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.

The Illusion Of Privacy

Every so often, I come up with an idea which I think is worth writing about.  When I do, I make a note and then come back to it when I’m ready.  This one is from December, but all the hype around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica suggested it was time.

There seems to be a fair bit of traction behind the #deletefacebook movement and I find that surprising.  But then, less so.

We seem to be in an age where we quickly look for someone to blame.  I can relate to looking at a problem and immediately looking to identify the cause, but there’s often a wide gap between the cause of a problem and someone you can blame.  In many cases, the individual being blamed, even when ‘justified’, is a symptom of a bigger problem that isn’t being acknowledged.  It’s why problems usually find ways to persist when you remove the symptom.

In a world where people are quickly looking to label the bad guy, I find a lot of people blaming businesses or technology.  Something something corporations are ruining the world.  Something something technology is destroying humanity.  I find this perspective rather challenging.  As far as I know, technology and business becomes rather hollow when you remove people from the equation.  In that sense, both are extensions of our own humanity.  Both are tools we’ve developed over time to help us accomplish more with less.  Understanding that these tools are a reflection of our own humanity, we accept that we can be capable of both good and evil.  From fireworks to gunpowder, from missiles to rockets.

What I’m getting at is that if we want to move past the blame game and start looking to solve the problems we’re facing, we need to look at the people.  It’s people who are behind the development of this technology.  It’s people who are behind the companies like Cambridge Analytica.  And it’s people who are allowing themselves to be taken advantage of by both.  So it’s about time we look at the people involved.

For the most part, I place very little responsibility on the tech developers at Facebook, or anywhere else for that matter.  Almost every piece of technology that’s made, is made to solve a problem.  If it doesn’t solve a problem, it becomes obselete.  Throughout history, people have shown a desire to be more connected with one another.  Technological advancements in transportation brought us from horseback riding to hyperloops.  In communication, we went from telegraphs to texting.  Along the way, we realize that we didn’t have to physically be in the same place to have a social interaction with someone.  To some extent, we realized that we didn’t even need the other person to be there at all.  Asian Avenue, Apartment 107, Black Planet, Myspace… all pre-cursors to Facebook and show a continuum of what we were trying to accomplish.  The internet gave us this great platform where we could connect digitally instead of physically, and it was a dynamic that we clearly wanted to explore.  Had it not been Facebook, it would’ve been someone else.  And to think that this evolution stops at Facebook would be be unwise.  Social Media wasn’t a lab experiment from Silicon Valley, it was a social evolution, started by, driven by, and consumed by people.  Facebook just happens to be the playground we chose to play in today.

The blade is a tool, indifferent to whether it cuts the flesh of your enemies or a dinner for your friends.  It’s the person who chooses how to use the tool.  Could Facebook have made it more difficult for Cambridge Analytica to do what they did?  Probably.  What happened to #DontBlameTheVictim?  Maybe it only applies to people..  Regardless, understanding what happened at Cambridge Analytica is definitely the fun part.

Cambridge Analytica was a firm who realized that Facebook could be used as a platform for modern political propaganda and did so with a high level of efficacy.  That’s it.  I’m trying to see why it’s more complicated and complex than this, and I don’t think it is.  Propaganda isn’t a new or foreign concept.  For as long as there’s been politics, there have been people trying to manipulate the message for the sake of political gain.  And America has probably used those tools more frequently and effectively than any other government in the last 100 years.  How much has been used against its own citizens and how much has been used in countries abroad is anyone’s guess.  But just as propaganda found its way into print media, broadcast media, and digital media, it would surely make its way into social media.

Cambridge Analytica looks like they may have been up to some other shady political tactics.  If they happened, it just strengthens the case that politics desperately needs to be removed from governance.  But politics is how the powerful stay in power so perhaps that’s too big of a topic to tackle here.  What is worth focusing on though is what Cambridge Analytica was able to do and why they were able to do it.  After having watched all the hidden camera footage from Channel 4, one thing stood out to me more than anything else – their goal of targeting people’s fears.

The only thing that Facebook really provided Cambridge Analytica with were details on the things that you liked and didn’t like.  The sinister part was when they took the details of each voter profile and used them to created targeted groups based on what they were most afraid of.  If you were from a southern community which had lost jobs to immigrants, it was ‘build that wall’.  If you were afraid of a change in gun legislation, it was ‘Hillary will take your guns’.  If you were concerned with political corruption, it was ‘drain the swamp’.  Whatever you were afraid of, they would play to your fears.  While most people know that making decisions from a place of fear isn’t great, not everybody knows why.   Turns out it’s literally the wrong part of the brain for making these decisions.  The part of the brain which governs emotions like fear, is different from the part of the brain which governs rational thought.  People are navigating this propaganda in an emotional state of mind instead of a rational state of mind.  Instead of being able to think critically and rationally about the content that’s in front of them, they’re thinking emotionally and looking for an enemy.

