It’s been about a week since I read “Being White in Philadelphia,” Bob Huber’s cover story in the March issue of Philadelphia magazine, and I’m still scratching my head. Like many readers, I was appalled by the piece, not just because of the racism it perpetuates, but also because of its abandonment of the level of journalism that I’ve come to expect from both the author and the publication.
Last Friday, the editorial staff of Philadelphia magazine assembled in a conference room for our monthly issue review, where we all sit around and yap about the latest magazine. These are normally lighthearted affairs where we nitpick details that most real readers probably never think about. People crack jokes. There could be beer and Cheetos, except there are not.
But this particular meeting was nothing like any of those meetings that I’ve attended over my decade at the magazine. One of my colleagues was moved to tears while discussing his strong feelings about the story. Others, too, expressed their contempt for the piece, while the author and the two senior editors offered their perspectives. I stated that while I’m normally happy to defend the magazine I work for when friends or peers attack it (and believe me, this happens a lot), in this case, I could not. Fortunately, I have not been expected to do so.
Lots of people have weighed in on “Being White in Philly.” The magazine is racist! Don’t read this article! Bob Huber is the worst person in the world! I get that sentiment, but I’m not really sure how constructive that path is. So much time has been spent demonizing the magazine and the author that maybe we’re ignoring the fact that race really is something worth talking about and, in this particular case, the magazine just failed miserably in doing so. And let’s move on.
Because race really is a complicated subject, as I’ve discovered both in my personal life and in my writing for the Philly Post. And I find myself thinking about race—not class, not socioeconomic status, but race—all the time. Maybe by talking about it more, I think, I will get over my hang-ups.
I live in a predominantly black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. My one neighbor, a black Muslim, seems to wave to and smile at all of the black neighbors, but when I wave or smile or say hello, he doesn’t respond. This could be because he doesn’t like guys in glasses. But I’ve always assumed it’s because I’m a white dude. He probably imagines that I listen to Dave Matthews and that I don’t like black people very much. Or at least that’s what I think every time I pull the car out and give him an unrequited acknowledgment. But this is just my racial hangup, I guess. And I have lots of them. We all do.
Another example. My kids, who are five and seven, go to a Philadelphia charter school whose student body is almost entirely black. They are the only non-black kids in their classes. Some of my white friends think I’m crazy to send my kids there.
I’m not trying to be some racial pioneer, mind you. It’s a good school, they are learning a lot, and I really don’t have anything to complain about. Well, except the fact that all of their friends are black. I don’t want all of my kids’ friends to be black. Just like I don’t want all of their friends to be white.
Is that wrong? Does it make me a racist? I don’t know. But I certainly feel like a racist when I broach the subject with my friends, white or black. I talk about it in hushed tones. Last week, a white acquaintance asked where my kids go to school. He was shocked at the demographics. “I guess I don’t really worry about it too much,” I told him. “Well maybe you should start worrying about it,” he advised, sounding disgusted with my lack of concern for my children’s futures.
The list goes on. Just yesterday, I went to reread “Being White in Philadelphia” on the trolley. Now, if you’ve never been on the trolley in Philadelphia, I should tell you that—depending on the route—I am usually the only white person riding. And so it was, yesterday, that I found myself holding a magazine emblazoned with “Being White in Philadelphia” while surrounded by black people. I tucked myself into a corner just so, hoping that no one would see what I was reading, should someone think that I’m a racist merely for reading an article with that title. And as I read it, I slowly realized that my back was to a window and that the words must be visible in the reflection. I looked around to make sure no one was reading the backwards words. I’m not kidding. This is me. I may be a racist, but I am most definitely neurotic about it all.
And no, all of this is not just in my head. I’ve certainly been told I’m a racist in the past, usually having something to do with my writing for the Philly Post. I frequently write about race or about stories that in some way involve race, whether it’s the local theater company staging a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with white slaves, the racism contained within the word “jazz” (no, seriously), or the time that a white Delaware County bar owner dropped the “n-word” to me within a few minutes of making my acquaintance.
But the story that generated the most heat for me personally was “White Guy Confronts Black Mom Beating Kids on SEPTA Trolley.” As you may have guessed, I was the white guy riding the SEPTA trolley, when I saw a mom physically (and verbally and emotionally) abusing her children. I intervened with words, and she spat in my face declaring, “That’s the problem with all you fucking white people.”
In the article, I explained that I was the only white person on the entire trolley, which probably contained about 20 passengers. And I wondered why no one else spoke up. “Is this some black thing that I just don’t understand?” I asked.
Shortly after I published that story, Philadelphia Tribune writer Bobbi Booker invited me on to a call-in show she was hosting on 900 WURD, the country’s only black-owned and -operated radio station. It was readily apparent that some of the callers thought I was a racist, although I can’t recall if anyone actually used that word. One elderly black woman who called in refused to address me directly, instead referring to me as “that Cau-cas-i-an.” People were upset.
I didn’t mind so much that people thought I was a racist, because in that particular case, I knew that I was right to intervene and to talk about the issue, and most of the black people I spoke with about it had my back, so to speak. But it’s a shame that for many, the real issue in the story—child abuse—got lost in an argument over what a white guy is allowed to say about the way that a black woman “parents” her child.
I’m not exactly sure what “Being White in Philadelphia” is going to change. The magazine will probably lose some subscribers and advertisers. Maybe it will gain some. Its alleged point was to start a conversation about race, although what it seems to have started is a conversation about how racist the magazine is, which is a different conversation altogether. And as for the conversation about race itself, well, I guess I am having it—at least in my own head—all the time.