What Still Remains Left Unsaid about “Being White in Philly”: An Open Letter to Robert Huber

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So……the above image is the cover of the most recent edition of Philadelphia Magazine. An aesthetically bold cover–the juxtaposition of colors absolutely catches your eye. And that most likely happens before you even read the words: Being White in Philly. (I will suggest that you first read/skim Huber’s article before reading my critique and open letter to provide some context for both the writer and for my analysis.)

In many, many ways “these kinds of stories” are not new. I’m sure that some of you reading this may in fact be asking, “Why?!” “What’s the point? Why pick apart the same story again?” Well, to that I push back and argue that these stories cannot simply be written off as being “the same.” That [nearly] every time a mainstream story exhibits familiar characteristics, images, and messages about race (and class, geographic location, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.), it gets labeled and shrugged off as another version of the same narrative about the persistance of racism in this country. What happens then is that we move on instead of digging deeper and in doing so we fail to recognize how and why these stories are in fact not identical; and as a result, we (largely unknowingly) continue to condone behaviors, actions, and aspects of our culture and our daily lives that allow inequalities to persist (I will touch on this in more detail below).

As with most topics that I choose to write about, this one is no exception. The issue–talking about race–is complicated. It’s tense. It’s uncomfortable. While at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education, I took two courses: “Race, Class, and Equity in America,” and “Whiteness: Counseling & Educational Perspectives.” A larger explanation about how these courses helped to fundamentally reorient me, my social identity, and my critical framework is warranted, but for the sake of scope, I will just mention one seminal text that I read and used extensively in both courses: Mica Pollock’s Colormute. Her book, an ethnographic account of race relations among students and teachers at a California high school (summary of the work can be found via the link posted above), provides illustrations of how and why people in the United States do not know how to talk effectively and productively about race. She argues that it is not about needing to discuss race on a more frequent basis (in fact, she notes that we sometimes need to talk about race less often); rather, it is about knowing how to talk about race more skillfully. An inherent precursor for this work, however, is that individuals must first understand how aspects of their social identities, also referred to as one’s “positionality“–their race, gender, class, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc.–intersect and influence how one sees themselves, others, and the world around them.

The Philly Mag piece, written by a middle-aged, middle- to upper-middle class, White male, aims to provide a space and sounding board for white people in Philadelphia to talk about race. The subtitle of the piece reads, “Whites, Race, Class & the Things That Never Get Said.” Well, when described like that, GREAT! This is a topic I think about and work towards every day and I adamantly agree that White people should be talking about race, especially in urban areas. Yet, from the very beginning, the article reinforces and exacerbates stereotypes of both Black and White people and falls substantially and problematically short of breaking any new ground around the issue of what Pollock terms, race talk. 

Wanting to be conscious of my own methods of race talk, it took more than a week of mulling over my reactions, and how I might attempt to convey them to my readers in a fashion that would engage people, not put them on the defensive, before I was able to sit down and write. This post has been particularly challenging for me because Huber’s essay is not straight up, cut-and-dry, unknowingly-white-privilege-infused “racist.” There are a handful (maybe two handfuls) of nuanced instances where Huber acknowledges his own and his subjects’ problematic thoughts, comments, and actions. But it is what he doesor rather does not do, with his findings and his analyses that I find troubling, problematic and worthy of the time and energy I have spent formulating my thoughts and writing a response.

So without further ado, my open letter to the author of this article:

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Dear Mr. Huber,

I must admit, the cover of Philadelphia Magazine stopped me dead in my tracks as I walked past a newsstand in 30th Street Station last week, mostly because I have wrestled with the experience of “being White in Philly” for the last few years. I grew up in New York City, on the lower west side of Manhattan. I come from a socioeconomically privileged, White family. I have always taken great pride in the demographics of the neighborhood that I grew up in–it prided itself on having the second highest gay population in the city, and while I lived in a townhouse on a tree-lined street, there were low-income government housing projects 3 blocks north and south of me. The racial and socioeconomic diversity in my neighborhood was “normal” to me growing up. And while I did not begin to recognize and interrogate the embedded privilege in my upbringing–my ability to choose if and when to think about how the people in the projects lived; the high access to educational and cultural opportunities; always having options and a sense of security–until I was in my mid-20s, I knew from an early age that having this exposure was important. Again, I didn’t really know why until many years later, but the reason I bring this up is because despite growing up in one of the most racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse cities in the country, it was not until I moved to Philadelphia in 2009 that I was truly made aware of the color of my skin.

I lived in Center City, attended UPenn in West Philly for a year-long master’s program, and then worked at Temple University in Northeast Philadelphia the following year. I know Philadelphia well. And I love the city. But truth be told it was  an adjustment. It was surprising and challenging when I was more often than not in the racial minority amongst passengers riding the bus down Walnut Street to Penn or taking the Broad Street subway line to Temple. I use “minority” to refer not only to the number of other White people on the bus or train, but also to refer to the reactions of people of color towards me (presumably because of the color of my skin). I often felt like I didn’t belong, like I was imposing in someone else’s space. While this may sound ignorant, I say it purposefully to recognize and highlight the fact that I was experiencing these feelings for the first time in my mid-20s when many people of color live these realities on an everyday basis throughout their lives; it was an incredibly privileged and warped realization. Philadelphia has a rich, fascinating history saturated with social activism, civil rights movements, and race relations; yet, the city remains incredibly racially and socioeconomically divided segregated. So, Mr. Huber, I understand why you might have been compelled to provide white people with an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings on the topics typically touted as “minority” issues.

