Being Racist in Philly

Here at Chez Happycrow, we are melanin-deficient (though I identify as Nerd-American: “my tribe” is those people who are interested in ideas and want to explore them, find them, talk about them, disseminate them).  So in theory, I’m supposed to feel sorry for all those poor white people in Philly who are oppressed by “expectations” and “Reverse Racism,” and all sorts of ugly words.

I don’t.  Because the fact is, Philly is messed up, and everything I’m reading here says the white people in this article are not the poor downtrodden oppressed, but a major contributor to the problem.

….white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.

And they seem to be going about it all the wrong way:

Take a young woman I’ll call Susan, whom I met recently. She lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova and Facebooked all the class members she could find, “wondering if you happened to pick it up or know who did.” No one had it. There was one black student in the class, whom I’ll call Carol, who responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!”

Susan assured her that she had Facebooked the whole class. Carol wrote: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them.”

After that, when their paths crossed at school, Carol would avoid eye contact with Susan, wordless. What did I do? Susan wondered.

I’ll tell Susan what she did.  She acted like an idiot who’s afraid of getting into an argument with a black chick.  What she should have said was “Hey, look, you don’t have to chew my ass just because I’m trying to find my blackberry.  Sorry I irritated you — you’re obviously not having a good day here.  Good luck with midterms, and have a better one.”

DONE. ISSUE RESOLVED.

If Carol refuses any contact with you after that, guess what?  That’s Carol’s problem.

Let’s assume that what “Susan” has said can be taken at face value.  There are two issues here.  Susan has lost her blackberry.  Carol is being a rude bitch.  That’s right.  Carol’s problem is not that she’s black and Susan’s sending hidden racist messages.  It’s that she needs to switch to goddamned decaf and chill out. 

If you’re afraid to stick up for yourself because the other person is black, you’re being a racist, Susan.  You may not be acting all white-supremacist, but you are thinking through a filter in which “it’s because Carol’s black” makes more sense than “it’s because Carol’s a stress puppy and needs to chill the hell out.”

Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy.”

The student went home and told his stepfather. The stepfather demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist; the principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.

And another great example of screwing it up.  First off, this kid’s behavior isn’t a black thing.  It has absolutely NO bearing on racism except insofar as the teacher put it in that category.  Unless, of course, he called him “boy” because he meant it that way, and what he was really doing with the stepfather was tap-dancing like mad in order to keep his job.  What should he have been doing and said?  “Yes, I’m sorry it came out that way — that wasn’t all that sensitive of me.  That said, we’ve got an issue with this kid that needs to get solved.”  Ask any teacher: as soon as a “problem kid” figures out he’s bulletproof, you’ve lost any chance of reaching him.  His focus as a teacher shouldn’t have been about insulating himself and protecting himself from being perceived as racist by a total stranger.  His focus should have been on fixing the issue with the kid.  (Now, if the Philly school district decided to throw the teacher under the bus, that’s a problem — but that’s between Dennis and his administration, not the stepdad who just wants to make sure the kid’s getting treated fairly.)

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s.  A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.

Uh, no, dude, he’s not.  He’s not being friendly, either.  He’s being courteous.  There’s a difference, and a big one, and if he weren’t acting like a SWPL idiot, he’d get that. Is he being a bad guy? No.  Not in the slightest.  But once again, color, rather than actions-plus-character, is how this guy’s thinking.  So now he’s congratulating himself….for saying hi to somebody.

What do you want, a cookie?  Why is it extra work to make eye contact with a black guy, unless what you’re really saying is, “I’m afraid of black people and I’m congratulating myself on the extra effort I make every day not to be an asshole.” 

Anna’s got it even worse:

“I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she says. “Blacks use skin color as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. … It’s a shame—you pay taxes, they’re not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies and smoking pot? I walk to work in Center City, black guys make compliments, ‘Hey beautiful. Hey sweetie.’ White people look but don’t make comments. … ”

You’re a lawyer living in a working-class neighborhood, honey.  I got news for you – lots of folks sit on porches and smoke pot.  You got a problem because they’re doing it on a porch instead of in their spacious back yards?  Also, you are a lawyer living in a working-class neighborhood who can’t stand the fact that you get compliments?  I got news for you, Anna:  enjoy them while they last, because beauty fades, and you’re sure not getting those compliments because of your sparkling personality.  Melanin-deficient dude here drops those same compliments all the time.  That’s not a race thing, that’s a culture thing, and it’s mostly a “you’re too damned uptight, lady” thing.

I’ll let y’all read the rest of it — there’s no reason to fisk the whole thing.  But you get the idea.

But this is how I see it: We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia—white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks—but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step.

If it is offensive for some gal to treat you like you’re a potential rapist and for her to be on RED FUCKING ALERT whenever you’re around just because you have testicles, then it’s time for some of these folks in Philly to man the hell up and realize that being scared of black people for no damned reason is every.bit.as.fucking.offensive.  They need to shut the hell up and worry less about being righteous and more about treating people like they’re people.

And if somebody “throws the card,” call them on it.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with busting a gut laughing when some gal turns and asks “it’s because I’m black, isn’t it.”  There’s nothing wrong with saying “no, I’m not scared of you because you’re black.  I’m scared of you because there are SIX of you and you all look PISSED.  What happened?  Is everything okay, and is there something I can do to make it better?”

Because, goddamn, judging by this, Philly is a messed-up place and somebody needs to start stepping up and making it better.

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