And this is where I let Cambridge Analytica off the hook.  They should be held accountable for what they did, but then, we should also be held accountable for what we let them do.

The first few times I saw a juicy headline on Facebook, I definitely clicked through.  Juicy headlines and misdirection have been around since well before the Facebook news feed so it’s not like I was being duped, I was just sufficiently curious.  But each time was a let down.  The headline was always better than the content.  So I learned to stop clicking on what was eventually termed ‘click-bait’.  Seemed straight forward.

Over time, digital publications like BuzzFeed and Vice started popping up on my timeline.  They were far more legitimate than the click-bait articles I was used to, but something else was going on.  These publications also realized they had tapped into fear.  The fear of being a racist, the fear of being a sexist, the fear of being transphobic, and perhaps most importantly, the fear of being on the wrong side of a movement which seemed to be based on the virtuous pursuit of equality.  Their approach was more nuanced than Cambridge Analytica.  Instead of pushing raw propaganda to their audience, these digital publications started editing interviews or not properly sourcing articles, looking to craft a narrative which their audience was hungry for.  They were more interested in providing a narrative which made you feel good about what you already thought.  When you think you have the moral high ground, confirmation bias can be a dangerous thing.

But not everyone fell for it.

Not everyone took Jordan Peterson’s Vice interview at face value.  Not everyone liked or shared memes saying ‘The South Will Rise Again’.  Not everyone saw a comment section where everyone was agreeing with them and jumped right in.  Not everyone avoided a perspective that challenged their own.  And for those who did debate, not everyone approached it as a battle of them versus us.  Some of us couldn’t help but look at it as us versus the problem.

The problem isn’t privacy.  The problem isn’t Facebook.  The problem isn’t even Cambridge Analytica or the shady politicians they help put in positions of power.  The problem is us.

The problem is us.

When tools stop working, people stop using them.  Propaganda is the tool, and it will be used as long as we keep letting it work.  If we #deletefacebook, I can all but guarantee that this propaganda will follow us whichever social media channel we choose to spend those hours.  If we put the team at Cambridge Analytica behind bars, I can all but guarantee that another organization will take its place.  So why is our reaction still to place blame instead of facing the reality that this is about accountability.

If you think that sharing information about yourself makes you a better target for people looking to take advantage of you, welcome to the world.  But there’s hope.. and perhaps things are darkest before dawn.

I’ve learned to live my life like an open book.  I’ve abandoned the illusion of privacy.  I understand that information is more valuable when fewer people have it, but I also understand that knowledge is most valuable when everyone has it.  Digging deep on why people value privacy, it almost always comes back to a fear of what others will do with their private information.  So I choose to live without a fear of what others would do if they knew everything about me.

And – it – is – glorious!

I really couldn’t care less if Facebook showed to the public: my health records, my genealogy, my personal finances, my relationship history, purchasing behaviour… all of it.  To some extent, I wish they would.  I would gladly take that risk to try and demonstrate that transparency isn’t itself a risk.  In reality, our ability to share more information with one another has been at the core of every big leap forward our species has taken.  From a spoken language, to a written language, to the printing press, to the internet.  We just seem to have momentary lapses in judgement where we’re afraid of what will happen when only some of us can access that information.

We’ve now arrived at a point where between Facebook, Google, Apple and the NSA, there isn’t much that isn’t known about us.  The data is already being collected and unless you’re keen to go live off the grid, it won’t stop.  Who gets access to that data is largely out of our control.  There will always be bad actors with innovative ideas on how to abuse that dynamic… which means we either have to accept that we’re screwed, or find a way to rise above it.  I choose to rise above it.

My choice is that when someone takes the time to learn about me, and to use that information to take advantage of me, I’m prepared.  Not only am I prepared to be critical of the information I’m being presented with, I’m also prepared to be critical of my own actions if I allow myself to be misled.  It’s not always easy and I’m not always perfect, but when you let go of right and wrong and prioritize the truth, seeing through the noise becomes much easier.

I think that everyone’s life will be impeded by dishonesty and misdirection at some point, but I think it’s worth considering that it’s our tendency to be dishonest with ourselves which impedes our progress most.  A fear of how others might perceive us and how that might impact our lives.  But what happens when we let that fear guide us?  What happens when everyone had the ability to project to the world what they thought the world wanted of us?  Social Media gave us that ability and we’ve used it to create noise.  It’s a feedback loop of confusion where people struggle to understand the disconnect between how we present ourselves and who we really are.  And the closer we get to facing the truth, the louder we yell ‘Privacy!’

Or we could just let go.  When I imagine a world that has abandoned the premise of privacy, I see a world which has embraced the value of transparency.  I see a world that has truly realized the value of honesty.  A world where every piece of information is always available to every person.  I can’t help but think about that being the ultimate equalizer.