How to risk a braver conversation about race in Philly

Two scenes from a diverse city:

A Protestant minister with a doctoral degree walks into a Center City store. After staring for a minute, a clerk comes up and asks, “Will you be buying anything today?”

The minister, of course, is black.

A young woman from the Northeast walks into a bodega in Frankford. The store clerk, assuming from her skin that she is Latina, addresses her in Spanish. She explains that, no, she’s half Japanese. A friendly exchange ensues; she becomes a regular at the bodega.

Which story typifies the city of Philadelphia?

The answer, clearly, is both. It is a city diverse, divided and wary, full of scars and unfriendly assumptions. It is a city diverse and increasingly OK with that, particularly among its rising generations, for whom mixed marriages are unremarkable, barely worth noting.

No one article or event can capture the subtle nuances and slow-motion shifts that arise as a diverse city struggles to embrace all that it is.

The now-notorious Philadelphia Magazine cover story, “Being White in Philly,” surely missed a lot of nuance. It didn’t enrage me as much as it did some of my friends, but it was clearly a misfire.

A few days after it came out, some colleagues from NewCORE called me, asking: “What can we do to promote a better conversation?”

NewCORE stands for New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity. For four years this motley, interfaith group has been gathering to attempt the difficult conversations in a new way.

We concluded our best move would be to model publicly the NewCORE way of delving into the double helix of race. What is that way? You start with stories, personal stories; you leave aside embedded grievances and polished polemic. You strive just to listen to another’s story, and to respond in ways that seek to understand, not rebut or reject.

It’s patient work. It doesn’t produce miracles or six-point agendas.

What it does offer are little flares of insight and empathy; touchstones for navigating a diverse world.

Tuesday night, here at WHYY, NewCore will provide a glimpse of how this approach works. The evening is called “Being (Blank) in Philly?” Blank as in fill in the blank, with whoever you are.

A few brave volunteers, including Rob Wonderling of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and Michelle Freeman of Flying Kite Media, will tell their stories about being who they are in Philly. You are invited to listen, even to follow suit if the spirit moves you.

I’ll try to moderate the proceedings. I’m eager. I’m scared. I hope to see you there.

If you’re interested in attending or learning more about the event, go to

To respond, comment below, or go on Twitter (@chrissatullo) or email


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