I hate stereotypes. Maybe it’s because we live in an area that has become one big stereotype. Play a word association game with folks outside our area and see what they identify with South Philadelphia (notice I didn’t write “South Philly” because I dislike that nickname as much as people from San Francisco hate “Frisco.” I don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s just a personal thing with me.)
Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I don’t think so. Years ago I worked as a sports talk host at WIP. The program director called me into his office one day and said, “I thought you’re from South Philly.”
“I am,” I replied, wondering where this conversation was heading.
“Well, you don’t sound like you’re from South Philly,” he said.
We got into a brief discussion about how he thought I should sound because I resided in South Philadelphia. The conversation included a snide remark from yours truly, who mentioned my folks had paid good money to send me to Temple University where I majored in communications so I wouldn’t think the plural of “you” is “youse.” It went right over his head. I left his office feeling that somehow I had disappointed him.
What I realized years later was WIP has a lot of listeners in this part of the city. The boss must have believed if I started referring to the callers as “cuz” I would have connected better with the audience.
Look, I understand there is a grain of truth in stereotypes. I also understand not all of the stereotypes about our area are necessarily negative. The problem is everybody gets tarred with the same brush. Strangers assume they know you because of where you live. I don’t want someone to assume they know my likes and dislikes, my attitudes and such because I have lived here all my life.
Don’t be mistaken. Not wanting to be stereotyped is not the same thing as being ashamed of your background. Far from it. There’s a lot to like about South Philadelphia or I wouldn’t have remained here all of my life. I like the food, the accessibility, the sports complex, the overall feeling that South Philadelphia is where it is happening. I do wish South Philadelphia had even a fraction of the number of bookstores as it does pizza parlors and tanning salons.
What I don’t like is somebody automatically assuming my favorite food is a cheesesteak; I have a photo of Frank Rizzo in my wallet next to a picture of my wife; I don’t know proper English; and maybe I’m mobbed up. Not that there’s anything wrong with liking cheesesteaks, Rizzo, that my English would please the Queen or having strangers thinking you might not be someone to mess with. Stereotypes are wrong because it’s a lazy way of thinking about the world and the people in it without doing the necessary personal research. It’s shorthand for insight.
Another thing I don’t like is folks who perpetuate the South Philadelphia stereotype, trade off it, and then get offended when others stereotype them negatively. You keep calling folks “cuz” and using “yo” and some folks are liable to also believe you took basic English 101. When some stranger says this is a “colorful” area of the city, he or she is right, but it doesn’t mean the only musical heritage we have is played at the parade on New Year’s Day or singing in harmony on street corners. It doesn’t mean hoagies are our haute cuisine or our only interest in life is how long Andy Reid is going to haunt us before Jeffrey Lurie finally fires him. It also doesn’t mean we can’t get along with any ethnic or racial group but our own or our mother had a mole on her chin, went to church seven days a week and only took time out from praying the rosary to make meatballs on Sunday morning. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it doesn’t necessarily define all of us.
It might surprise you to find out that not everybody down here thinks “Rocky” is the best movie ever made. Some of us even realize Rocky Balboa is fictional and a stereotype off which Sly Stallone made a career.
Pardon me if I take offense when I first meet you if you start asking me about mob hits or assume I never read a book. And I am not exactly thrilled when you ask me if it’s safe to walk around my neighborhood. It is and maybe we don’t want you walking around our neighborhood if you really feel that way.
I just turned 74. I’m a white male and although I do get grumpy on occasion, I resent also being stereotyped as just another grumpy old white man. Is there a limit to the number of stereotyped groups one can fall into? Well, there should be. It might just surprise you this “grumpy old white man” thinks the only good tea party happened when Sam Adams and the boys dumped that British tea into the Boston Harbor, and that I have no problem with gay folks being gay or getting married.
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Contact the South Philly Review at firstname.lastname@example.org.