It is a piece that’s three weeks old, but in the online world, that doesn’t matter. Philadelphia Magazine’s “Being White in Philly” piece has caused extremely strong emotions. As of this posting, the Robert Huber piece, which attempts to describe the experiences of white residents in the city’s racially-mixed neighborhoods, has gone viral on Facebook with over 14,000 likes and has gotten over 5,300 comments on the magazine’s website. Last night, Huber and the magazine’s editor Tom McGrath were roundly criticized for the piece at forum hosted by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Even Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter reacted last week:
Nutter claimed the article had a “disgusting tone” and criticized its “collection of disparaging beliefs and negative stereotypes.” He also claimed the story “used isolated negative experiences” and made “generalizations” to portray African Americans as lazy, irresponsible and criminal. Nutter requested that the city’s Commission on Human Relations conduct an “inquiry” into the state of racial issues in Philadelphia.
The reason is simple. In an attempt to discuss racism honestly and getting to the reasons as to why this idea of a post-racial society is still a farce, it fails miserably. Who thought that writing a piece like would be a good idea? Was it McGrath? And what about the feeling that Huber exhibits in the piece: being white means privilege, intelligence and being a savior, but being of color means threat and fear. Indeed racism has become more subtle, and because of that, harder to eliminate.
Here is just one part of Huber’s central thesis:
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.
That is the problem, and no wonder Huber is feeling the heat. This isn’t about discussing about racism in public, it is more about looking as to the reasons why we are were we are. Huber comes across as this concerned person who in fact is bemoaning the loss of another “safer” (read “white”) community. One post, On Liberal Racism: A Response to ‘Being White In Philly’, said it best:
Robert Huber’s front page Philadelphia Magazine article entitled ‘Being White In Philly’ says a lot about the values and sensibilities of the bourgeois press in this city. Some might wonder how such a spiteful and ugly article made its way not only through the editing process but onto the very front page of a “prestigious” Philadelphia magazine. We should, however, not be surprised by this. We must recognize that this article fits perfectly into a pattern of color-blind racism which has become the dominant form of racism in our so-called post racial society.
Huber claims that “white people never talk about it” – the “it” being race. Will simply talking about race solve deeply entrenched social problems? Of course not, but in actuality, white people are in fact already engaging in tough and necessary conversations about race amongst themselves and with people of color as well. Those who are having these conversations usually understand that the issues often attributed to culture and superficial physical characteristics have more to do with class and power dynamics, something Huber totally fails to grasp. Despite his claim, thoughtful discussions on this topic are taking place all the time, but because they do not seem to be occurring in his social circles we’re meant to believe that these conversations are not happening at all.
‘Being White In Philly’ begins on a decidedly sour note which sets the tone for the entire piece. Huber uses the opening paragraph to bemoan the “dangerous” and “predominantly African-American” neighborhood near his son’s campus. He notices that there are “a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing” but he never asks the important question – “why?” What is being implied is that black people “milling around” is scary. In reality, Huber has no idea what those people were doing. White people socializing in groups is fine, but when black people living in poor neighborhoods do it, it’s scary. Granted, crime may be a problem in that neighborhood, but it’s all to easy to see the surface manifestations of problems and assign blame; if we’re serious about addressing problems we will look for their root causes.
An editorial from Philadelphia’s Al Día (“Being Other in Philly”) adds another dimension when it says:
[The piece] conflates race and criminality, which is bog standard racist and xenophobic fare. Horror stories of escalation of crime as white neighborhoods “change” has long been code for the “more-people-of-color-more-crime” mindset, and the efforts and desire to keep “the other” out. In an article about race from a white point of view, the focus on criminality serves only one purpose. It insulates the interviewees of charges of bias — because they’re reacting to crime, not race. Except, of course, that only white people in the neighborhood are interviewed. Because the article is about race not about crime. Got that?
The Gordian Knot Huber ties himself into when writing this piece just gets tighter and tighter as the piece progresses.
Even the most sympathetic of voices Huber allows in his piece ends up offering insult. A young mother asserts that getting to know your neighbors and your community is the most crucial aspect of building good relationships between races. In that, she echoes what community organizers of all races say. But then this: she is quoted as recalling a moment when she really connected with the neighborhood’s children at the swimming pool. Seeing her teaching her young child to swim makes the other young people in the pool engage with her, and later, model their actions to hers. Huber is so tone deaf he doesn’t recognize that he’s written this anecdote very much as a “white savior” moment — essentially when all the “motherless” children see what it is to have a mother in the pool with them and then model themselves on the nice white lady.
The offense in this Philadelphia Magazine piece was mostly directed at African Americans, but we stand beside them in condemning it for reinforcing notions of people of color as the scary “other.” As journalists we call out Huber for shoddy journalism, and McGrath for his unadulterated hubris in thinking of opening up this discussion with only white voices.
However, it seems Huber has his supporters, as a quick sampling of the magazine’s website shows comments such as these:
the reason comments are being deleted on here is because this site is run by bigoted racist who can’t tolerate that white people are fed up with blacks who are mired in poverty because they refuse to get off the public dole…..they deleted my remarks because they can’t tolerate and differences of opinion and this site is run by the Huffington Post….that says it all…
The claim the blacks can’t be racist because they “have no power” has been one of the worst influences on race relations out there. No one lives in the “big statistical picture” when you are being victimized by racism. When a school kid is being beat up or bullied because he’s white in a largely black school who has the power there? Blacks have to except white criticism without being so defensive and turning it back on whites. We all have to listen to each other and have empathy if we ever plan on getting past race. Whites will have to speak up for themselves and their point of view or nothing will ever change.
Am I allowed to say even that?
Well, it seems you have your answer, with the recent two day inquisition you’ve been subjected to.
I finally came over here to read this article in full after reading about that outrage, and I am appalled by how tame it is, how solicitous it is of the collective black sensibility you’ve nonetheless outraged.
Does Mayor Nutter think the black flash-mob riots he denounced two summers ago are anomalous eruptions from an otherwise peaceful background?
Don’t take any crap from this fool.
We have a long way to go, people. Pieces like “Being White in Philly” do little to help us all advance.