A regional Philadelphia magazine recently made national news with an article titled “Being White In Philadelphia.” I read it, and it seemed to me a rather timid piece of journalism. That some noncommittal but honest anecdotal musings in a second-rate publication could create such a stir tells you that not only is this country a long way from putting racial animosity behind it, it’s a long way from even wanting to.
The tsk-tsking in the media and the hysterical, sanctioning statement from Philly’s always candid but rarely on-point mayor (who is following Obama’s lead of wading into public discourse’s fleeting moments instead of actually governing the public) were all wildly out of proportion responses that must have been referencing some other article, because I couldn’t find anything in this meandering piece worthy of controversy, much less discussion. It appeared that everyone who came out in force against the magazine had simply taken one look at the cover and decided what it was about, so the gist of the criticism was all the same – white voices shouldn’t ever get to speak about blacks without a black counterpoint, and whites that want to talk about their experiences living in and around urban black neighborhoods should shut up now because they are just prejudiced people who are going to make blacks look bad.
At one point in the article, the white male writer confesses he goes out of his way to hold the door for his black neighbors, for fear that something as innocuous as letting a door close too fast on a stranger could be perceived as antagonistic or prejudiced to someone black. Blacks immediately pointed to this self-consciously polite behavior as condescending and prejudiced toward blacks, demonstrating more eloquently than the story itself could have hoped to the catch-22 of being white in Philadelphia – you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t so make damn sure not to say anything.
Being white in Philadelphia means you have to always be conscious of race while pretending it doesn’t matter, and regardless of your intentions, your outlook, or your behavior you will be called a racist at some point. Also, you are supposed to accept this demonization because your ancestors had the upper hand in this country for a couple hundred years. And no, you’re not allowed to talk about any of this because the mayor himself will ensure affirmative action rhetoric is enforced.
The author could have saved himself the trouble of composing an essay exploring whether or not whites can speak freely about matters of race (everyone already knows that the answer is no) if he’d just slapped the race-baiter-baiting title on the cover and written a 3-letter article: