I read an article the other day titled, “Being White in Philly” and I can say first hand that what the article talks about is real. The article talks about the different sections of Philadelphia and how race relations are between black and white citizens. It talks about how white people in Philadelphia feel they need to behave in order to live here. Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter didn’t like this article – but as the Mayor, I think he should have read it as a city leader and not just as a black man; not that it is fair to ask him to separate those two things but in a city divided – he needs to be able to do so in order to lead this city and look at it’s issues from where they come – race relations. Mayor Nutter is another subject worth writing about at some other time – talk about being caught in the middle. Anyway, let me explain my reasoning before everyone starts calling me a racist…
I have actually wanted to write about this since I moved here back in 2008. I have never experienced a place like Philadelphia. It isn’t just divided by black and white, but by black and black, white and white, and then everyone else. Philly is a culturally diverse place, but those cultures are completely separated from one another by economics, ethnicity, and culture. White Irish don’t associate with white Russians, middle/upper class blacks, don’t associate with the blacks from center city. Not only are there lines between races, there are lines between even members of the same race – with different values. Sure, every city does this to some extent, but Philadelphia is different; the people of Philadelphia willfully and purposefully segregate themselves from one another.
In just the five years I have lived here, I have watched how this city migrates. One neighborhood that used to be all Polish American, is now all black, and the Poles have moved to new neighborhoods. Whites are taking over parts of the city that have been black for some time, and those blacks are moving north. You see, instead of moving into neighborhoods and having it be a ‘melting pot’ and people just learning to live together, people just move and take over a new neighborhood. It’s like a cultural gangland.
Aside from that, there is real racism here. It is tangible. I have never been anyplace in the world where racism is so blatant and accepted. When I first started working in center city, I was AMAZED at how hard it was to make friends. I have never had a problem making friends of any color and finding people to hang out with. However, here in Philly, if you are white and start chatting it up with a black person – you need to prepare yourself; it is crazy if you aren’t from here and don’t understand it. I used to have long conversations with my black co-workers because I really didn’t understand why people hated me so much just for being there. The people I worked with were kind and patient with their conversations with me, and I believe they saw my questions for what they were – curiosity and an attempt to understand. It’s like in order to live here I need to pick a team and stick to it – except I don’t know what team I belong to. I know I’m not black so I can’t hang with them. I’m not Irish or Russian or Polish. I’m not Asian or Mexican. I’m just me and my skin is whiteish. Culturally, I don’t have a group to assign myself to, and until I moved here I never felt the need.
I will say that living here has opened my eyes to racism in a way that I am thankful for. I honestly never thought racism was so… well… real. I grew up in California – poor. So when you are poor, you get to live with everyone else who is poor – in our country, that translates to “culturally diverse” so as a kid- we were all just poor trailer trash, not black or white trailer trash. There was never a racial division (that I was aware of). My first experience with racism was when I joined the Army. Then though – it was more a molding of attitudes – getting people from all walks of life to work together. So while the black girls and the white girls in basic had some arguments when learning to live and work together, I never saw it as racism but as all of us being thrown together and forced to get to know each other and learn to work together. Again, I asked a lot of questions. I took stereotypes like watermelon and fried chicken and asked where they came from. Maybe I was nieve, maybe I still am, but I believe that asking questions and learning is the way to combat racism. I like when people ask me questions too – even if they seem offensive. I think we need to stop being offended by everything and just try to learn about and from one another. I am certainly a minority in this city and it isn’t because of my skin tone – it is my attitude.
I do now have a greater understanding of how it feels to be the only person of a certain race in an area dominated by a different race. It’s scary really. I went to a McDonald’s here in center city and I was the only white person there. I could feel people staring at me. I could feel them wondering, “What the hell is she doing here?” I was stared down, intimidated. People cut in front of me in line, and gave me that, “what are you going to do about it?” look. One person commented, “You’re in the wrong place Honey.” Really? McDonald’s in a mall is the wrong place for me to be? How so? I don’t understand. I wanted to have to conversation right there – but I was honestly too fearful to ask why being there was so bad for me. I was fearful getting some lunch. So I thought about it on my own, and I thought wow, this must be just a taste of how a black person must feel when they are the only one in a sea of white people and someone under their breath calls them names.
Philadelphia is toxic for race relations. Philadelphia is I think, an enigma. People should study this place because it is like no other place I have ever been and I have been to many places. I understand cities and having the poor “bad” neighborhoods that you stay away from. Every city has that to some extent. Philly though, that is what identifies this city – the separation of neighborhoods, cultures, and ethnicity’s. You aren’t from Philadelphia you are from Olney, or Fishtown, or the northeast. I say, “I live in the Northeast” and people assume white, Jewish, Irish, Russian, middle class. You hear “Olney” and assume black, African American, and poor. Your neighborhood along with your skin color dictates your values and the majority of people here are actually proud of that.
For Mayor Nutter to hate the article the way he does just speaks to how entrenched this attitude is in this city. Someone wrote about the attitudes of people in this city – and it was an accurate article from at least my point of view. It included everyone from the blatant racist attitude, to people like me who just don’t understand it all. There are problems here. It’s not the blacks fault, or the whites – it’s not that easy to define and blame. It is a city wide attitude that this city was built on and trying to break through that mentality even one person at a time has proved impossible for me. I am not from here at all – and so regardless of my skin tone – I don’t belong here and people have no issue telling me that. I do feel out of place when I go into the city because of my skin color. That article wasn’t horrible – it just pointed out what no one wants to talk about – but what everyone should be talking about. The way to change it is to talk about it. To make an effort to change it – but people here don’t want to change. People here are comfortable with their hate and segregation from one another. I don’t fit in here. I am too open minded for this city.
Living here in Philadelphia has opened my eyes to the realities of racism, and I for one can’t wait to leave this city. I really do hate it here. It is a land of negative energy and it comes from everyone. To just blame the blacks is completely unfair and leads to even worse race relations. Everyone has a bad attitude here and it is contagious. I went home to CA and visited one of my black friends and flat out said to him, “Thank God I get to spend some time with you so I can reset my racist meter.” We are just friends, our skin color has never been a question and never will be. We just think alike and love each other – weird huh? I need to spend time with my black friends intentionally just to reassure myself that the rest of the world isn’t as bad as it is here. To reassure myself that it isn’t my attitude that is wrong here – to ensure that I don’t become one of these racist people. It is work to constantly remind myself that the world isn’t Philadelphia. That every black person, or white person, or whatever person isn’t always hateful just for the sake of being hateful.
I started this website in part because I want to be able to have a place to have these conversations. I want people from anywhere who identify as anything to be able to talk openly about perceptions, stereotypes, and issues that are controversial but in a way that leads to understanding, and tolerance. I think we can make our world a better place. I think that through conversation and active tolerance of views that differ from our own can eventually erase some of this wanton hate and misunderstanding. That article was written to kind of intentionally pit black against white, but I am glad that article was written, even if people hate it, just because it got a conversation going that is long overdue.
Do you live in Philadelphia and have an opinion? Do you live in another city that is divided like Philly? I would love to hear about it. Please, if you comment – do so in a respectful manner.