a takedown explaining why it was racist and terrible. Alas, I figured that lots of folks would be speaking directly to Huber in response to his piece and I didn’t feel the need to write a piece “to” him for a Black audience. What is the takeaway for me and mine?

In fact, someone is reading this right now and asking why I even acknowledged him and why focus on “negativity” at all. Well, as much as I hated Huber’s White guilt/entitlement manifesto, I think it serves as a valuable reminder about the state of race in the country, particularly in urban, segregated-but-gentrifying areas.

For those of us who live in largely liberal, Northern cities, it's often easy to dismiss blatant racism as a Southern problem. We know it's lurking rural Mississippi (where the trees still have “blood at the leaves, blood at the root”), marching with the KKK in Memphis and informing the “papers, please” policies of Arizona. We may acknowledge the local police departments as being populated by bigots, but for some reason many of us seem to think that the folks who hold the door for us at local convenience stores (seriously, Robert?) are somehow above it all. 

I'm not suggesting that every White person you meet in line at the local corner store is an evil closet racist. I have White friends! My doctor is White! However, it is important to understand that racism is a virus that infects everything it touches. While people of color may be hurt by systemic racism, those who are privileged by our country’s racial hierarchy often have a skewed sense of entitlement and self-worth stemming from the notion that the world belongs to them and rightfully so, at that.

And that’s how you get Robert Huber—not a 19-year-old aspiring scribe, mind you, but the parent of a college student—who can look at the cultural landscape of Philadelphia, survey the structural and social disparities that impact the city’s primarily-Black population and say, in 3,000 words: “DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO LIVE AMONG THESE BLACKS? I’M HOLDING THE DOOR AT WAWA AND SH*T TRYING TO PROVE HOW NOT RACIST I AM, BUT THEY ARE MAKING IT REALLY HARD!” 

A major theme in post 2008-election America has been the concept of “Real Americans” who want their country back. Back from whom? The half of the country who elected Barack Hussein Obama decisively not once, but twice? No, silly! From the ni**er in the White House who stole his way in because that’s what ni**ers do. We steal (this comes up on page three of “White in Philly” via a curmudgeonly old White man named John, whose racism and casual use of the phrase “ni**er boy” is dismissed as old-timey and reactionary); and

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