After spending two hours with the people who gave us Philadelphia Magazine’s “Being White In Philly” story and a variety of other people, I’m convinced of two things: one, race is still a touchy subject and two, context is everything.
By Denise Clay
I’d like to start this off with a piece of advice that I’m thinking Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath wishes he had before he walked into the National Constitution Center Monday night before starting what turned out to be two nights of conversation about the magazine’s “Being White In Philly” article.
That advice: If you’re gonna say that you can’t find writers of color to staff your magazine, be smart enough not to do it in a room filled with writers of color.
I say this because the one thing that Philadelphia Magazine could do right now that might stop people of color from wanting to go to its headquarters at 18th and Market Streets armed with pitchforks and torches is hire a writer of color or three.
(And they should probably start with the magazine’s event planner Adrienne Williams, whose essay “The Only Black Person In The Room” about her experiences as the only person of color currently employed by Philadelphia Magazine made her the talk of the meeting that McGrath and “Being White In Philly” author Bob Huber attended at the Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News building on Tuesday.)
Otherwise, there’s not much new to report from either the session sponsored by Philadelphia Magazine at the National Constitution Center or the session sponsored by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. It was established that the magazine needs more diversity. It was established that it needs to be more sensitive when it comes to certain things.
And actually, the two sessions also showed just how far we need to go to be able to discuss race and the part it still plays in society. For starters, it would be a good idea if we could all get into the same room on two consecutive nights to have the discussion.
Monday’s forum at the Constitution Center was moderated by McGrath and featured Huber, Solomon Jones, who currently writes for AxisPhilly, Farah Jimenez, executive director of the People’s Emergency Center, Christopher Norris CEO of Techbook Online, and Prof. Walter Palmer of the University of Pennsylvania.
Probably the most important thing that I got out of this session was that there’s a certain amount of dishonesty when it comes to conversations about race and racial issues. Palmer, who teaches a class on race at Penn, spent much of his time at the podium focusing on that.
“I was shocked that Blacks were shocked that Whites talk about us,” Palmer said. “Race is a reality and we have to deal with it.”
During the forum, Huber explained that his purpose for doing the story was not to piss off large chunks of the Black community, which it did, or to point out just how dishonest it is for a magazine with no staffers of color to even call itself initiating this conversation, which it was, but to try and shame Whites into actually looking at the poorer, darker communities around them.
“This city is segregated,” he said. “I wanted to talk about the ways that we do and don’t relate to each other.”
If only he had written that. In the piece. Somewhere.
But instead he wrote a piece that seemed to conflagrate race and class, Jimenez said. In fact, she made the argument that it wasn’t race that scared the whites Huber interviewed, it was poverty because whites aren’t generally afraid of middle-class people of color.
(Spoken like someone who has never spent five minutes in the newspaper business.)
Jones, who has spent five minutes in the newspaper business, felt that Huber was talking to the wrong people. Philadelphia Magazine is basically a room filled with whites. To learn something, you couldn’t just talk to them, he said.
“If I want to learn about something, I go to people who can teach me,” Jones said. “That’s not what was done here.”
The question that kept coming up was why wasn’t Philadelphia Magazine more diverse. When McGrath said that he had problems finding people of color to staff his magazine, a gang of hands from Black journalists in the room that had done long form journalism went up.
Many of the writers attached to those hands were at the Inquirer/Daily News building on Tuesday when McGrath and Huber faced journalist Nia Ngina Meeks and a smaller, more ethnic crowd.
Oh, and did I mention angrier?
Meeks actually touched on what I thought most important about the piece: the journalism involved. She deconstructed “Being White In Philly” as a piece of reporting, which gave the room of (mostly) journalists some insight into the process.
We learned that Huber had interviewed about 60 people. We learned that the ones used in the article ranged from straight bigoted to more moderate. We learned that the folks at Philadelphia Magazine know now that diversity would bring some richness to their publication.
And we also learned that Black folks, by and large, weren’t buying anything that came out of Huber or McGrath’s mouths.
When the question and answer period opened up, E. Steven Collins was the first person to ask a question…and he brought it angry.
“Saying that you’re thinking of doing something [about your lack of newsroom diversity] is unacceptable.”
And from there, McGrath and Huber were threatened with advertiser boycotts (by Shalimar Blakely, executive director of the African American Chamber of Commerce) and even a full-on protest, (PABJ VP for Print Monica Peters, who surprised everyone in the room with her statement including PABJ President Johann Calhoun.)
Compared to Monday, it got testy.
No, testy’s not the right word…snarky is.
No, actually, unproductive is.
One of the last questions which was asked both nights of Huber and McGrath, (ironically by SUN sports correspondent Chris Murray) was what, if anything, have you learned from this?
I don’t know what, if anything, they learned.
But here’s what I got.
Race is still the third rail when it comes to discussions. We’re still too sensitive, something that I think the last few years has done nothing but worsen.
Another thing I got is that if you’re going to try and have a discussion on race and you’re a media outlet, it might be a good idea to have some staffers of color who might be able to tell you to pump the breaks before you ride out into certain situations.
I say this because maybe if such a person existed in the Philadelphia Magazine newsroom, we might not have gotten here…
Until next time, that is.
And considering that as I said last week, Philadelphia Magazine is consistent about doing this type of thing, there will be a next time…