‘Being White’ story draws backlash

Philadelphia Magazine published two covers for its March issue. The version on the left was for area residents, while the right was distributed in hotels, and aimed at tourists.—SUBMITTED PHOTOS

The hot button topic of race became a subject of hot debate this month in the region with the article “Being White in Philly” by Philadelphia magazine’s writer-at-large Robert Huber. The story, told solely from a white point of view, immediately drew a firestorm of complaints, especially when PhillyMag Editor Tom McGrath wrote: “Indeed, among our discussions was a debate about whether we—a magazine with exactly zero people of color on its full-time editorial staff—even had license to report and write on such a sensitive topic.”

“This month’s Philadelphia Magazine cover story is just another example of an ongoing attack on Black Philadelphia,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “Considering the recent census, African Americans could continue to hold political power for years to come but if they remain economically disadvantaged they will never be full partners or independent.”

Tasco made her remarks during a long speech last Thursday on the floor of council chambers in which she lambasted several local media outlets for what she said appeared to be a concerted campaign against African Americans. Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Maria Quinones Sanchez echoed Tasco. Bass blasted Philadelphia Magazine, though she refused to say its name out loud charging that “there is no one on your editorial board who is African American? So, it doesn’t make a difference if you’re talking about race if you’re not talking to different people? You need to be able to dialogue with different people.”

Across the Philadelphia media landscape, the backlash was equally swift. The story drew national criticism from Richard Prince’s Journal-isms and local online news site Philebrity, who offered the “Anatomy Of An EPIC FAIL: How PhillyMag’s Race-Baiting Cover Story Went Over Like A Fart In Church This Weekend”: “To make matters still even worse, PhillyMag pulled a classic PhillyMag move with this issue: They printed two covers, one with Huber’s article on the front, and another with M.Night Shyamalan’s wife, Bhavna Vaswani, for the hospitality industry — the idea being that (probably correctly) hotel visitors in Philly would rather not be troubled with PhillyMag’s fairly consistent history of classicism and racism, writ large on the cover once and for all.”

“Huber’s article was a poor display of civic journalism on many fronts; and irresponsible in its action of race baiting,” said Philadelphia Association of Black Journalist President Johann Calhoun, in a written statement. “However, one of the most disturbing facts that has surfaced since the article hit the stands last Friday, is that Philadelphia Magazine has no minority journalists working full-time on its staff. There’s no way a majority-white newsroom covering a majority-minority landscape such as Philadelphia, can call itself providing objective coverage.”

Members of PhillyMag’s staff also fumed. “Why I Hope You Won’t Read ‘Being White in Philly’ – The story is racist,” wrote magazine staff writer Steve Volk in bitter response. Several other writers from Jason Fagone ( "Philly Mag’s 'Being White in Philly' Doesn't Make Sense as Journalism: How do you launch a frank discussion about race under a cloak of anonymity?") to Victor Fiorillo ("'Does That Make Me Racist?'I ask myself this question all the time") — to the publication's sole African American voice of rebuttal, activist lawyer Michael Coard ("Philly Mag’s 'Being White in Philly' Is Really Being Wrong in Philly-I grew up four blocks from 19th and Diamond, and I’m not dangerous") — posted visceral online responses on PhillyMag.com.

Huber, however, remained unfazed. “There is no friction. I'm okay with my colleagues and what they have to say, and how they feel is utterly legitimate. You know, my piece is about conversation and dialogue and let's hear what people really think. So with that spirit, let's all talk. As you read, that was a decided frame and very open about that up. We decided to do a piece that looked at, from the view of white people, what's their engagement with Black folk and how's it going for them and what is it? So, obviously it was a conscious decision on to do that.”

When asked if this article’s use of race was designed to influence sales, Huber says: “I don't think it's race baiting and I certainly do not think it's pandering. That's certainly not the goal for the attempt; and I don't think that's what the piece is. What I was trying to do is to hear legitimate thoughts and feelings from white people. I mean I do think that Philadelphia in many ways was — largely is a segregated city — I think whites talk to white; and Blacks talk to Blacks. Now, of course that's not utterly true but it's generally true, and that those conversations are different from the conversations that whites and Blacks have with each other. So, I was hoping to unearth some real thoughts and feelings from White folks by hanging out in Fairmount and talking to people and seeing where that and seeing what I could learn. That was the goal, and that's what I did and that's what the piece is about. Now, did people say some things that are controversial, edge or even possibly racist? Yeah, but that's what they said, and so to be true to that there it is. The goal there is to bait anybody or to pander, but to present this cross-section of people and this is what came out when I asked them.”

