08 June 2013

My Philadelphia story...



The following was written in response to the "Being White in Philly" article which appeared in Philadelphia Magazine in March 2013 and sparked heated debates in The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, Fox News and MSNBC.


I've heard that everyone who has lived in Philadelphia has their own "Philadelphia story." Well, I am no exception. 


In 2003, I began living in northern Philadelphia, directly across from Temple University. Every day, the locals lingered around and bugged the students for spare change. Most students ignored the requests. But one day, a female friend of mine reached for her wallet. At that point, the local asking for cash snatched the wallet and bolted down the street.

Later that year, a student who was also living across from Temple was shot dead. The incident happened just a stone's throw from the armed security guards employed by Temple. Nobody knows why the student was shot, but he died before the security guards could come to his aid. That year, between January 1 and May 31, a person was shot dead, on average, every twenty-four hours and ten minutes in Philadelphia. 

The following year, I moved to the other side of campus. One day, I walked out my front door and noticed that one of the cars on the street had been gutted. Not only had somebody tried to steal the car stereo, but the hubcaps and the rims on the car were gone, too.

Later that year, somebody broke into my apartment and stole my bike. I was upstairs in my room working on a term paper when the break-in occured. Here I had been under the impression that my bike would be better off inside than chained up on the street; however, apparently that was not enough, and I should have protected my bike by chaining it to the furniture in my own living room. 

Another friend living in Philadelphia also experienced a break in. Her computer was stolen, along with a few other things. Luckily, the thief was easy to track, because, as the police quickly discovered, he had left his phone inside my friend's apartment. Apparently, the thief had set his phone down after taking the call and forgotten to take the thing with him.

By the summer, some locals had smashed my kitchen window and stolen two packs of freeze pops from the freezer. Then came a new round of Philadelphia crazy. Two friends were over; the one friend, a future special-ops soldier, had just graduated from Temple; the other, a mammoth of a man, had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. It was my birthday, and we wanted to celebrate in Center City Philadelphia. So we left my place and headed to the subway station. 
As we were walking, I heard something whiz by our heads - and connect with the back of my skull. Rubbing the spot, I turned to see a young black boy, no older than twelve, lobbing pavement stones at us.

"Did you just throw that?" I asked the boy. 

I already knew the answer. Needless to say, the youth stood there grinning. I shook my head and turned to continue on my way. I was not about to attack him. But seconds later, I heard stones hitting the pavement again and something struck my back. The stand-off continued as the boy went on provoking the two military men and me.

Later that summer, I awoke in the early morning and looked over from my loft to discover a young boy trying to steal my I-Pod and a few other items in my room.

"What the HELL are you doing?" I thundered down at him. 

Now imagine you're a child who has snuck into a foreign home to steal things; suddenly, an angry voice booms out from above. The silence is shattered - not to mention any hope that you will get away with what you're doing. So how do you react? Well, this boy, without missing a beat, motioned over to the window.

"I'm repairing your window," he replied with a smirk.

Some time later, my mom was speaking with an old friend of hers who wanted to know how I was getting along in Philadelphia. As it turned out, her son had just been there on a visit from his lily-White student town. The trip had been quite an adventure for him.

I imagine that, like most people my age, the boy had come to Philadelphia with a head full of "thug life" lingo and popular hand signs that made him feel like he was from the city. Well, shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, the teen was robbed at gunpoint. An hour later, when he found his friends to catch a bus, he quickly discovered he and his friends were the only Whites on board. They stood out like a sore thumb - especially to the robber from earlier, who happened to be on the same bus. Incidentally, the robber also noticed the teens, particularly the boy he had robbed earlier, and demanded that their phones be handed over too, "so nobody would get hurt." Ironically, their phones were probably loaded with hip hop .mp3s portraying "thug life" roughness as cool.

Cool as “thug life” was, two locals living the "thug life" lifestyle murdered a friend of mine. They entered his apartment a block from campus, barged in the door and shot him in the face. This friend had been a “hustla” just like the locals who had killed him - in other words, pushing drugs like many students who emulate "thug life" to afford the high life. But in Philadelphia, faking that you are hard isn't going to save you from those who are hardened. Philadelphia is a jungle.

Oddly, this terrible city is home to some of the best universities on the planet. U Penn, for example, is a world-class, Ivy League school that ranks number one in the country for business studies and seventh for law. Drexel University has a renowned engineering program, and Temple University is consistently ranked in the top fifty for law and medicine. The schools also insist that their students are safe. In support of this claim, Temple boasts that, every ten seconds, its students can spot a police car circling campus. Indeed, all day long, the police drive around the campus perimeter, which is gated in parts and even lined with barbed wire. Watchtowers stand about a thousand meters apart from one another all along the campus boundaries. Furthermore, there are blue emergency polls scattered across campus which, with the push of a button, immediately signal the police to rush to the site and help students in distress.

Temple also boasts about the level of diversity on its premises. The loudest proponents of diversity were the out-of-town White folks from all-White neighborhoods. However, while they didn't care about their "own people" and "own kind's place in the world", by contrast, many Black and Latino students did; in fact, sometimes, race formed the cornerstone of their identities and served as a semi-conscious source for strength and inspiration. I found this odd. It was not 1960, where hatred and discrimination had put racial awareness front and center. Yet many Blacks and Latinos were choosing to focus on race, and it was a choice that the rest of the student population was not making. 

Some Black students joined all-Black fraternities and sororities. I don't know a single White person who was invited to any event held there. Moreover, the all-Black fraternities and sororities appeared only once on campus for one "activity": to protest that our school, in spite of it's reputation for diversity, "did not have enough black professors.” I know this because I had to weave through this demonstration to reach the cafeteria for a meeting. It was an odd experience. I felt they didn't want me there, yet I felt guilty for not standing outside there with them, like I was therefore one of the "bad ones." This puzzled me. But in time, I began to understand it. There were several key developments which pushed me to that point. 

In the Temple classroom, certain topics always came up which were political and racially-charged. However, this was seldom a controversy, as students generally spoke from the same basic perspective. Typically, we were critical of corporate America; we felt bad for "minorities" because of the past; we hated those opposed to immigration, and we all shared the same general understanding of history. In time, I came to realize that these core ideas determined what was said and when, all the while influencing how students interacted with each other. Dissenters, if they existed, were silent.

Once, during a pre-class discussion, I found out what happens when you go against the tide, even unintentionally. I had been explaining to a classmate that there were parties on the presidential ballot list that I had never heard of, and these parties had not received time to explain their platforms during the live debates.

"What was one of the parties on the list?" the classmate asked.

“Well, there's the Constitutional Party and...”

Before I could finish, a classmate with a gay pride patch sewed on her shoulder bag turned to me and went ballistic.

"Whaaaat?? Racist Republicans vote for them!! You want slavery, too???," she thundered.

Predictably, her reaction caught a number of people's attention, including the Black students in the room. They had stopped talking and were staring at me. I suddenly found myself on the hot seat, needing to make it clear how I felt about the past and about the African-American community and its culture, all just to "pardon" my view that the political process should not be biased towards the Democratic and Republican Parties. Think about it: since when is having only two parties in the mainstream what America is about or should be about?

Needless to say, the experience made me think twice about the “educated” liberals who I was associated with through my politics. I didn’t like how the girl with the patch had polarized the world with sensationalism to validate her opinions. It was a common theme that I saw over and over again amongst my classmates. At the same time, I realized that even I could be made to feel like the racist backwater that I myself despised if something I said came close to putting me at odds with the politics of my liberal colleagues. It dawned on me that it was predetermined what I could and could not say, and I felt like I was in a cult.

One day in another class, we were talking about our favorite lecture topic: racism. Somebody mentioned Jean-Marie Le Pen, the politician in France who had been “dangerously close” to winning because the French were avidly "anti-immigrant". The next few minutes involved vile commentary about French "bigots" and "bastards" and even the suggestion that "we should bomb those European Nazis." Looking at the faces around me, I was shocked by how visibly upset people were that France allegedly didn't share our "one world, one human race" ideology.

