Lessons Learned from “Being White in Philly”

Recently the Philadelphia Magazine found itself in the middle of a political avalanche resulting from the publishing of a story by writer Robert Huber entitled “Being White In Philly”. In short, many African Americans including our mayor, Michael Nutter, accused the magazine of “race-baiting”, perpetuating stereotypes about people of color and souring already fragile race relations within the city. Now let me be clear, (given our nation’s history) I think the media should exercise sensitivity when approaching a discussion surrounding racial relations. However, I also believe that the media can be a powerful tool in regards to generating dialogue about any topic, race included. There may have been a number of statements in the article that I found to be difficult to digest but, isn’t this usually the case when one is confronted with an uncomfortable or sensitive issue?  With that being said, on some levels I can appreciate this story and the lessons that can come out of it as follows:

  1. When discussing any delicate subject (especially race) tread carefully. Race has been a taboo topic for far too long. How can we move past something if we don’t talk about it? Sure, some feathers may get ruffled in the process but, I think the key is to remember to be sensitive to everyone’s historical and personal experiences and how someone’s experiences might impact their thoughts and feelings regarding race.
  1. Intelligent people can respectfully disagree. While I personally didn’t take to kindly to remarks in “Being White in Philly” such as “Blacks use skin color as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. ” or “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?” My educational experiences have taught me to not only examine what is being said but, to also examine the speaker. We can foster true understanding when we critically examine another person’s perspective. It’s always a good idea to reflect on who the speaker is and how the speaker’s perspective may have been shaped by his or her experience. In doing this, we may find that we still disagree but, at the very least we may “get” another person’s point of view. 
  1. When approaching a sensitive topic (try) to remove your emotions from the situation. I watched a clip of a roundtable conversation that was organized following the backlash from the article. While there were a number of valid questions raised, I found some of the commentary to be fueled by emotions. Some people seemed more upset about the Philadelphia Magazine’s hiring practices rather than the bigger issues at hand. You can check out the video clip here.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUb7uzSXbwk
  1. Most importantly, we ALL have to take responsibility. If we are ever to improve race relations in Philadelphia and nationwide, everyone has to do their part. It starts with having honest conversations in which people can reveal their true feelings surrounding race without fear of ridicule or landing in front of a political firing squad. Then maybe we can address some of the hopelessness and fear that is so painfully obvious on both sides.

The bottom line is that we can not move beyond the oppression and strained race relations that directly impact the hopelessness that surrounds so many people of color as highlighted in the Philadelphia Magazine if we don’t encourage more dialogue. Poverty, crime, poor education and the dismantling of our family structures can all be traced back to the ugliness of enslavement and the subsequent perpetuation of racism both overt and obscure.

Can we really move forward if we don’t begin to address this head on? Can we move forward if we discourage or persecute those who are brave enough to speak out whether they are black or white? How can we work through flawed or distorted perspectives if we do not hear them to begin with? After all, dialogue is a two-way street. It is a road we must walk down together.


Daninia A. Jordan


To read “Being White in Philly” click here: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/white-philly/

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