Many years ago, back when the corporate coffee giants started to swallow up neighborhood cafes, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks.” A similar sentiment was resurrected recently with #BoycottStarbucks. The hashtag went viral after a Philadelphia Starbucks manager called the police when two black men in the store asked to use the restroom without buying anything. The call led to the men’s arrest, which led to national outrage.
I don’t usually go to Starbucks, because I sip my daily café au lait while reading the paper at my local café. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Starbucks, preferring their milky brew over the stronger stuff my friends like. I made one such friend blanch when I told her my favorite nightcap is a mix of 1% milk, water, and a spoonful of instant decaf thrown into the microwave. When it comes to coffee, I am more Philistine than aficionado.
But my affection for Starbucks runs deeper than taste, or lack thereof. As I’ve written before, I like that the company offers a decent wage, healthcare, and some education benefits to its employees. I even liked their widely mocked initiative a few years back to start conversations about race by having baristas scrawl “Race Together” on their cups. Better a clumsy attempt to engage on difficult terrain rather than no engagement at all. As a white woman, I know just how easy it is to steer clear of the topic altogether.
Nonetheless, I ventured into this avoided territory a few days ago. Coming back from my morning walk, I passed a black man who was standing on the side of the road, shaking his head at a super-sized SUV blocking a driveway and extending into the street.
“Man, who would park like this?” he said. “They’re gonna get a ticket, particularly in this neighborhood.”
We were in perhaps the most exclusive town in one of California’s most affluent counties. The blocked driveway led to a leafy estate behind a stone wall.
“Oh, is this your neighborhood?” the man added. “Do you like it here?”
I assured him it wasn’t my neighborhood, that I was only walking through. (I failed to mention that I live in the next town over, where the houses go for a mere $1-5 million.) I hastened to add that although it was pretty here, I didn’t like how the residents walled themselves off from everyone else while using all the other towns’ services.
The man continued to speculate about how long it would take before somebody called the police and the SUV was ticketed.
“Actually,” I began, and this is where I ventured more deeply into my own clumsy conversation about race. “I bet you have more chance of being ticketed as a black man than this car does.”
He threw back his head in laughter. Then he asked my opinion about the Starbucks incident, saying he thought the company’s response and pledge of training was a good thing.
“I don’t like that Starbucks has been scapegoated,” I said. “This is not a Starbucks thing, That lets white people like me off the hook. It’s a societal problem that happens everywhere.”
“Happens to me all the time,” the man said. “Remember Rodney King? Same thing happened to me long before, only there were no video cameras back then.” He was stopped in Tennessee for driving while black by police, who shot him when he reached for something.
I said something about how terrible that was, how it was a good thing all these police abuses were being captured on smartphones now.
“Yeah, but we sued that police department and won because of course there was no gun!”
I expressed surprise that he was old enough to drive long before Rodney King; he looked so young.
“How old do you think I am?” he had me guess. I was way under.
“I’m fifty!” the man exulted. “You’ve heard that expression, ‘Blacks don’t crack?” Except for President Obama, he cracked, they put him through so much.”
We commiserated over how much we missed Obama.
“I’m JT,” he stuck out his hand. “I’m the foreman on the work crew here.”
I introduced myself, we shook hands, and said maybe we’d see each other again. I looked for him today on my walk. No JT. No blocked driveways. A lot of wealthy white people living in mansions where black and brown people labor. A lot of wealthy white women walking by. Still, JT and I both enjoyed our conversation.
I’ve had more conversations since, with white friends. How we are never questioned when using the restroom, at Starbucks or anywhere else. How we are emerging from the oblivion our privilege provides, horrified to see the extent of racial injustice. How Starbucks isn’t the problem: we are.
It’s not much. But it’s something.
Thoughts on what happened at Starbucks?