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 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 Broad Street and bugged the students for spare change. Most students ignored the requests. But one day, a female friend of mine was asked for money and 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 living in the freshman dorms across from Temple was shot dead. The incident happened just a stone's throw from the armed security guards at the entrance to the freshmen dorms. 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. 

Crime is abound; two years after the shooting, 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 had vanished.

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. I had been under the impression that my bike would be better off inside than chained on the street; evidently, I should have known to protect my bike by chaining it to the furniture in my own living room. 

Another friend living in Philadelphia also had the privilege of experiencing a break in. Her computer was stolen, along with a few other things. Luckily, the thief was easy to track, because police found his phone inside the apartment. Apparently, the thief had set his phone down after taking the call and forgotten to take the thing with him.

By the summer, somebody had also smashed my kitchen window and stolen two packs of freeze pops from the kitchen freezer. Then came a new round of Philadelphia crazy.

Two friends were over to my apartment; 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 a child on the street. But seconds later, I heard stones hitting the pavement and I felt something strike my back. The stand-off continued as the boy went on provoking the two full-grown military men and me.

Later that summer, I awoke one night and looked down from my loft bed 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 snuck into a room to steal things; suddenly, an angry voice booms out. This shatters the silence and any conviction that you will get away with what you're doing. How do you react? Well, this young 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; her son had just been there on a visit from his lily-White student town, and she said the trip had been quite an adventure.

I imagine that, like most people my age, the boy had come to Philadelphia with a head full of "thug life" lingo, fashions and popular gang hand signs he knew from college parties that made him feel down for the city. In any case, shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, the teen was robbed at gunpoint. Some hours later, he met up with his friends to catch a bus. He and his friends quickly discovered that they 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. The robber also noticed the boy's cell phone. So he demanded that the phone be handed over too so nobody would get hurt. Ironically, the phone was probably loaded with hip hop songs 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" and live the high life by cheating through life. But in Philadelphia, faking that you are hard isn't going to save you from those who are truly hard. Philadelphia is a jungle. A concrete 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 school also insists that it's students are safe. 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 to help students in distress.

Temple also boasts about the amount of diversity on campus. Ironically, the loudest proponents of diversity typically had the same background. Most were out-of-town White folks. They didn't care about their "own people" and "own kind"'s place in the world for the life of them. By contrast, many Black and Latino students cared about their identity and the status of their "own" people; 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 making a choice to focus on race - a choice that the rest of the population was not making. Some Black students joined all-Black fraternities and sororities. Incidentally, I don't know a single White person who was invited to any event held by such groups. Most notably, the all-Black fraternities and sororities appeared on campus 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.

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 shared the same general understanding of history. In time, I came to realize that these core ideas determined what was said and influenced 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 been given time to explain their platforms during the live debates. I thought I had made a valid point in the name of democracy.

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

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

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

"Whaaat?? Racist Republicans vote for them! You want slavery, too???"

Predictably, her reaction caught a number of people's attention, including the Black students in the room who had stopped talking. They were staring at me, and I suddenly found myself on the hot seat, needing to make it clear how I felt about the past about the African-American community and it's culture - all just to justify my view that the political process should not be biased towards the Democratic and Republican Parties, which is a valid point. 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 she had polarized the world with sensationalism to validate her opinions, and this was a common theme I saw over and over again. At the same time, I realized that even I could be made to feel like the racist backwater that I despised if something I said put me at odds with my liberal colleagues and their political world view. It dawned on me that it was predetermined what I could and could not say. 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 anti-immigrant". Suddenly, everybody was upset that the French didn't share our enthusiasm about "one world, one human race" ideology. 

Believing everybody was on the same page, one day I presented a piece which poked fun of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fight 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. I suddenly realized Israel was sacred to the professor, and later learned 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, how were the French labeled "bigots" 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 this only drew sympathy for Israel’s struggles and was a pro-Israeli sympathy piece. This prompted a lightning response from the pro-Israel Jews in the class. 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 came directly 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 be multiculturalism junkies. Alternatively, they could celebrate their sexuality like the girl with the gay pride patch, or endorse some universal commercial identity like emo, goth or anything else.

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. Meanwhile, others were getting excited about a culture because 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 their culture, or any of the things their identities and cultures represented? 

Interestingly, 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 an 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 and encouraged to celebrate their identity and culture. 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 and putting on a show to demonstrate that it was their culture and they were its masters. Incidentally, White girls would get 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 imitators could be - an odd anomaly.

Another incident that made think happened while walking to class with this girl and talking with her about academic experiences and life. She shared a confession: initially, she had been rejected by the university. When I asked how she had gotten in the school nevertheless, 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.

I told her exactly what I had come to realize - that there are millions of White students around the country, with better grades and test scores than Blacks who will not be accepted into certain universities because of a quota system there to “promote diversity” and reverse any discrimination which may have existed in America's past. Yet foreign-born Africans and Latinos are equally entitled to reap the benefits of this racial quota system. 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 of lower income and 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.

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, after slavery, I had a family, that 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 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 would have 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 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 back home and 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.