University of Pennsylvania professor Walter Palmer has taught the foundation courses of American Racism and Institutional Racism and Social Change since 1990 and wholeheartedly agreed with Huber. “I think he nailed it,” said Palmer. “All he simply did was record people he had interviewed. The reality is Philadelphia is racially divided, and it always has been, and it's never faced the fact that it is racially divided. The fact that Philadelphia is largely African American or Black now is irrelevant; it's still many people in the seat of power who are not Black (even though you get a lot of Black faces in a lot of places), and that most people, particularly white people, are in denial, and many Black people need white affirmation. Many Black people, particularly middle-class Black people for the most part, don't want to offend white people—and so the lies are perpetuated by both cultures under the guise of political correctness.”

Founded in 1908 as a quarterly illustrated magazine published by the Trades League of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Magazine has been in continuous publication. Bought in 1946 by S. Arthur Lipson, the magazine has remained in continual operation by the Lipson family. Current Chairman D. Herbert Lipson took the helm as Publisher in 1961, and in 1986, the torch was passed to S. Arthur Lipson's grandson, David H. Lipson, Jr. In April 2003, Marian Conicella was named Publisher while David Lipson remains as President. On its centennial, the publication declared itself “the pulse of Philly for over 100 years.”

In early 2004, Philly Mag sent a press release about the launch of a series entitled "Tale of Two Cities" featuring special editions “about the city's complex race relations - telling stories about race as it is lived in Philadelphia and introducing one side of the racial divide to the other, with a view toward becoming a conduit to bridge the gaps of understanding.” The yearlong series featured then-University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson who was named “writer-at-large.” Since Dyson's departure in 2006, there has been no minority voice represented on staff.

In response to the furor, McGrath spoke at length about resolving the magazine’s lack of diversity. “We actually spent a long time talking about whether we had license to write about race with a staff that is all white,” explained McGrath. “Are we even allowed to, sort of, talk about the subject? And there is a point that can be made that we don't, that without any people of color on our staff and that without that perspective we really cannot write intelligently about this, and, I understand that point of view; I disagree with it alternately and it was one of the reasons we decided to run this: I think that regardless of the makeup of our staff I think that white people have thoughts and feelings about race. Whether they're deeply offensive thoughts and views, like a couple of the people in Bob's story have, or whether they are very empathetic views, as a couple of the other people in the story have, I think that we don't do any favors by pretending that things don't exist. So, I think part of our point in this is to talk about what's actually out there and then maybe we can go forward in terms of having a better conversation about this. In terms of our own editorial staff, you're right, we should have more perspectives of color in our pages and on our website. It's an issue that honestly affects a lot of magazines, probably more so than newspapers, but journalism in particular seems to have far fewer minority voices in it, so it is something as an industry we need to work on, and more specifically it's something that we as a publication meets were going. I'm aware of that and hopefully we can start to address it in some way.”

Known for her pioneering human rights and civil rights work, author/journalist Wynne Alexander challenged both the report’s credibility and the publication's continued relevancy: “This article signifies nothing. It proves nothing and it adds to the world's troubles. We all need to communicate more and in better ways. This kind of irresponsible journalism and world citizenship makes things worse. And, frankly I'm surprised that Philadelphia Magazine would want to go back down these roads which have been so bumpy for their legacy in the past. This is all on the record and in one year from now or 200 years from now, it will be more and more clear what role they've played in keeping people fighting, rather than coming together. Their legacy will be sealed and their lack of intellect and enlightenment will be sealed along with it. It will be right there for all to see. And, quite frankly, a huge apology is owed to an entire city of Philadelphians who know better, do better and live better than the benighted caricature in that ill-advised magazine article. I'm just surprised that Philadelphia Magazine would want to return to the scene of their past socio-political gaffes.”


-- Philadelphia Tribune Reporter Eric Mayes contributed to this report.

Contact Tribune Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.

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