The cover story of the March issue of Philadelphia Magazine, “Being White in Philly,” is causing a ruckus over the author’s racist attitude. We’re so totally surprised. The author is a cranky old white guy! We grew up hearing this stupid stuff; our parents talk like this all the time. You want to know what Philadelphians really say about race? You’ve clicked on the right link. Scroll down to read essays from people who are shaping the 21st century.
As Hypocritical As it Gets
By Rosella Eleanor LaFevre
DAD GREW UP in a little Pennsylvania town called Riegelsville in the late 50s and early 60s. He walked from one end of town to the other four times a day and all he saw were good ol’ white folk day in, day out. He was a preteen by the time he saw a black person for the first time.
“I thought they’d been burned,” he said. I was probably a little bit younger than he’d been at the time of that revelation when I first heard this story. It made me giggle. Silly daddy. What it must have been like to grow up in such a white-washed world. I couldn’t imagine.
Mom is six years younger than Dad but grew up in a similarly small world utterly lacking in diversity. Her story of seeing a black person for the first time isn’t as memorable as Dad’s.
She might have been in high school. Or maybe it wasn’t until she did a summer program at Penn State before her senior year. As the only registered Democrat in her family, she must have considered herself fairly forward-thinking.
I ONLY HAVE one living grandparent – my maternal grandmother – and like many 81-year-old white people, she still uses the words “negro” and “Chinaman.”
Seriously, as a semi-enlightened 20-something, I should probably be mortified, but as f—king old as she is? I can’t retrain her. My sister has tried. It’s never stuck.
As a child and teen, there were things I knew I wasn’t allowed to do: Listen to the music I wanted to in the car (because my brat sister had sole control of the CD player). Fail a class (because I could do better). Get pregnant (because if I did, Mom said she’d push me down the stairs). Bring home a black guy (because, presumably, I could do better).
“Grammy would have a heart attack,” Mom said in defense of her prejudiced call.
Laying all the blame on my Grammy and her outmoded speech patterns doesn’t seem entirely fair to me now. And the hypocrisy of my mother’s rule is stunning. Even at the time, she counted as her best friend a black woman she’d worked with when I was a baby.
THEN, WHEN I was 15, my parents separated. They’d been unhappy for a long time – my sister and I still remember hiding under the dining room table when they threw stuff at each other – and we thought it was better for all.
As we made repairs to the apartment we’d be moving into, Mom started seeing a black guy. He was someone my family had known a long time and we were pretty sure he was married. So while they had their secret rendezvous, she could never reach him by phone directly. He never gave her his phone number. Shady, right? Well, eventually, the whole disgusting thing ended.
But Mom’s love for men of a darker complexion had only just begun.
Looking for her next love connection, she took to a website whose URL makes me ROFL to this day. InterracialMatch.com. I am NOT kidding. The worst part: Whenever a man as lily white as she messaged her, she ignored him.
I know, I know. The jokes abound. I’m not above using Mom’s crazy love life to earn a few laughs. A particularly good one is a twist on the old classic: “My mom went black and she’s never gone back.” Dad, too, finds it pretty darn funny, especially since he said “love is blind” when my sister and I were kids.
Whatever the source of Mom’s 180 on the subject of interracial relationships, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it caused a great deal of internal turbulence for me.
When I was about 17, Mom started dating a Jamaican she met on that particular dating site she favored. He apparently had a penchant for white women, having married a German woman who bore his two children.
Over the years, I’ve heard stories about his controlling behavior and his seeming jealousy.
One time, we were returning from a family cruise when Mom told me and Grammy, who has never actually met the guy, that her boyfriend called her the previous night asking where she was and who she was with. She’d missed their appointed phone call time and he took this as a sign she was doing something she shouldn’t be.
“Why do you put up with it?” I asked her.
“I know,” she said. “Everyone told me not to date him. That’s just how Jamaican men are.”
WHOA. The very woman who accuses others of prejudice when they take a second glance at the short white woman with her tall, very dark boyfriend was making a blanket statement about an entire group of people.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
Then I realized she was what I’ve been fighting all my adult life: a seemingly enlightened person who sometimes wasn’t all that enlightened.
At least she’s given me my education at Temple, where I’ve learned that it’s not as simple as “Blacks use skin color as an excuse,” which is what a Russian immigrant told Philadelphia magazine’s Robert Huber, but that they actually face institutional racism in addition to the prejudiced attitudes of the ignorant white masses.
And I can rest somewhat assured that I’m not as ignorant as the ass in John Street’s politics class who won’t ride the subway after dark because “You never know.”
Mi Imperfecta Familia
By Francisco Jr Ovalle
YOU KNOW, I don’t think there will ever be an excuse for me to complain about my family. I was raised by wonderful parents who were always there for me. My sister and brother are my best friends. I was always around the rest of my family—all of the 13 cousins, sets of aunts and uncles, and even extended family. They’re the ones who know me the best, who have seen me at my worst.
However, my family is not perfect.
My family, sometimes, can be racist. This is how society has made my family think, but I can’t really say I like it. They don’t do it on purpose, and they definitely don’t mean any harm. It’s not that kind of racism.
