Starbucks | Black Faces In White Spaces

At 4:35 p.m on the 12th of April, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson walked into Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, to wait for a mate with whom they were meeting. They’d asked the manager to use the bathroom, but were denied so they waited for their mate to turn up. At 4:37 p.m the police were called. Upon arrival the police subsequently arrested Rashon and Donte, handcuffed them – to the stupor of other patrons-, took them away, and held them without charge for eight hours, after which they were released. You have to think about this scenario for a minute, within two minutes of walking into what should have been a safe space, a space they should have been in without fear of bias or prejudice, they were immediately deemed a threat. Their history was not known, their stories as anonymous as the other patrons, nothing about them untoward but their mere presence, within two minutes of walking in, was deemed dangerous enough for the authorities to be called. Their offence; being Black in a white space.

The coffee shop is part of a cultural and community narrative, anywhere in the world, it operates as common ground, a meeting space for all, the stereotypical student struggling for WiFi, the writer perfecting his craft, the yummy mummies meeting other mummies, the casual business meetings, the job interview… it functions as a multipurpose space for all and sundry, and at other times as a getaway sweet spot for you to enjoy some personal space, away from the world as you watch it pass by. I too have sat in Starbucks for hours on end, not because I don’t have WiFi at home, but because leaving my work space, at home or at work, it gives me a break and a sense of self pamper when I order my grande mango passion with a slice of lemon loaf cake or at Christmas, their almond Swiss rolls. I don’t go to Starbucks for the coffee, I don’t much like coffee but if I did want coffee, I would only go to Starbucks for it, not because it makes the best coffee, it doesn’t, but because it is a space I trust. A sign that is synonymous with safety, and I feel a certain camaraderie as a writer when I am in there watching my fellow word people crunch out their prose. This is Starbucks with the white and green cups of coffee, transparent cups of cold beverage, and red coffee cups during Christmas which we all look forward to. Because the red cups mean as much to Christmas as Mariah Carey and All I Want For Christmas, do. This is Starbucks, likely the safest space on the high street where, whether we are Black, Brown or White, we can remain anonymous and be one of the crowd. As such it should be a safe space to all who walk into it.

Privilege begets abuse of power, enabled by authority.

When prejudice is allowed to fester for a long time in society, allowed to go unchallenged, you have to look at the narrative that has shaped it. The tone from the top, the power of the state behind the oppressors and offenders. People offend with confidence because they expect to get away with it. Authorities set the guidelines by which society behaves or reacts, those guidelines inform the wider population, affords the target audience the privilege to act without recompense. That absolute confidence in the law being on their side, regardless of their actions, guilty or not, will allow for any kind of abuse of power, office, or privilege. Racism does not boil down only to hatred, there is that, but there is also the belief and confidence that the system behind the individual committing such acts will uphold their action and give them the freedom to commit further atrocious acts without holding them accountable. That ingrained institutional and societal prejudice by the dominant race, class or sex against the other has been allowed to fester especially within white enclaves. White privilege exists because of a system that supports it. If this wasn’t the case, the police would have questioned the manager on why she called them out to arrest these men for no offence other than being Black with the audacity to exist in her presence. We call that racism. Then again, this is the police; a part of the system that has allowed white privilege to go unchallenged, a part of a system that engages in abuse of such privilege of power especially against Black men and women; Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice to name a few. We call that racism. There is a need to emphasise racism here for what it is.

In his apology video CEO Kevin Johnson acknowledges that this should never have happened and offers up what was a sincere apology without making excuses for the employee or Starbucks in general, after, it should be noted, the company released a tone dead, half arsed statement. Whilst this has not hurt their bottom-line it has severely hurt their image without question, so he does a good job of being sincere and in taking responsibility for this. And then he sued the word “Bias” which is where I stopped engaging and had a massive eye roll. There are some buzzwords floating around amongst those in positions of power, corporations and and wider authority, words slowly filtering their way down to the public’s consciousness that aims to disguise their true definition and spin a narrative. “Bias” “Conscious inclusion” “unconscious bias” its the same hippy bullshit Gwyneth Paltrow used when she announced her divorce from her husband, Chris Martin; “conscious uncoupling”. It is the same way “thug” is used as a substitute for the n-word, the same meaning when some say “you look pretty for a Black girl”. Words and expressions like these aim to disguise the true meaning and impact of the action to which they are applied. The dog whistle style of it all. There is a certain political correctness in the word bias when used in this context, it serves to make the offender a little less culpable for their actions, to water down the events or series of events that lead up to a situation that can only stem from prejudice, emanating from discrimination based on grounds of race, sex, religion etc. I have no question that the apology from Mr Jacobson is sincere. Could this have been the act of an overzealous employee? Of course. Could she have misconstrued the policies? Possibly. Although being a manager one would hope they have received training on every level considering the responsibility they’ll have to shoulder, and more important the nature of Starbucks. But let’s call it what it is; racism. In the face of it all, that is just what this is, out and out racism. If we call it anything but, then we do a disservice to the men who were treated like common criminals because of the colour of their skin, the steps taken in light of this to correct behaviours become meaningless, and the message being delivered and received gets lost in a cacophony of political correctness. This was racism.

The same racism that got Emmet Till murdered when Carolyn Grant, a white woman who ran a convenient store, accused the Black teenager, a fourteen year-old boy, of an offense that reportedly took place inside of the grocery store in Money, Mississippi back in 1955. Till was lynched by her husband and a friend, tortured and killed. A court of law, with the jury of their peers, all white, found them not guilty. Grant, would later tell a writer that her version of events was not entirely true. His blood will remain on her hands, alive or dead.

It is the same racism and white privilege that murdered Stephen Lawrence, twenty-five years ago this April whilst waiting at a bus stop with a friend Dwayne Brooks, Stephen was set upon by five white boys who stabbed and killed him, for no other reason that he was Black and in their space in Eltham, London. When the police arrived on the scene, they questioned why they five white boys would have a reason to kill Stephen and whether them calling him the N-word, was a nick name. Never mind that Stephen lay dying by the road side. Nineteen years later, two of the five boys, now men, who were accused of the murder of Stephen Lawrence were found guilty. Twenty-five years later, three still roam free.

Some suggest that Black people get over the atrocities of the past, slavery, racism… and get on with the present, but the trouble is the past can never be the past if the present is a repetition of the past. Society has not learned from the past if today feels like the world where Black people are still seen as less than a whole and human, if the same prejudices from fifty years ago, in the times of Dr Martin Luther King, Nnamdi Azikwe, colonisation, the Ogoni 9… still define relations today, where representation is overwhelmingly whitewashed, where the norm is white without room for colour of any kind. It is not the past, it is a repetition of it. There is a refusal to acknowledge the past, to learn from it and heed the lessons of it. And until that is possible, there can be no moving on from a past that is very much a part of the present.