Starbucks: Not Discussing the Complexity of Racism

Not long after it happened, a friend of mine posted the viral video of the two black guys getting arrested and taken out of Starbucks.  I had a few initial thoughts.

  1. That sucks.
  2. This is going to trigger some serious outrage from the internet crowd.
  3. I wonder what actually happened here..

As the story goes, two young black men entered into a Starbucks waiting to meet a friend.  Without buying something first, one of them asks to use the washroom.  A Starbucks employee says that washrooms are for customers only.  Instead of making a purchase, the men simply grab a seat and wait for their friend to arrive.  At this time an employee, possibly the manager asks the men to leave.  They decline, saying that they’re waiting for a friend.  Whether or not they said something to the effect of we’ll buy something when our friend arrives isn’t something I’ve been able to track down.  After refusing to leave, the manager calls the police to remove them.  The police arrive a short time after and ask the men to leave again.  They decline again, saying that they’re waiting for a friend.  After the police ask multiple times without success, they’re placed under arrest.  As they’re being walked out, their friend (who happens to be a middle aged white guy) shows up and this is pretty much where the viral video starts.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I can’t help but think that very few people are having a meaningful conversation about this.  It’s becoming formulaic at this point.  Minority is marginalized, video goes viral, internet produces outrage, company goes into damage control and *repeat*.  This isn’t how we make progress.  We have to make the effort to understand what really happened here if we want to avoid things like this happening in the future.  I’ll make that effort here.

I’ve spent plenty of time in Starbucks and I don’t even drink coffee.  When I used to work in finance, most meeting were coffee meetings and about half of them were at Starbucks.  I’ve also studied the history and operations of Starbucks quite closely for a variety of reasons.  Consider me a Starbucks pro.  I have a thing about being punctual so if I’m doing a Starbucks meeting, there’s a good chance I’m there 5-10 minutes early.  More often than not, I’ll grab my drink order when I arrive rather than waiting for the other person to avoid the perception of being a non-paying customer.  That said, on more than a few occasions, I’ve waited for the other person to arrive before placing an order and have never been approached by the staff.  I’ve also asked to use the washroom before making a purchase more than once and have never been told that it was for customers only.  This is where we need to start asking why and being honest with the answers we find.

Most of the Starbucks I’ve been to were in the finance district or in nice neighborhoods, the areas without much crime and where Starbucks employees generally felt safe.  I think that when you feel safe, you tend to care more about the well-being of others and are more likely to let things like this slide.  The neighborhood that I grew up in was different.  Washrooms at local gas stations or McDonalds would have special lights installed so that you couldn’t see your veins; preventing heroin addicts from using those washrooms for shooting up.  Employees at these establishments were much more guarded in how and when they would allow washroom access.  I don’t know Philadelphia that well, but looked up the crime rate in that area and it received an ‘F’.

Something else worth mentioning is that about a year ago, there was a robbery at a different Starbucks in Philadelphia.  In the early afternoon, a man walked up to the register with a gun and told the 19 year old female Starbucks employee to empty the register.  She quickly walked away from the register towards the back room and the man left shortly after.  The security footage shows a black man in his 30s, wearing a black hoodie.  Was this person the same person that refused to leave the Starbucks a few days ago?  Definitely not.  But I think it would be a mistake to assume that this incident has no relevance to what happened last week.  I would guess that word of this robbery probably spread quickly through the Philadelphia Starbucks scene.  I would also guess that there was some kind of message to those employees about following procedure around these things.

A year later, two black men, both dressed mostly in black and appearing to be in their mid-30s enter into a Starbucks in a rougher side of town.  After declining to make a purchase and declining to leave, what should the Starbucks employee do?  Follow procedure?  Procedure likely suggests to call the police.  The call to the police was simple,

“Hi, I have two gentleman in my cafe who are refusing to make a purchase and refusing to leave.”

The message from dispatch was also relatively simple, “We have a disturbance there, a group of males refusing to leave.”

When the police arrived, they calmly and politely asked the men several times to leave.  It was only after refusing over and over that they were arrested.

Unless they’re withholding parts of the transcript, this wasn’t as much of a racial issue as it’s being made out to be.  Mostly, this was an issue of two people refusing to make a purchase and refusing to leave.  Mostly.  There is an element of racism here which needs to be discussed.

I actually began writing this entry a couple days ago but wasn’t able to return to it until now.  I’m happy I had that time as I was able to learn an important detail which hadn’t been mentioned in the dozen or so articles I read about this.  The men entered the Starbucks at 4:35.  The police were called at 4:37.  2 minutes?  Really??  That smells heavily of prejudice.  I’m having a hard time not jumping to the conclusion of racial prejudice… but for the sake of discussion, I’ll carry on.