Picture this. Out of 13 cousins, there are only three girls. If I count my extended family, there is a somewhat good amount of girls in my family. We are full of men though—there are a lot of us. Because we are a Latino family, we are a diverse group of people. Specifically, there’s every color of the rainbow—in every sense of the phrase (including sexual orientation!). But for the sake of this article, let’s just focus on skin color. You can find everything from white to mestizo to black. So it should come as a surprise that my family can be kind-of racist.
But is it really a surprise? Given our history with race, not only in good ol’ America but also in the world, nothing related to race really surprises me. In my family, there’s this idea of “cleaning” out the household gene pool. And by “cleaning” I mean that some adults in my family tell us (the kids) to bring, ahem date/mate/reproduce, someone with a lighter skin tone. Yes, you read that right. They don’t want us dating anyone darker than whatever our skin tone is.
At the beginning, I think it all started as a joke. But it has truly been a “joke” that stuck. It comes up every time we’re all together. And the more they throw it around, their talk of colores and bad hair, the more they mean it. They don’t have anything against anyone because of their skin tone, but they prefer for us to mate with people who have lighter skin so they can have “cuter” family members.
I don’t blame my family for thinking like that. They all come from Dominican Republic, a wonderful Caribbean island, where racism still stands (Thanks, Cristobal Columbus). When they arrived here in the 1970s, the idea of an ideal person was white, with straight hair and all the shenanigans that came with that. As they were trying to adapt to society here, they had to take everything in. Including racism. So, who can blame them?
I Can’t Go Home Again
By Emma Jones
I’M NOT FROM Philly. I’m not even from the suburbs. I’m from a thousand miles away in Missouri. Springfield, Missouri to be exact.
I don’t expect that anyone reading this will have heard of my hometown but it’s the third largest city in Missouri. The population is about 160,000, compared to the over one million people living in Philadelphia. Most people live in houses with yards, rather than apartments or row homes.
There’s another thing about Springfield, though. Something no one really talks about, or really thinks about. See, the town is almost entirely white; 88 percent of the population is white, and it’s been this homogenous for decades.
I have gone days without seeing a single black person, and that’s the second most common demographic in the town. I knew people of almost every ethnicity I can think of, but non-caucasian people are few and far between. I was part of an overwhelming majority that felt… normal. I just grew up that way.
There’s a reason Springfield is so white, though.
See, back in 1906, blacks made up ten percent of the population. There were black doctors, tradesmen, dentists and more living in the city at that time. Then that year on Easter Sunday, two black men were torn from the jail house and lynched in the town square while people ate their holiday picnics.
How’s that for Christian brotherhood on the high and holy days?
Understandably, most of the black population packed up and moved out after that.
And it’s not like the town has gotten much friendlier to minorities since then. Last year, the police broke up a pub crawl they decided got too rowdy, and destroyed personal belongings, assaulted innocent people and sent the director of internal affairs on vacation when people started complaining. From what I hear, the black and Hispanic people in the crowd got the worst of it. One of my friends witnessed a black girl being pressed down on the asphalt with a cop’s knee between her shoulders, all for committing the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So I wanted to get out of the uniform blandness that was Springfield. My brother lived in Philadelphia before, so I knew the city a little, and it sounded exciting to me. I applied to Temple, got in and made the move close to three years ago.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of a culture shock. I expected the diversity; it’s not like I hadn’t visited the city before. But I was suddenly in a position I hadn’t been in before: I was in the minority. It felt strange for awhile, like I somehow didn’t belong here. The irate homeless woman yelling at me about “white kids” taking over her neighborhood didn’t really help.
There’s a dynamic here that was set in place long before our time, and we’re still living with it. My brother once semi-seriously told me that living in the city makes you a racist, and it’s starting to make sense. I’ve heard more blatant racism from the mouths of people I would have otherwise considered not bigoted here than I ever did back in my hometown. The racists in Springfield were apparent by their general idiocy and loudly bigoted personality.
The thing is, though, that homeless woman was yelling at me about an economic issue, not a purely racial one. No one can pretend that there is not a correlation between race and economic class, but it’s just the world’s loudest echo from years of oppression and ignorance, ringing painfully in the ears of this generation. As with anyone with tinnitus, we must either learn to either ignore the sound or go crazy trying.
Living in Philly seems normal to me now. I came to the city to know as many walks of life as possible, and I’m really getting that experience. I love the different cultures, colors, and creeds I’m surrounded by, because it’s way more interesting than looking at the same type of person day in and day out.
I live with my boyfriend in a primarily black neighborhood, and I’m sure that my being a young white person singles me out as a student, but I don’t really care. I like my neighbors, and they have my back when I need it. I come from a different background for sure—most of these families have been in the neighborhood for generations—but I feel at home.
When we go back to Missouri to visit, my boyfriend and I like to joke about the amount of white people.
“Look at all these honkies!” he’ll say.
“I know, it’s making me uncomfortable,” I’ll reply.
And you know what? It sort of does.