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

by Jamilah Lemieux, March 6, 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 if the increased visibility of non-heterosexual, White male leadership wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the ever-growing population of Latinos and the ever growing influence on national and local elections that comes with them. ¡Ay dios mío!

Huber isn’t a KKK-sympathizer in the deep South, but his essay deeply reflects the “real American” panic that comes from deeply-engrained notions of White supremacy that are frustrated when one becomes a minority. It’s all well and fine to move to that hip “new” emergent urban community, with the relatively affordable rents, trendy organic markets and yoga studios… until you gotta deal with the Black and poor people who still live there.

Gentrification provides new urban dwellers the opportunity to learn so much about what American racism actually looks and feels like, and there are those who have gained greater understanding about the plight of poor people of color by living amongst them. Some folks are deeply impacted by this knowledge, while others could care less and just count the days until the ’hood is less dense with its original inhabitants. I can make a pretty easy guess at which category Huber falls into.

The writer may need to graduate from holding the door at the local Wawa to giving out free hoagies and milkshakes, as I cannot imagine any Black Philadelphia resident feeling too warm and fuzzy about his desire to start some cross-racial conversations. In the meantime, I hope he’s read the words of his White brethren who have dragged his work for the filth that it is across a number of local-based websites, including two responses on Philadelphia’s own blog (here and here) and a great takedown by the Philadelphia City Paper. All were written by White dudes, so I’m hoping that Huber can hear what they had to say.

No need to launch a petition against a publication that you probably don’t read regularly in the first place. Take Huber’s piece for what it is: a reminder of what contemporary racism so often looks like. Polite, discreet, even timid. Instead of reflecting on how profound the effects of structural racism can be, Huber toasts White “urban pioneers” (including a mom who dared to send her kindergartner to a good school with a largely Black population and rallies other White parents to follow suit), sympathizes with parents who complain about giving Halloween candy to poor Black kids who “come barely dressed up” and laments how badly he wishes he “could feel the freedom to speak to [his] African-American neighbors… about how the inner city needs to get its act together.”

Now that’s “real American” attitude, is it not?

Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com.

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