Believing everybody in the class was on the same page about "one world, one human race", one day I presented a poem that poked fun of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how ridiculous it was that humans were fighting to hold sway over a silly strip of desert land. In the middle of my presentation, I was attacked by the professor for “being disrespectful." He demanded to know my intentions, and I suddenly realized Israel was sacred to him. I learned soon thereafter that he had been born in Israel.

One time, a Jewish student from the class was talking about Al-Jazeera News Network's expansion into the Americas. The student saw the expansion as part of a trend where people from the Islamic world migrate and bring their ideas with them. He believed these trends extended to Israel and threatened the survival of Jews as a cohesive people. It dawned on me just how controversial his point would have been if he were talking about the survival of, for example, French customs and community in lieu of immigration. This is not to say that the student was wrong to feel the way he did - he wanted to preserve the Jewish community, culture and way of life. But if his people were right in taking the steps to protect their identity, why were the French called such ugy names for doing the same thing?

One day, the professor decided to incorporate an Israeli “anti-war” film into his lecture. It was an odd film; in contrast to the sad and emotional close-ups of the Israelis and their futile attempts to brave the dessert elements, the film portrayed “the enemy” as a ruthless, faceless, rapid rocket-firing enemy hidden in the shadows. One student, a Muslim, suggested that the film only drew sympathy for Israel’s struggles and was a pro-Israeli sympathy piece. This prompted a thunderous response from the pro-Israel Jews in the class and tensions rose. Ironically, it was culture day; everyone had brought "their people's" food, music or some other novelty to class. But multiculturalism had failed that day for another reason: with the exception of this one girl in the class who was a second generation immigrant from Russia, Whites of European abstract had brought nothing to the event. Unlike the Arab-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Latino-Americans or African Americans, these "plain Americans" lacked a connection to their roots. They could only taste and sample what the others had - and become multiculturalism junkies.

Multiculturalism junkies get excited about tasting and sampling, seeing diversity and celebrating other people’s identities. As a White person, I was encouraged to be like this and always be excited about somebody else’s culture. Conversely, the others were drawn to their own culture since it spoke to them because of their background. For example, Asians, Africans, Mexicans, Indians, Jews and Muslims took pride in their own ethno-cultural group and enjoyed their own ethnic culture. But I was not Asian, African, Mexican, Indian, Jewish or Muslim, so why was I expected to continually feel passionate about celebrating these cultures, or any of the things these identities and cultures represented? 

Meanwhile, I cannot begin to tell you how many student films by mixed race people played to the theme of “who am I?”…it was like they were engaged in a constant struggle to define themselves and it occupied their entire lives. I did not want to be like that. This realization, and the constant observation of people who felt strongly connected to their own and own Asian/Latino/Jewish/Black or Arab heritage or community, really made me stop to think. I started to wonder if this was the reality of so-called post-racial society, where Whites are told to forget their roots, ignore their own cultural heritage and either celebrate their sexuality, adopt some new commercial identity, like emo, prep or goth, or move right along to the beat of those who are Black, Jewish or Hispanic. Indeed, at parties, White males would try to dance, talk, dress and act like 50-Cent and other Hip Hop acts. Sometimes, “Whitey” became the butt of jokes for “acting Black”. It was an odd dynamic; how could “cool” be so “uncool” at the same time? 

More than once, I had even seen the Blacks make a point of getting into the music, almost as if to demonstrate that it was their culture and they were its masters. Incidentally, the White girls would get all hot over their swag. For years, MTV culture had been telling them what to think. White males were out unless they tried to “act Black”. But they could never be cooler than an imitator could be - an odd anomaly.

