Et Tu, Latte? Starbucks and Everyday Racism

My Twitter feeds were once again abuzz with scandal. Starbucks, it seems, has just unwittingly entered the conversation about racism in America. And not in the way we would have hoped.

Police officers handcuffed and forcibly removed two real estate agents from a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Melissa DePino‘s video of the incident went viral. Their crime? Waiting while black. According to the NPR report,

When police arrived [in response to a 911 call], two Starbucks employees told them two men had asked to use the restroom but were told they couldn’t because they hadn’t purchased anything. The men allegedly refused to leave after being asked by Starbucks employees.

What Starbucks Got Wrong

  • The Starbucks employee(s) involved in the incident denied two men use of the restroom because the men hadn’t purchased anything. White customers at that location were not required to order before gaining access to the restrooms.
  • Then the Starbucks employee(s) asked the men to leave because they had not yet made a purchase. According to witnesses, the two men were sitting quietly at a table, waiting for a friend to arrive. Hardly an unusual situation. If you were sitting quietly at a coffee shop, waiting for a friend to arrive, how would you respond if you were asked to leave?
  • Starbucks employee(s) called 911 to report disturbance and trespassing because the men did not leave when asked. The men had EVERY RIGHT to be there. There was no emergency.
  • Finally, Starbucks headquarters has so far issued a response to the incident that’s even weaker than their blonde roast. Certainly, Starbucks needs to investigate the matter thoroughly from an HR and legal perspective. However, perhaps their first response should have been a mea culpa on the lack of diversity among their own employees at the Philadelphia location in question.

The Problem Is Bigger than Starbucks

  • More than half a dozen police showed up to escort two real estate agents out of a coffee shop. Instead of de-escalating the situation or understanding the perspective of the customers in question, they placed two men under arrest. Police held the men in custody for eight hours. As real estate agents, how much did that cost them? Did they miss client meetings or sales?
  • White people on social media who said “There must be more this story” were infuriating. Abuse by authority figures is NOT the fault of the abused. Yet time and again, white people assume that authority figures can be trusted because we can usually trust them. We don’t fear for our lives when we get pulled over for speeding. We don’t get “randomly selected” for additional screening. We don’t get denied service or access to public places (unless we’re gay). And so, here we sit, blinded by privilege, wondering why we can’t all just get along. Instead of thinking critically about all the things people of color might have done to contribute to their own abuse, try applying your critical thinking skills to how you form your own assumptions.
  • News media organizations replayed the viral video of two black men being cuffed by six police officers. When white people commit actual crimes, we tend to see images of them provided by their families. We hear about their family relationships, their jobs, their medical histories. When black people have done nothing at all wrong, news outlets reinforce “dangerous criminal” stereotypes by showing handcuffed men in police custody. When people of color are victims of crimes by authority figures, we hear about every traffic ticket and character flaw they’ve ever had. Again, critical thinking by a white audience is a moral imperative.

How We Get This Right

For this section, I ask for direction from friends in the black community. I have seen calls for more of us to emulate the white allies who challenged police during the incident. That’s a great start.

Many folks are also calling for a #BoycottStarbucks or a sit-in movement. To this, I have a number of questions. What can Starbucks do to make this right? In other words, what is the end game for a boycott? How do we fight the everyday racism that makes situations like this not just possible, but commonplace? How can I use my privilege to stop the abuse of people of color?

Finding these answers won’t be easy and may take a while. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for my friends to arrive before placing my next order at Starbucks.

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