Being [blank] in Philly: Finding the words to tell your story

     No matter what neighborhood you live in, or what your neighbors look like, sharing your story can be a doorway to understanding. (Images courtesy of

    No matter what neighborhood you live in, or what your neighbors look like, sharing your story can be a doorway to understanding. (Images courtesy of

    Talking openly about race and ethnicity is hard. Sharing personal stories is one way to help understand the world through someone else’s eyes. We invite you to tell a story about who you are, and what that’s like.

    This is the first in a series of essays about what it’s like to be you in Philadelphia. In an attempt to discuss issues of race and ethnicity respectfully and productively, we are inviting readers to share their stories with the NewsWorks audience.

    A few weeks ago at a museum event, someone interrupted a rather “cultural” conversation, to say to me, “Sorry. I don’t speak Spanish” — but I was speaking in English. It wasn’t even Spanglish, which I haven’t really mastered. I asked what she meant. She apologetically said, “I saw your name tag and just assumed that …”

    Another thing I get all the time: “Is that what Hispanics think?” How would I know? I am not the ambassador of all things Latino.

    Silly? Maybe. Hurtful? Often. Rare? Not really.

    But relevant? Oh, yes — if you add these experiences to the hundreds of thousands of other similar encounters that reveal the, for lack of better words, “American diversity disconnect” and our profound discomfort with “the other.”

    A few more stories? Kevin, a friend and engineering colleague, has told me about the many times someone is assigned to follow him when he goes browsing at a clothing store — not an unusual experience when “shopping while black.”

    There’s my neighbor Patrick, a teetotaler. But with an O’ in his last name, he is constantly asked about the best Irish beer, his recommendations for whiskey.

    And take Lisa, a third generation Asian-American, who is repeatedly asked “Where are you from?”

    “Philadelphia,” she says.

    “No, where are you really from?” and so on, in a dialogue that recalls the absurdity of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First.”

    It’s all around us

    In my years as a journalist and writer, I have found that talking openly about race and ethnicity, something that permeates every aspect of our lives in this city, is never easy. Most find it hard to avoid falling into anecdotes that can become generalities, oversimplification that turns into stereotype, and indifference that fosters prejudice.

    Try to think of a day in which race and ethnicity are not part of our regular dose of information, where retractions and apologies (sincere or not) do not pepper our media, flying around us at the speed of Twitter.

    What can be done to elevate the conversation and achieve some common understanding?

    Well, sharing personal stories in the presence of others is one avenue — not necessarily new but always enlightening. One group among the many engaged in Philadelphia’s racial narrative has been working with WHYY to bring together a place for civic conversation. NewCORE, New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity, was formed four years ago to show how storytelling can be used to help understand what the world looks like from behind someone else’s eyes.

    This collaboration led to an event hosted at WHYY last spring called “Being [blank] in Philly: Finding the words to tell your story,” an evening that yielded a wealth of stories and shared experiences as told by the participants.

    Common understanding through storytelling

    The experience can continue with you. We are inviting you to share a story about who you are — how the world has reacted to who you are — and how that got you to where you are today.

    Share your experiences, not necessarily your theories or assumptions. Tell us about daily life and the things, both annoying and rewarding, big or small, that you don’t usually express openly.

    There are two ways to participate: write to us or talk to us.

    Email your story of 700 words or less to Speak Easy, or contact me to go “on tape.”

    Our goal is to publish your stories on NewsWorks and leave them open for commentary and questions. The objective is not to dismiss or reject or rebut, but to listen and understand and learn.

    Let’s talk!

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