However, while you may have had the most altruistic and honorable intentions in writing this piece, I am afraid that your approach and analyses are flawed in detrimental ways that in fact reinforce the hierarchically racialized aspects of many of the issues that you are working to untangle.

Reinforcing “Us” and “Them“: In attempts to convey an alternative and what you feel to be an underrepresented set of perspectives on the issue of race in Philly, you chose to interview nearly a dozen White people. This decision in and of itself is understandable but it is the lack of any critical analysis or explanation following your sources’ comments that I felt discredited you and your intentions for this piece. There are instances throughout the essay where you position yourself and your White sources in a way that “others” the Black people of Philadelphia (as if they are a singular, homogenous group). For example, you cite young woman, “Anna,” from Russia who is in Philly for law school. You say that she “lets you have it” when you ask her about race in her neighborhood, Fairmount:

“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?”

Your only explanation for these sentiments is that “If you’re not an American, the absence of a historical filter results in a raw view focused strictly on the here and now.” Not only do you shallowly interrogate the reasons for her response, you give her an ‘out’ for being explicitly racist by virtue of the fact that she doesn’t have the historical context and therefore the sociocultural ‘guilt’ (?) that Americans presumably do–have you been to the deep south recently? Lastly, I’d be curious if she identified herself as White or if that was how you were reading her based on skin color? Just wondering for the sake of your story’s consistency.

In his renowned book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, critical education theorist, Paolo Freire (1970) discusses the nature of oppression, the notion that there is a dichotomous distinction and hierarchical relationship that exists between the “oppressor(s)” and the “oppressed” in society. The oppressor(s), those in the social majority (in terms of power, often associated with skin color), impose a particular ‘worldview’ onto society that reinforces and justifies power dynamics, and in turn makes the oppressed less visible and more silenced. The silence is regarded as complicity and allows the oppressors to continue operating  in a privileged fashion, which not only reinforces but normalizes this notion of “us” and “them.”

Reinforcing Stereotypes & the Difference Between Observation and Interpretation: There are a few instances throughout your piece in which you apply your interpretation on to something that you observe. While this may very well be thought of as human nature, it is a problem. At the very beginning of your essay you write,    

“Driving up Broad Street as I head home to Mount Airy…[I] look over to 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…”

You divulge early on that your son goes to Temple University and that you live in Mount Airy, so it can be assumed that you are relatively familiar with Northeast Philly and that you therefore see many stereotypical representations of people of color in that area on a regular basis. The part that I take issue with is your lack of awareness and/or regard for the space in which you are writing and the assumptions that you are making about the audience whom you are writing for. You place an unfounded interpretation onto this house, and you read identities and experiences onto children that may not even exist. As a result of your interpretation, you silence the experiences and the voices of the people in houses like that, in neighborhoods that are run down (due to years of institutionalized racism and subsequent failing social systems) and you fuel the fire of how society sees and thinks about “urban America,” which is largely promulgated through representations in mainstream media.

Reinforcing White Privilege & “Colormute-ness”: Throughout your essay, you express your own feelings and those of the White people who you interviewed about how it is easier to not think about race or talk about it.

“…I could take the leap of talking about something that might seem to be about race with black people. I wouldn’t do that, though, because it feels too risky.”

“…when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape. Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?”

“No,” Paul says. “It’s easier to put it out of your mind and not think about it. The truth is kind of a dark thing.”

Granted, I am not saying that you should already know how to better and more effectively talk about race, but these excerpts are incredibly powerful examples of the ease with which White people can choose if and when to talk about race; if and when to “deal” with it. These examples convey the need for White people to not only learn how to talk about race, but first to understand that they are raced beings (as raced as any person of color is). Different skin colors translate into very different experiences and White people have to participate in conversations that are traditionally thought to be topics that only people of color can and have to discuss. I wish that you had engaged in some social identity work of your own before writing this piece, but I am also not surprised at all that you did not, because you most likely had no idea how what you were writing about was going to come across differently to different populations. But I still have to wonder how your lens and approach might have changed after learning a bit more about your own racial identity?

Towards the end of the article, you are talking to Jen, a mom of 2 boys who lives with her family in Mount Vernon, and the only one of your interviewees who seems to even be remotely aware of her social identity and the racial politics associated with living in Philly. You say:

“I’d told her about driving up North Broad Street and how miserable I believe living there must be. There’s a certain arrogance in my judgment, Jen is telling me. I might not know what people are truly experiencing…”

Jen goes on to give you ‘advice’ on how to think about and talk to Black people: “…engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them.” To which you respond, “It’s good advice. Because she’s right–the gulf is so wide and there is so much we don’t know about each other.”

This is the closest you come to ‘naming’ your perspective and positionality. And you show some vulnerability in acknowledging the fear that you feel in even approaching the subject of “race” with people of color. This is a common reaction, but it is increasingly becoming less of an excuse. There are too many resources, too many forums, too many conversations and too many research projects out there that are just a click of a button or a Google search away to use the excuse that these conversations are “too risky” to have.

There are other aspects of this article that I could address working to untangle them in my own ways, but I will stop here. I think the three motifs that I have identified are broad enough to lend themselves to the remaining components not discussed.

There is much work to be done, and I thank you for broaching this topic and allowing other conversations to spur from it. Let’s work to be informed, to be aware, and to the push these discussions into unchartered (or at least less-chartered) spaces that will allow us to talk about topics and perspectives often left “unsaid.”

Sincerely,

Emily Bailin