Another mind-shaping incident happened while I was walking to class with this White girl from rural Pennsylvania. She was talking about her academic experiences and life. I said something about her being smart and, suddenly, she declared that she had a confession to make. I listened carefully as she told me she had initially been rejected by the university. When I asked how she had gotten into the school then, she told me that a classmate of hers in high school, with his "terrible grades and test scores", had been accepted over her and she had found out. Infuriated, she had called the university and complained. The university had replied that they could not find her application and, if she wanted Temple to review it, she should resend it. She did, and later, she was accepted. I asked her what the ethnicity of the student with "terrible grades and test scores" was.

"African-American. Why?" she replied. She looked puzzled.

I proceeded to tell her exactly what I had come to realize - that there are millions of White applicants around the country like her, with better grades and test scores than Blacks, who will not get into certain universities because of the quota system in place there to “promote diversity” and reverse any discrimination which may have existed in America's past. Yet foreign-born Africans and Latinos are entitled to reap the benefits of this racial quota system, too. The system, used by thousands of universities and employers alike, is blatantly discriminatory against people who happen to have White skin. But nobody dares challenge this, for fear of being called “racist.”  Imagine: being “racist” for fighting against racial discrimination, where people who are smart are replaced by dumber people who just happens to be of the right ethnicity. It’s absurd.

One year, I volunteered to help the local community prepare Christmas gifts and hand the gifts out to Philadelphia children. The children poured into the room and cussed about the gifts they had gotten. At some point, however, I noticed two little Black boys who were quiet and well-mannered. They were inspecting me like I was some kind of mysterious wizard. I realized that, to them, I was one of “those people,” not at all like their classmates or the folks in their neighborhoods. To them, I was one of “the organizers” and, on a deeper level, one of the people who “made things happen.” I instantly felt guilty, because I knew they envied me because they wanted to get out of the 'hood. They were marveling at my skin.

Every day that I walked home from my classes, I'd see low-class Black children playing in the playground or in the street. They’d stop and stare and I’d feel guilty that I was going to the university; I’d feel guilty that I had a family and my family could afford hot dogs on the Fourth of July. I'd feel guilty that I even existed. Later, I realized that it was part of the world view I was immersed in. I felt guilty and had become anti-White - and in a so-called "multicultural environment", no less. Moreover, I had forgotten that I was not born into wealth, that my family had arrived in post-Civil War America to till the land by hand, that my family had arrived too late to have owned slaves even if they had wanted to. I had forgotten how hard I had worked to get to where I was academically and that, unlike these wanna-be gangsta’s on the street, I had applied myself to get there. As this sunk in, I began asking myself if I was to blame when they were the ones running around killing people, getting sucked into drugs and stealing things for fun. Was I to blame for their poor efforts in school, when, thanks to quota systems, all they needed to do was study and pass in order to get into top-rate schools over me and even much more qualified folks? Was I supposed to feel guilty for slavery and black oppression when the only thing implicating me was the color of my skin? Did this make any sense in this alleged age of post-racialism?

My views began to transform. I could no longer understand a world where I was expected to feel guilty for things I had not done, where I was expected to give opportunities to people who had done nothing to achieve anything and had, under their own power, stolen, attacked and killed. I could no longer understand what my generation was working towards if Whites had to be multiculturalism junkies and post-racialists and everyone else was being groomed for ethnic identification and hyper-racialism. Likewise, I realized that, because my university was actually a suitcase college, the campus was only “diverse” because people from all backgrounds were coming to listen to a lecture or take a test before disappearing into their own, pre-formed lives away from campus every weekend. A suitcase college filled with White multicultural junkies who appreciated other cultures, as well as people from other cultures who appreciated their own culture...of course "multiculturalism" worked. After four years in this environment, I left a changed man. And I no longer believed in the sociology that had drawn me to Philadelphia in the first place.

2 comments :

  1. Great story man, I, myself was denied eduacation at a Milwaukee, Wi high school because I'm white. I can sympathize.Seems like it's acceptable for any colored peoples to identify heavily on their heritage/skin color, yet when a white man does, he is deemed a racist. Guilty of being white.

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  2. I went to school during the tail-end of the White Australia Policy. Non-whites, apart from wogs, i.e. Greeks and Italians, were non-existent. I can only imagine how hard it must be going to a "diverse" school.

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