The first question I ask myself in these situations is how would this played out had we swapped black for white?  Two white men enter a Starbucks, refuse to make a purchase and refuse to leave.  Police are called to enforce company policy and the law, and the two white men still refuse to leave.  The two white men are arrested and removed from the premises.  Would the internet have reacted the same way?  Would we have considered this normal?  If that’s the story I had heard, my first reaction would’ve been “why didn’t these dummies just make a purchase?”  Because these gentlemen were black, we dare not say it.

My understanding of racism is not discriminating based on the color of someone’s skin.  Instead you judge someone based on the merits of their actions and the contents of their soul – good or bad.  I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah and he said something interesting about this situation, “I bet from now on, they’re going to be more careful when it comes to dealing with race.  You know what, I was thinking what black people should do?  I think we should see just how far we can push Starbucks now.  Just to mess with them.  Like, ya, now we go back after they’ve done the racial bias training and just use the bathroom but take all the toilet paper home with us.  Ya, y’all have a problem with this? No? No? No? No? You don’t? I appreciate your sensitivity, ya I do.”  He went on to give several entertaining examples of ‘how to mess with them’.  The beauty of good comedy is that it communicates hard truths in ways that people don’t mind hearing them.

When I see incidents perceived as racially charged, I often ask if it’s strictly a skin color thing.  I say this because I often wonder what has a greater impact on prejudice, skin color or dress code?  How would things have played out had these gentlemen been wearing suits?  How would it have played out if it was a couple of thugged out white guys with neck tattoos?  What if it was a well dressed white guy and a thugged out black guy?  What if it was a suited up black guy and a thugged out white guy?  What if it was a couple of Latinos wearing exactly what these black guys were wearing?  When does the color of your skin just become just one variable in your appearance?

Better understanding racism is something that’s very important to me.  This past weekend, I took a friend of mine out for breakfast and we had a great conversation about this stuff.  He’s Wesley Snipes black, originally from Somalia, but has spent most of his life living in major cities here.  As he put it, nobody second guesses him when he’s wearing a suit.  But once he goes out with a hoodie and fitted cap, people start making assumptions.  The truth is, I could probably go out wearing the exact same hoodie and cap and people wouldn’t make the same assumptions about me.  And there’s no way around it, that’s racism.

And after all that, I’ve now set the stage for what I think the real issue is:  Tribalism.

I grew up tribal just like many of us, but my tribe wasn’t based on race, it was based on where we were from.  We were from the hood.  We were proud to be from the hood and dressed like it to make sure people knew.  We wanted to carry the tribal markers of thugged out gangsters, making sure people knew that we were not to be taken lightly.  Getting looks from old white people was a point of pride.  Knowing that we had made them feel uneasy humored us.  Especially because we were also raised with good morals and values.  Despite the way we dressed, we weren’t the type to cause trouble.  Ironically, we were much more the type to hold doors open for others and walk old ladies across the street.  Maybe that’s why we got such a kick out of it.  But how were the old white people supposed to know this when all they had to go on was the way we dressed?

This is where I think it’s important to discuss what I’ve started to call tribal markers.  I had a conversation with a co-worker yesterday which I found to be illuminating and extremely impressive on their part.  We’ll call this individual Taylor.  Taylor has had a tough go of it, having been bullied excessively in school for being different and not having a strong support system at home to help rise above it.  Now in his 20s, Taylor’s navigating his sexuality with what seems to be a lack of clarity and certainty.  From what I understand, Taylor’s not quite sure where he falls on the spectrum of gender or even which gender he’s attracted to.  He’s exploring those dynamics and I truly admire it.  Around me, Taylor’s always been fairly soft spoken, and very kind.  At times, I would even notice him going out of his way to be nice to me.  Picking up on some subtleties in body language and how he interacts with me, I could tell that Taylor was struggling with something around me.  I had some ideas as to what it was, but didn’t focus on it since he had always made a clear effort for things to be positive between us.  Yesterday, he apologized for being weird around me.  He told me he was dealing with a lot of misplaced hate as a result of being bullied when he was younger.  With most of that bullying coming from straight white males, Taylor learned to identify them as the enemy, and that had unintentionally extended to myself.  He apologized because as he put it, in a way, that was a form of racism.  I thanked him for bringing this up, complemented the courage it took for him to do it, and told him I genuinely admired his weirdness.  It was my most honest answer and I’m very grateful to have had that conversation.

