Coffee Rhetoric: Why "Being White in Philly" is Problematic

March 17, 2013

Why "Being White in Philly" is Problematic


Race.  The word alone prompts many to break out in a cold sweat, grit their teeth, immediately grow defensive or quickly change the subject. And while some people like to espouse the tenets of color-blindness and post-racialism (words I've personally grown to despise), I tend to steer clear of anyone who refuses to see my humanity and who brushes off the fact that black people still face inequities in this country. That some people (still) can’t even hold a productive discourse about racial politics or recognize that gender equality movements should be inter-sectional, yet will gleefully skip around singing about how wonderful and post-racial America is, stymies me. (To me) one of the key elements when having a worthwhile discussion about racial politics is listening. There always seems to be an inclination towards denying, tone policing, shaming, gas-lighting, silencing, and ‘othering’. And othering is among the ‘Race Deconstruction Don’ts’ Robert Huber employed when he penned his controversial piece about what it’s like “Being White in Philly” for Philadelphia magazine.


Huber didn't interview any black folks for this ‘dialogue’. He basically frames his presentation from behind (mostly anonymous) white lenses, some of which are filtered through a haze of racist, tone-argument heavy anecdotes about their interactions without or perceptions about black people. The premise of Robert Huber’s piece indicates that white people are mostly intimidated by participating in frank discussions about racial politics, because they’re ‘afraid’ of being thought of as racist (notwithstanding the fact that some are). Huber further surmises that discussions about race are usually one-dimensional and that we only hear stories from the black perspective.
Huber writes…
“…white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.”
Huber contends that he finds himself being “over polite” whenever he encounters a person of color, disingenuously performing courtesies like “holding the door too long”.


In his quest to glean insight about race relations from white people’s perspective, Huber spent time in the gentrified area of Fairmount where he found many middle-class white people eager to answer his questions about how race affects them. In one (of several) anecdotes, he encounters a Russian woman he refers to as Anna, who offered her views on what she believes is the problem with black people …
“On a warm Sunday in October, I buttonhole a woman I’ll call Anna, a tall, slim, dark-haired beauty from Moscow getting out of her BMW on an alley just south of Girard College. Anna goes to a local law school, works downtown at a law firm, and proceeds to let me have it when we start talking about race in her neighborhood.” 
“I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she [Anna] says. “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? I walk to work in Center City, black guys make compliments, ‘Hey beautiful. Hey sweetie.’ White people look but don’t make comments. … ”
Huber also ponders his conversation with a Fairmount widow he spoke with, yearns for the ability to be able to speak openly about race and someday escape the problems he sees among blacks in Philadelphia, and the concerns he has about his college-aged son residing in a questionable neighborhood…
“(…) Claire, the widow I talked to in Fairmount who was walking her terri-poos, doesn’t worry about saying the wrong thing in her neighborhood, about offending her black neighbors, because she’s confident of her own feelings when it comes to matters of race. But like many people, I yearn for much more: that I could feel the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about, say, not only my concerns for my son’s safety living around Temple, but how the inner city needs to get its act together. That 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. In fact, I would no more go there than I would stand out on the sidewalk some Saturday and ask a neighbor how much money he has in the bank. 
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.
Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?”
Huber undoubtedly thought he’d be offering something constructive to the contentious discourse on race when he conceived of the article, but he only seemed to reinforce the imperialistic attitudes and trepidation white people have towards having co-exist and share space with blacks.  His own doubts seem to illustrate how most white people only want to discuss race with blacks, if they’re able to control the dialogue. While I also wish that we could speak openly about race with one another, the reality is, black people speak with other black people about race, because there aren't that many safe spaces for us to openly express ourselves without being interrupted, patronized, or where white people will listen without looking to gas-light. We speak to one another first, because dissecting and find solutions within our own community, is essential to our well-being; white people seem to want to talk with other whites about race, because they want to freely be able criticize or deride blacks without being held accountable for their oppressive language, yet will expect to be fully embraced as allies.


Since Huber’s article went viral there have been a slew of people who found his piece problematic, including his own friends and colleagues. In a scathing missive, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called the piece a “pathetic, uninformed essay” and asked the city’s Human Relations Commission to reprimand the magazine and Robert Huber, much to the dismay of Philadelphia Magazine’s editor Tom McGrath, who acknowledged (to TheGrio) that the article was flawed. The commission’s executive director stood behind Mayor Nutter’s critique however, commenting, “The commissioners and I share the concerns of the mayor regarding the racial insensitivity and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes portrayed in the Philadelphia Magazine piece.”  On Monday, Tom McGrath will moderate a panel discussion at the National Constitution Center about the issues Huber’s piece provoked.

Philadelphia organizers decided to take somewhat of a different approach to addressing Huber’s article, and plan to set-up a March 20th event in Love Park called “Being in Philly”, to offer another view of what’s actually happening in the city. -- “The goal is to have an intellectual dialogue and discourse that promotes a positive outcome and interactive cultural understanding”, lead organizer Chris Norris told Philly.com columnist  Jenice Armstrong.

Norris also expressed hope that Robert Huber would make an event appearance to have his fears allayed, so he can be shown around and introduced to the black-run organizations, that do city outreach and work to change the narrative Huber’s article seemed to perpetuate about black people, as well as “intellectual Black men waiting with open arms to embrace him…”

As well-meaning as ‘Being in Philly’ sounds, I find the event’s main goal problematic in a, “See Mr. Huber? These are the good, smart Negroes. They don’t bite; they’re not like the scary blacks in your article way.  Having an event where black people have to prove their worth and implore white residents (and Huber) to recognize their humanity, is not an intellectual dialogue that promotes cultural understanding.  And it, once again, places the onus of starting such conversations and to teach, on black people.

Good, bad, and ugly; listening to other people offer their views about race relations, from the opposite end of the spectrum, are part of the reality of this dialogue, and that's the one thing Huber's piece prompted. It’s a conversation that will remain riddled with tension and uncomfortable revelations. But Huber and Philadelphia Magazine trying to pass “Being White in Philly” off as a constructive and comprehensive contribution to the dialogue is bull. Particularly since it fails to raise awareness and is nothing more than a provocative and incendiary piece that reinforces the stereotypical ideas many whites harbor about blacks, that further divides the city.  And just for the record 'Anna', white men do engage in verbal street harassment... I know this from personal experience.