This article, Being White in Philly, by Robert Huber – from and about the city I will forever think of as home – is brutally honest, sad and hopeful all at once. Mostly the first two. Not enough of the latter. (For the record, I think the article was brilliant and long overdue. I think Mayor Nutter doth protest too much. And for the record, the comments on the PhillyMag website are disgusting beyond all description. The boldness that accompanies online-style anonymity is shameful, but not nearly as shameful as the hate in those anonymously-bold posts.)
After growing up in the cow-pasture-and-cornfield suburbs of Philadelphia (only a few miles west of the tony Main Line and 30 or so miles east of the horse-and-buggy communities of our Lancaster County Amish neighbors) and attending college in a setting oft referred to as a collegiate Camelot, moving to Philadelphia proper was, indeed, an education. (But there was this cute boy – now husband, still cute – and he went to school in the city . . . ) Despite living in Center City (the downtown business district which, due in part to its proximity to City Hall and the tourist dollars that support the area, manages to avoid the intense blight that plagues much of the city), I was subjected to the constant stench of urine seeping up from the subways, the relentless, aggressive panhandling of those literally lying in the middle of the sidewalk between my apartment and my office and the distinct feeling that I, as a white woman, was both persona non grata and in danger if I ventured outside my “box.” I clearly recall being junior in high school, watching on the local news as several blocks of West Philadelphia burned during the disastrous and divisive MOVE standoff. (Though I did not realize until just now that anniversary of the MOVE fire is also my wedding anniversary. Nice.) The issue of racism in Philadelphia was certainly not news to me, but I did not recognize it as being any worse than anywhere else. Ignorance was bliss.
Fast-forward about 20 years and 8 Navy PCS moves all over the country, and this Yankee girl was headed to Georgia. My first journey south of the Mason-Dixon line other than childhood vacations to Florida and the six months my husband spent at Nuclear Power School in Orlando (which, despite the map’s claim otherwise, is NOT the south. Just saying.) No one was more stunned than I when I discovered, upon moving to Georgia, that this place is noticeably more post-racial than anywhere else I’ve lived. In my northern prejudice and utter misunderstanding, I had not imagined the south could possibly have fewer overt racial issues than the north. This area is far from lacking in racial issues, but I will never forget my son’s first football practice when the coach instructed a player to “go line up on that big white boy over there.” My head was on a swivel! Considering my shock, he may as well have said, “go line up on that giant, three-headed sasquatch over there!” However, according to Coach and – apparently – all the other kids and parents on the team, he may as well have said, “go line up on that kid in the red jersey over there.” (Which, given the fact they were all in red jerseys, would have been completely ineffective.) A couple of the teams had girls playing on them. Likewise, “go tackle that girl who is about to score a touchdown on ya’ll!” was often heard. That event, many more like it and four years here have taught me that to most people here, skin color is akin to hair color, gender, height or which SEC college football jersey you sport – it’s just a simple fact.
When my son discovered through school studies of the Civil Rights struggles that interracial marriage was once illegal, he was baffled. ”But mom, I see lots of black people and white people married here! C’s mom and dad are different races.” (Interestingly, he did not even recall – or maybe even notice – that the parents of one of his best friends from nursery school were of different races. When I reminded him, he replied, “They were?”) I look forward to the day when, if we even notice, we truly don’t care. I am not blind to race. It has meaning and warrants being noticed. Observed. Validated. Race’s not being an issue does not mean its ceasing to matter. It means its ceasing to matter in ugly, divisive ways.
I never dreamed I’d endorse the desire of a state (or a person) to fly the Confederate flag. After four years in Dixie, a better understanding of states’ rights issues and a respect for the fine people who live here, I feel differently. I know now that, in their most authentic meaning, the Stars and Bars do not represent racism, or slavery, or anti-Americanism. If it would help mend the racial anguish in my City of Brotherly Love, I’d gladly whistle Dixie as I raised it high atop City Hall next to William Penn.