The only black person in the room

March cover of Philadelphia Magazine.
March cover of Philadelphia Magazine.
Posted: March 18, 2013

Adrienne Simpson is a freelance writer and sometime football blogger for hergamelife.com

I'm accustomed to being the only black person in the room.

When my family moved to South Jersey more than 30 years ago, we were the first blacks in our neighborhood. I was the only black girl in Sunday school at our all-white Methodist church, the only black girl in my Quaker elementary school class, and I was definitely the only black girl in ballet class.

Nonetheless, I was a little surprised when I realized there was only one other full-time African American employee working at Philadelphia Magazine when I joined the marketing department last year. She recently left the company, which makes me the only black full-time staffer, something that I was never uncomfortable with until now.

I am an event planner. So when the magazine conducts a promotion, throws a party, or hosts a luncheon, I may greet you at the door. I am one of several people who represent the magazine in public settings, interacting with guests, clients, and service providers.

This month, I have the pleasure of representing a publication that felt the best way to spark a discourse about race was to feature a lopsided, conflagrant editorial - that teetered on the brink of fear mongering - as its cover story. At the crux of Bob Huber's story, "Being White in Philly," is the notion that black people are essentially what's wrong with the city, and that the white people who live here are afraid of them.

In his editor's letter defending the decision to publish the article, editor Tom McGrath called it a "bookend" to "Welcome to Hell," a well-written expose by Steve Volk on the psychological impact of urban violence, published last September. Based on McGrath's juxtaposition of the two articles, are we to believe that being black in Philadelphia is akin to living in hell and being white in Philadelphia is, quite frankly, scary?

Even more interesting was a Twitter Q&A with the editor after "Being White" was published. McGrath was asked what he planned to do about the lack of diversity on the magazine's editorial staff. His 134-character response included the following: "I'm open to pitches from writers of color." While it might not be fair to highlight a snippet out of context, in the land of 140 characters or less the message is loud and clear. If only Woolworth's had been open to allowing black people to look at the menu.

McGrath states in his editor's letter that the appropriateness of Philadelphia Magazine tackling race was questioned. "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," he wrote.

The correct answer to that question is no. The all-white staff of a city magazine, a city whose black population makes up 44 percent of its residents, is ill-equipped to spearhead any kind of enlightened discussion about race. Why? Because its hiring practices have made it abundantly clear that black people and their opinions have no place in its discussions. And I don't just mean discussions about race. I mean discussions about Philly's best salons and boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs, playhouses and theaters; discussions about local politics, education, enterprise, and government. The magazine's positioning of itself as the voice of progressive racial discourse in Philly is the equivalent of Chris Brown being a marriage counselor or Lindsay Lohan being a sober living coach.

Obviously I disagree with Tom McGrath about the journalistic value of "Being White." The irrational fears and misguided logic of one white person are not a story. There is nothing novel in the sentiments that Huber expressed, and that other white Philadelphians anonymously endorsed. It's a narrative that has been repeated for centuries. The difference is that most respectable and responsible publications have evolved to the point where they would not give a platform to these statements without offering a counterbalanced perspective.

The real losers here are not black people. We're used to being marginalized and maligned. It's actually white Philadelphians who should be angry that a publication claiming to speak to them and for them has characterized them as fearful, kowtowing, door-holding racists. Having lived in Philadelphia for 13 years - and having frequented the same Wawa on Germantown Avenue that Huber writes about - I don't believe this to be the case.

Bob Huber seems fixated on what white people are allowed to say about black people. Some would say he risked a lot in his quest to find out. Well, I have no idea what black employees are allowed to say about being black at Philly Mag, but I guess it's time I find out. I'll let you know who took the bigger risk.


Contact Adrienne Simpson on Twitter @black_phillymag.

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