Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Response to "Being White in Philly"

The worst kind of racism is the kind paved with the good intentions of well-meaning people.  Since the victories of the Civil Right era this more subtle and coercive form of racism has come to the fore. No more beatings, lynching, and whites-only water fountains, but racism still creeps on by burrowing itself into white guilt and shame and then re-emerges in articles like the one found in the Philadelphia Magazine this month.

Robert Huber’s article is essentially a series of anecdotes from middle-class white Americans living in and around the rapidly gentrifying Fairmount neighborhood in Philly. Fairmount sits next to the predominantly black and poor Brewerytown. Sadly, Huber interviews none of the people in Brewerytown because, as he explains: “What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color.” So, Huber’s work is supposed to remedy that by diving into the deep belly of white middle class life in order to get dandy anecdotes like this one Huber collects from a recent Russian immigrant, who works at a Philly law firm:

“I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she 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?
Philly Mag + Race Talk = Epic Fail

Now, one would expect truly appalling generalizations like this one to be challenged or at least given some proper contextualization from the author. “Well, of course, reader,” Huber might have wrote, “all black people are not lazy and sit around and smoke pot all day.” However, instead Huber rationalizes the women’s racism due to a lack of an “historical filter”. This freedom allows her to speak freely and openly about race. Unlike her American counterparts, Huber implies, she is unburden by political correctness. Huber would not necessarily say these things, but he wants the freedom to speak as openly. Quotes like this one and others throughout Huber’s article suggest that if only white folks were able to say how they really felt about race we would get somewhere. Is this really the type of candid conversation Huber wants to have?

Sadly it is.

Huber’s article is so offensive because its based on the misleading premise that white folk don’t talk about racism because black folk are too sensitive or that white folks are so afraid to bring race up among their black peers because they might be seen as racist or inadvertently say something racist. Huber, explains, that this is why he is so polite to black folk when he frequents the WAWA on Germantown Ave: “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.”

Of course there is truth to Huber’s concern that white folk don’t talk about race because they are afraid they are going to come across as ignorant or offensive. Of course I don’t miss the irony in all this as I’m criticizing his article. However, I’d suggest that his fear of talking about race has less to do with the response black folk have and more to do with his own feelings of guilt regarding the countries historical legacy of violent, overt, and subtle racism. Evidence of this is the entire lack of any historical contextualization in the article.

Huber laments that he wishes he felt the freedom to talk to his African American neighbors about the need for the inner-city “to get its act together”. Statements like this make sense in an article that portrays black people as criminals and simply assumes black criminality in other places. Huber collects another story from a Fairmount resident complaining that every Fall her pumpkin is stolen, flowerpots and trashcans disappear, and every once in a while a car window is smashed. Of course the assumption is that all these crimes are committed by black Americans. Huber bumps into some of Philly’s Finest who verify his assumption. Crimes large and small, the cops say, are committed mostly by black man from North Philly. The scariest thing about Huber’s article is that he never stops to ask why.


Why would it be that 50 percent of black kids in Philly don’t finish high school, why it is that black Americans have higher incarceration rates, why it is that black unemployment is higher than white joblessness? And because he doesn’t ask why. Because he doesn’t provide any historical contextualization, going unchallenged in every page of his article is the naturalization of innate black unintelligence, criminality, and shiftlessness.

There is hope, however. One of Huber respondents, Paul, offers up an answer to why Huber can’t interrogate what is really at the heart of his discomfort around talking about race.

Paul, a former architecture student, 3 years ago encountered a young 12 or 13 year old black boy in an alley who offered him OC. Oxytocin, a prescription drug often abused on colleges campuses. Paul declines. When thinking back to the incident with Huber, Paul, having been laid off himself once is sympathetic: “Paul understood that the guy had to find a way to get by”, Huber writes, “That he was struggling. That he had made an economic decision”.

Huber goes on to ask Paul if he ever thinks about the boy he met in the alley. “No,” Paul says. “It’s easier to put it out of your mind and not think about it. The truth is a kind of a dark thing.”

Yes. Because the truth is that Huber like many others are not really afraid to talk about racism because of what black folk might think, or because they might be thought of as racist if they say the wrong thing. The truth is most white folks don’t talk about racism because it brings forth feelings of guilt and shame. Black folk are not predetermined or born from the womb to be murderous, lazy, criminals. The condition of black people today is a direct results of government sanctioned neglect, discrimination, economic marginalization, mass incarceration, and a host of other systemically and institutionally racist apparatus.

Huber, however, doesn’t want to go there. It hurts too much to even consider the historical context. He doesn’t really want to talk about race. He’d rather just open up doors for black folk at WAWA.

This post previously appeared at Paranoid Musik Group. Check PMG every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday more discussion from Wordsmith of Hip Hop and black popular culture. Follow on twitter @WordsmithLesson.