White people don’t talk about race. So claimed journalist Bob Huber in his March Philadelphia Magazine cover story “Being White in Philly”.
If Huber wanted to start a conversation, he got his wish.
His piece has sparked national attention and thousands of online comments, and rebuttals from several fellow writers at the magazine. It spurred a scathing letter from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
This week the article triggered two filled-to-the-brim panel discussions in town. The first one took place at The National Constitution Center on Monday evening and featured four panelists along with Huber.
Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath moderated the discussion and greeted the audience with an apology.
“Many people who have read our story have clearly felt wounded by it, and to those people I’d like to say I’m sorry,” he said.
Plenty of criticism to go around
Some of the evening’s conversation focused on the specifics of Huber’s article, which takes readers to Fairmount, a well-to-do, mostly white neighborhood bordering predominantly black North Philadelphia. Huber spent several weeks visiting Fairmount, where he interviewed about 60 white people about their interactions with black people.
He explained that he wanted to explore “how white people relate to black people in the inner city, or don’t relate to them.”
Panelist Solomon Jones, a journalist and NewsWorks blogger, challenged the limited scope of Huber’s article. “Why go to one neighborhood and say, ‘Talk about the people across Girard Avenue?'” he asked Huber. “To me, that was offensive, because I grew up there. My grandmother was a block captain on 25th and Oxford.”
Panelist Farah Jimenez, who heads the social service agency People’s Emergency Shelter, said Huber’s article was not about race, it was about class. “This article was not about black white,” she said. “It was about blacks who are low-income, who are living across the street from a community that is now becoming gentrified.”
More criticism for Huber came from the audience.
“This is 2013, and we’re having this conversation,” said one man who said he recently returned to Philadelphia after working in New Orleans. “I’d like to know what were you thinking when you wrote this story. And you interviewed these people?”
Other people wanted to know why Huber allowed his sources to use first names only, and why he didn’t interview black people for the piece. Huber responded that he wanted people to feel comfortable and that he chose one neighborhood to represent a “slice of life” in the city.
Panelist Christopher Norris challenged Huber — and the audience — to broaden their assumptions. You will find what you are looking for, he said.
“If you’re at 19th and Diamond, and you are going to look for black and brown faces that are milling around doing nothing, you are going to find it,” said Norris. “But, at 19th and Diamond, if you are looking for black and brown faces that are exceeding in education and innovation, you are going to find it.”
The questions also touched on bigger issues — for example: Why is it so hard to talk about race?
Panelist Walter Palmer, who teaches courses on race at the University of Pennsylvania, said to talk about race means to air dirty laundry. “Black people talk about white people like a dog, behind your backs,” he said. “We can never have an honest conversation because everybody is trying so hard to jockey to [political correctness]. And I tell my students, check your PC at the door, I don’t want to hear it.”
Farah Jimenez said when people speak about race, those listening immediately assign an intent. “If I’m white and I’m going to say something, I’m afraid that you are going to assign a negative intent, and call me a racist,” she explained. “If I’m African American and I say something because I believe that I have experienced racism, I’m afraid that they are going to assign the intent to get over, or play the race card.”
A young audience member pointed out that race discussions tend to get very personal: “We go straight to the personal and put blame on people. When we put blame on the individual, we miss the bigger picture.”
Facing the Association of Black Journalists
The next evening Huber and McGrath addressed members of the Pennsylvania Association of Black Journalists at the offices of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. The discussion here was much more focused on the craft of journalism — and audience members criticized the magazine for not having a single black journalist on staff.
The tone and mood was far more charged.
“I’m so pissed off listening to this,” admitted Steven Collins, a talk show host at Radio One.
“I came today here for one answer and one answer only,” said Shalimar Blakely of the African American Chamber of Commerce. “We need a time line for when you will make your staff more diversified.”
She threatened to encourage advertisers to withdraw their money from the magazine if the staff remains mostly white.
Editor Tom McGrath promised to start featuring content written by black journalists in the next weeks.
Having survived long hours in the hot seat, Bob Huber seemed upbeat. “There were difficult moments in that discussion, but this is what it’s all about,” he said.
But will the conversation continue?
Not just black and white
Hopefully, says reverend Steve Lawrence with White Rock Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.
He is vice president of NewCORE, an abbreviation for “new conversation on race and ethnicity.” He says the civic conversation that group has been trying to nurture for several years is, first of all, not just about black and white.
“That’s not Philadelphia,” he said. “Philadelphia is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, interreligious.”
He said NewCORE has learned that the most productive conversations begin, not with positions or accusations, but with personal stories.
“By letting people tell their own story, there is really nothing to argue about. It’s their story,” he explained. “When you listen to their story, and accept their story as their understanding of reality, then it breaks down a barrier, and it begins to build a level of trust. Now people around the table are able to talk, and they are not going to be slammed.”
It’s hard work, and it’s hard to stay at the table, says Lawrence. A controversial article can get people mad, and can get them talking, but meaningful conversations take work: “We have too much of a history of hurting each other with our words to think we can just sit down in a room and start talking without some buffer zone, some training, without tearing each other up — because we know how to do that. We have done that for centuries.”
He says NewCORE has developed strategies for meaningful discussions that the group replicates all over the city.
“We really need to sit in a room, look each other in the eye, and make a decision to treat each other as human beings — and then begin to talk about something that’s very difficult to talk about,” he added.
Below, find a collection of tweets from Tuesday night’s forum with McGrath and Huber, hosted by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
There is also a summary of the Monday night panel.