For the record, I tried to write this without using the word ‘he’ or ‘his’ and it’s just not how the English language is built at the moment.  I’m not big on compelled speech or having to memorize 50 new pronouns, but I certainly see the value in introducing a single non-gendered pronoun.  Anyways, I’m pretty sure he’s identifying more with the male side of that gender spectrum right now so I don’t feel like a total ass.  Carrying on..

I really appreciate the perspective Taylor shared with me because it helped me confirm part of my theory around tribalism and tribal markers.  Growing up, Taylor was bullied, I assume predominantly by straight white males.  As a result, Taylor saw a pattern that was worth being protected from.  Of course not all straight white males were bullies , but if he perceived that all the people who bullied him were straight white males, where do you draw that between us and them?  Here, he was faced with someone who carried all the tribal markers of someone who would harm him, but who has treated him with nothing but respect and appreciation.  I can’t understate how much I appreciate him facing this the way he did.  Not only does it show a tremendous amount of personal growth on his part, but it gave confidence to my strategy of just being a good person and waiting this kinda stuff out.

I’m familiar with what discrimination looks and feels like because I grew up as a minority.  For the most part, that discrimination faded away in my teens and 20s.  Now in my 30s, it’s back.  This time, it’s because I’m a straight white male.  Add the fact that I have a background in finance and drive an SUV, I seem to tick all the boxes for an oppressor.  Yet I’m not oppressive… and in reality, I’m big on liberation.  I’m big on exploring and embracing our weirdness, whatever that may be.  I’m big on supporting others in their pursuit of happiness and do my best to bring positivity to the world on a daily basis.  So why is it that in the age of open-mindedness, progressiveness, and acceptance, that so many are so quick to assume that I’m such a shitty person?

Tribalism.

Throughout history, when times get tough, people get tribal.  The United States was probably never more united than they were during WWII.  Times were tough, but they had a common enemy.  My friend from Somalia said that as bad as racism is here, it’s nothing compared to the racism back in Africa.  In Africa, almost everyone’s black but there are different kinds of black.  As he put it, they’re super close with one another when they have a common enemy, but once they lose that common enemy, they go back to being racist towards each other.  In many ways, times are even tougher today.  But without an obvious enemy, we’re drawing lines in the sand for the sake of protecting ourselves from an enemy we can’t identify.  The rich vs. the poor.  Men vs. Women.  LGBTQ+ vs. Cysgendered.  Religious vs. Atheist.  Black vs. White.  Liberal vs. Conservative.  Democrat vs. Republican.  Left vs. Right.  Seriously…. when we get to the point of drawing the line between left and right, especially without any real or consistent definition of what left or right is, we need to take a second to think about what we’re doing to ourselves.  We’re picking a team and turning the others into our enemies in the pursuit of emotional safety, but in the process, we’re tearing ourselves apart.

When every major media outlet has that video of the black guys getting arrested at the Starbucks set to auto-play as soon as you visit the site, of course the video goes viral.  And when you don’t include the context of all the things that led up to it, of course people will assume that it was an act of egregious racism.  And when the internet outrage machine goes into maximum overdrive, of course Starbucks will overreact in hopes that their overreaction is more significant than the public’s overreaction and that this somehow puts everything back in balance.  This is all craziness, and doesn’t provide a solution to the problem, only more hostility towards a situation which people don’t seem to want to  invest the time into understanding.

Those two black men had every right to be the color they are and wear what they wanted to wear.  Starbucks had every right to enforce a policy of asking someone to leave if they weren’t willing to make a purchase.  The police had every right to ask them to leave and to remove them when they wouldn’t.  And those two black men had every right to choose this as a moment to make a stand.   What happened here is rich in details and things that we should be having real conversations about – but we’re not.  I wish we were..

Had I been in the shoes of the manager, I would’ve let them use the washroom and probably would’ve let them hang out even if their friend never arrived.  Had I been the black guys, I would’ve bought a coffee.  If I was the dispatch, I would’ve asked for more details and had I been told that they weren’t being violent, I would’ve suggested waiting a few more minutes before sending anyone over.  If I was the police, I probably would’ve bought them a coffee and hung out with them until their friend arrived.  But I’m not one to follow policy when it doesn’t make sense.  I’m one to try and understand the situation for what it is and act like an intelligent and compassionate human being.

… but that’s just me.

Author: Author

In an age of promotion before substance, let's try substance before promotion. I'm hoping anonymity will help keep a focus on the ideas but I do understand wanting to connect to the person behind them. Let's split the difference with some fun facts: I have a professional crush on Harvey Specter, Bruce Wayne is my favourite superhero, and I share a personality type with the likes of Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Lex Luthor.

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