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Opinion | Starbucks Incident Reminds Us Equality Is Complicated

Though dramatic and absurd, the Starbucks incident in downtown Philadelphia was following a script. Four weeks earlier, black teenagers at an IHOP in Maine were asked to pay before they received food. In both cases, and in many more that go unseen because there aren’t enough moral whites uploading videos, black customers have to authenticate their existence.

To receive ordinary services and respect in white spaces, they need permission. They have to have perfect behavior and follow the “rules.” And even then, they must convince the gatekeepers of white privilege they are special enough to share space.

Social theorist and academic W.E.B. DuBois conceived a century ago “The Talented Tenth.” He was referring to exceptional black people as the solution to oppression; they would rescue the others who were struggling. However, whites have used the Talented Tenth model in various ways to restrict mostly everyone they didn’t approve of. People of color were now faced with the steepest of all hurdles: equality, but as an option.

Navigating and negotiating the white world comes with a litmus test. Outside of the exceptional brown-skinned person, everyone else will have to convince someone. In white spaces, people of color are visitors. At any moment, they can have their visitor card ripped out their hands. It is one more complication of equality. People of color have to prove they belong before they are accepted. Whites have to prove they don’t belong before they are rejected.

But here is the problem with having to prove your humanity: It takes a fact and turns it into a question. “You are a decent human being” suddenly becomes “Are you a decent human being? Show me.” It is performance art, a dance, with the person of color having to prove their worth.

Black people must convince the gatekeepers of white privilege they are special enough to share space.

In March, a group of teenagers in Maine went to an IHOP to grab a meal. They were seated and gave their order to the waitress, who politely asked them to pay before they were served. No one else in the restaurant had to pay first, only them. Before the teens could justify their existence, customers overheard the conversation and objected, and then posted the encounter on Facebook.

The IHOP manager, Melvin Escobar, apologized and said it was the first time an incident like that had ever happened. He rationalized the behavior of the waitress by saying teenagers had run out on their checks before.

Therein is the solemn consequence of racism. We evaluate people of color by the worst of their group, not the best. The teens were guilty because they were teens. The teens were guilty because they were black.

When Zora Neale Hurston wrote of herself “I am not tragically colored,” she could have been writing about the two men in Starbucks. They behaved proudly and were targeted and shamed. Their calm temperament wasn’t enough to receive a benefit from white privilege.

After being denied bathroom rights while waiting for a colleague, they refused to leave when they were told to, even when pressured by police authority. The paradox of their commitment is that they were behaving appropriately and yet they paid a price for it. It’s the balancing act people of color have to face in white spaces. Be woke but receive your punishment.

A Starbucks coffee cup with "Stop calling cops!" written on the side sits on a table as police monitor protesters inside

Dear white people: Equality is not optional. It is not a preference nor a benefit. It is also not a transaction you can use to absolve yourselves of racial bias by recording incidents and becoming white saviors. Fixing racism in America isn’t about recording and then pressing send.

Four friends were out for lunch in Southern California and were stunned when their server at Saint Marc in Huntington Beach asked for “proof of residency.” One of the friends, Diana Carrillo, a Latina business analyst, complained to the manager, then wrote about the encounter on Facebook. The waiter acted as if he had the authority to demand citizenship documentation in his zeal to protect his white space from women of color.

In 2017, the number of Americans who considered racism a major problem increased by 8 percentage points over the previous two years. Fifty-eight percent viewed racism as a big problem, according to the Pew Research Center study. Twenty-nine percent of the respondents said it was “somewhat of a problem,” and 12 percent thought racism was a small problem or not a problem at all. Two years earlier, only 50 percent of the population said it was a big problem, and in 2011 that number was as low as 28 percent.

That year, Barack Obama was still the president and bestowed upon the country a false sense of racial calm. The country had to be equal because the president was black. But because the president was black, he affirmed the DuBois “Talented Tenth” exception. Once Obama left office, heightened racial anxiety resurfaced, in a big way.

An eight-hour training session for Starbucks employees cannot reroute a 400-year system of preferences, advantages and racial biases

Social media has the tendency to take the worst of humanity and entertain us with the horror, like watching a car accident with mouths agape. Pretty quickly, everyone gets over it and it is business as usual. Starbucks continues to serve customers. IHOP continues to flip pancakes. 

The CEO of Starbucks, Kevin Johnson, met with the two men the police handcuffed and said, “I will fix this.” Starbucks is closing thousands of stores to train employees on issues regarding racial discrimination. It is estimated to cost the company near $6 million.

Johnson is serious and overconfident at the same time. Starbucks may be successful in advising employees that you don’t call the police because a black person is waiting inside the store for a colleague. But an eight-hour training session cannot reroute a 400-year system of preferences, advantages and racial biases just because Johnson has good intentions.

Racism begins in the heart and in the mind. Its antidote is believing all people are equal and that equality is not a benefit for the few. 

Racism begins in the heart and in the mind. Its antidote begins with a belief: All people are equal. But even then, even with good people, an imbalance exists because so much of racism is ingrained and accepted, and goes unnoticed. That is what keeps in place a system of privilege where white women call the police and black men are handcuffed for doing nothing wrong.

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