What Should Being Black in Philly Look Like? It Shouldn’t Be a Choice Between Facing Racism or Transphobia

Roberto Thornton on the need for Philadelphia to be welcoming of all.

Roberto Thornton

Investment operations analyst Roberto Thornton.

Roberto Thornton, 31, of Southwest Philly, is an investment operations analyst.

I drew a blank when thinking of what being Black in Philly should look like, because it’s easy to feel invisible when you’re Black and transgender. It’s hard to envision yourself in a place that isn’t created for you. I want to see myself equitably represented in all the pillars that make up a Philly. Being Black in Philly should look like my entire human needs being met, meaning physiological and safety needs, social and esteem needs, and self-fulfillment needs. I want to be living and thriving in Philly.

I want to be safe among white and Black people in any part of the city that I choose to live in or visit. I don’t want to choose between facing racism or transphobia. The sight of a cop shouldn’t send me into an anxiety attack. I carry my old ID card with my dead name and gender because I don’t trust what will happen during a police encounter. Will I be subject to physical violence because of the color of my skin? I want to throw my old ID card away and never feel the need to explain my gender identity to an officer.

Navigating the health-care system feels like a daunting task. I always look for a health-care provider who is trans-affirming and Black; I always end up with one out of two or neither. I shouldn’t have to depend on an underground list of health-care providers who won’t discriminate against me. I stick with the same barber and try not to visit new shops, out of fear of a hateful experience. I found myself in a heated transphobic argument the last time I went to another barber. I walked out of the shop with my beard half shaven because I refused to subject myself to toxic comments. Going to a Black barbershop in Philly should be a moment of self-care, not torment. Some days, I want to dine in Center City; other days, I want to stay local. Whether I am in Center City or in Southwest Philly, I want quality food options offered by Black entrepreneurs. A nice restaurant shouldn’t mean being served by a Black staff in a white-owned establishment located in Center City or a gentrified neighborhood.

I used to work in a bank in Southwest Philly and noticed relationship banking for Black people only consisted of check-­cashing. I want to see community reinvestment by banks, creating property and business ownership for people who look like me. No more schemes giving Black people false hope of entrepreneurial success. Instead, Black people would be given the tools and resources needed to create products and services that will fulfill our community.

I want to have a seat at the table based on my value and not optics. I don’t want to decline professional opportunities out of fear of being a token. I want to be supported and celebrated for more than being able to navigate in a city where both transphobia and racism exist.

Published as “It Should Be Welcoming of All” in the What Should Being Black in Philly Look Like? feature in the August 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.