Being White in Philly, Black in Sydney

It’s time to talk about racism. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Parliament passing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act and an ABC presenter who was racially abused in front of his two-year-old daughter on a Sydney bus
The former was the good news about racism in Australia, the latter the bad, with the ABC’s Jeremy Fernandez calling it his “Rosa Parks moment,” after the woman who refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama … and became a civil rights hero.
I also talked about growing up in the northeastern US city of Philadelphia in the fifties and sixties when racism was rife, and I didn’t realise how racist I was until I went to university and then taught junior high school in the African-American community of Harlem in New York City.
Now, this is a bit far away from Australia, you might argue, but you’d be wrong. I thought about this when I read a piece in the London Sunday Telegraph, titled “’Being White in Philly”: America agonises over race and free speech after article sparks furore”
A white author, Robert Huber, went to visit his son, who attends Temple University, at an apartment he rents in North Philadelphia. It’s in a high-crime area, populated mainly by African Americans, and the criminals often target Temple students.
Like many white Philadelphians, Huber was afraid to go there (so was I 50 years ago), and he decided to write about it, spending several weeks in an area called Fairmount, a mostly white neighbourhood separated from black North Philly by a wide highway. The cover story, “Being White in Philly,” was published in Philadelphia Magazine.
Huber talked to many of the white residents, using only their Christian names, and much of the feedback was, frankly, racist. For example, Anna, a Russian-born lawyer, told Huber: “I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done. Blacks use skin colour as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies and smoking pot?”
There’s 87-year-old John, who’s a long-time resident, and lives near the Eastern State Penitentiary (no longer holding prisoners like Al Capone, but it has a wonderful tour if you’re ever in Philly), and has nice things to say about former African-American neighbours: “Oh, I have no problems with blacks. They were working people, nice people, lovely people. I hated to see them move.”
But now, John is concerned about those who’ve moved in recently and tells Huber about a time ten years ago when a stranger came into his living room through the front door: “It was a n-gger boy, a big tall kid. He wanted money.” John doesn’t go beyond his block now.
There are residents who are not racist, like Jen, an architect who moved into Fairmount two decades ago, and decided to send her son to Bache-Martin, a public school that was 74 per cent black, while many of the white middle-class parents opted for a school called Greenfield, not nearly as black. Jen started holding movie nights and mixers to try to persuade other parents to join the Bache-Martin community. It helped, she told Huber, that Greenfield was getting crowded, but “people in the neighbourhood are now getting nervous whether there’s a spot for them here.”
The article certainly sparked controversy, with a public relations professional Monica Peters, who lives in the area, telling the Sunday Telegraph: “He is mixing up race with class and poverty. You can go to poor white and Latino and Asian communities in this country and you will witness just the same problems.”
To make matters worse, it was revealed there’s only one African American on the staff of Philadelphia Magazine, events planner, Adrienne Simpson, and she was not happy. She wrote a piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The Only Black Person in the Room,” calling the cover story a “lopsided, conflagrant editorial – that teetered on the brink of fear-mongering.” In a tweet to a supporter, she wrote: “Fact is 50 or so white Fairmount residents and a Russian chick does not= (equal) Being White in Philly.” I thought she’d be waiting to find out if the article she wrote about “being black at Philly Mag” would get her fired, but she tweeted me earlier today to say she had not been sacked. Fingers crossed it stays that way.


The city’s black mayor, Michael Nutter, led the attack on Philadelphia Magazine, saying it portrayed “an ethnic group that, in its entirety, is lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal”. He asked the city’s human relations commission to consider a “rebuke” of the magazine and writer “in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia’s racial relations.” That rebuke raised the question of free speech, an issue which means a lot more in the United States than Australia, as the magazine’s editor Tom McGrath confirmed in his response: “I applaud the mayor for asking for an inquiry into the state of racial issues in Philadelphia. The need to have a deeper discussion about race in Philadelphia is exactly why we ran our story in the first place … his call for a ‘rebuke’ of the magazine by the commission is rich with irony… the mayor loves the First Amendment – as long as he and the government can control what gets said.”
Back to Australia. Many years ago, when I wrote for The Australian, I decided to do a piece on The Block in Redfern, an Aboriginal housing project in Eveleigh Street in inner-city Sydney, which was then full of crime and violence. I knew someone who lived on the block, a white Australian, who told me about all the violence, and invited me to stay there on a Saturday night when she was going to be away “to see what happens.” I stayed, and it turned out to be the quietest night ever. It was a cold night in June, and that might have had something to do with it. I talked to a few of the white residents, who told me about the harassment by young Aborigines on the blog: how they would break into houses and steal what they could carry, and vandalise their properties. “It wasn’t the long-term residents,” they told me, “but the kids they can’t control.” I knew I’d have to get the permission of Aboriginal leaders to talk to the young firebrands, but I decided to save it for another day. When I got on the train to the leafy North Shore, I remembered writing in my notebook: “It’s only a half-hour journey, but it’s like going to another country.”
Unfortunately, I never got to finish that story, as I left The Australian a few months later, and knew that it would take a long time to write a balanced account, talking to both sides, and I didn’t have the time. That was my excuse, I fear. Since then, the block has been torn down and is being rejuvenated by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation (AHC) into social and affordable housing for 62 families. It has also become the setting for the first TV drama series, Redfern Now, written, produced and directed by indigenous Australians. The hard-hitting drama was critically acclaimed and won several AACTA awards. So I don’t have to worry about writing that story, or do I?
Indigenous people are still treated badly in Australia. There is racism in the cities, the bush and the justice system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and former Human Rights Commissioner, Tom Calma, said in 2009 a study by the Australian Institute of Criminology showing police are more likely to arrest young Aborigines than non-indigenous youths reveal “some of the hallmarks of systemic racism.” They call it racial profiling in the U.S. Indigenous education expert, Chris Sarra, went further, saying it was “very clear racism does exist” in the justice system.
So the media should continue to pursue racism in Australia, including Aboriginal deaths in custody and child sexual abuse in towns like Toomelah, a former Aboriginal mission on the border between NSW and Queensland. Caro Meldrum-Hanna of ABC’s 7.30 won a Kennedy Award for Coverage of Indigenous Affairs for her superb reports on Toomelah, a town ignored for decades by successive governments.
If I had written that story on the Block, I might have come up with a conclusion like Robert Huber on his encounters in Fairmount: “… 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. Meanwhile, when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape. Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?”
Of course, I know that in Australia I can still say that. But what we are not saying Down Under is that we also need to speak openly about race. In the United States, people admit they are racist and try to do something about it. The first step in getting rid of racism is to acknowledge you are racist. In the 42 years I have been here, I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard somebody say: “Australia is not a racist country.”
It’s time for us to do something about it. Perhaps the no longer ‘self-indulgent’ Labor Party can start talking about issues that matter – like racism.

5 thoughts on “Being White in Philly, Black in Sydney

    • Thanks, Malcolm. Yes, I saw it and the NY Times reporter and the only African-American staffer on Philly Mag discussed it on Twitter. I think the mag has moved on, but I’m not sure if they will hire any more African Americans. I’ll keep an eye on it.

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