Being White in Philly

Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.

My younger son goes to Temple, where he’s a sophomore. This year he’s living in an apartment with two friends at 19th and Diamond, just a few blocks from campus. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. Whenever I go see Nick, I get antsy and wonder what I was thinking, allowing him to rent there.

One day, before I pick him up for lunch, I stop to talk to a cop who’s parked a block away from Nick’s apartment.

“Is he already enrolled for classes?” the cop says when I point out where my son lives.

Well, given that it’s December, I think so. But his message is clear: Bad idea, this neighborhood. A lot of burglaries and robberies. Temple students are prime prey, the cop says.

Later, driving up Broad Street as I head home to Mount Airy, I stop at a light just north of Lycoming and look over at 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. Plenty of children in Philadelphia live in places like that. Plenty live on Diamond, where my son rents, where there always seem to be a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing, where it’s clearly not a safe place to be.

I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.

At the same time, 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.

Take a young woman I’ll call Susan, whom I met recently. She lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova and Facebooked all the class members she could find, “wondering if you happened to pick it up or know who did.” No one had it. There was one black student in the class, whom I’ll call Carol, who responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!”

Susan assured her that she had Facebooked the whole class. Carol wrote: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them.”

After that, when their paths crossed at school, Carol would avoid eye contact with Susan, wordless. What did I do? Susan wondered. The only explanation she could think of was Vanilla-nova—the old joke about the school’s distinct lack of color, its perceived lack of welcome to African-Americans. Susan started making an effort to say hello when she saw Carol, and eventually they acted as if nothing had happened. The BlackBerry incident—it probably goes without saying—was never discussed.

Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy.”

The student went home and told his stepfather. The stepfather demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist; the principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.

Confusion, misread intentions, bruised feelings—everyone has not only a race story, but a thousand examples of trying to sort through our uneasiness on levels large and trivial. I do, too. My rowhouse in Mount Airy is on a mostly African-American block; it’s middle-class and friendly—in fact, it’s the friendliest street my family has ever lived on, with block parties and a spirit of watching out for each other. Whether a neighbor is black or white seems to be of no consequence whatsoever.

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s. A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.

On one level, such self-consciousness and hypersensitivity can be seen as progress when it comes to race, a sign of how much attitudes have shifted for the better, a symbol of our desire for things to be better. And yet, lately I’ve come to fear that the opposite might also be true: that our carefulness is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.

Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.

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.

A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. Formerly a working-class enclave of rowhomes, it’s now a gentrifying neighborhood with middle-class cachet and good restaurants. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.

Strangely enough, a number of them answered. Their stories bring home just how complicated white people’s negotiation with race and class is in this city, and how varied: Everyone does have a race story, it turns out, and every story is utterly unique.

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