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Police monitor protesters outside a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 15, 2018.
Police arrested 2 black men whom were waiting inside the Starbucks for the arrival of their white friend.
This incident prompted an apology from the Starbucks CEO (Getty Images)

If you’ve been remotely news-conscious in the past few weeks, chances are you’ve seen the Starbucks video or at least heard the details.

But, just in case you haven’t. Here is the rundown of what we know: On Thursday, April 12, two black men entered a Philadelphia Starbucks to wait for their (white) comrade. One or both black men asked to use the bathroom but were told that bathrooms were only for paying customers. The store manager asked them to leave but they declined. According to the Washington Post, they declined to leave because they stated they were waiting for their (white) friend to arrive. The store manager called the cops and the 2 black men were arrested for trespassing.

Cellphone video shows different white people inquiring about why the 2 black men were detained as well as the arrest.

In the wake of the incidents, Twitter, blackademics, white liberals and conservatives alike have jumped on the #alittletoolatte train, but while debates tend to focus solely on team #starbucks, team #bluelivesmatter or team #blacklivesmatter, I can’t help but notice that no one is talking about why “well-intentioned” white people call the cops on black people.

The Root recently ran an article titled: From Starbucks to Hashtags, We Need to Talk about Why White Americans Call the Police on Black People, that I found both frustratingly depleted of practical suggestions but intentionally cross-racially oriented.
It is easy to jump into the latest racial incident with a desire to publicly shame whomever committed the latest offense. Or, to quickly build up a defensive argument siding with the “white innocent” and yelling something like: “wellhow many facts do we know for sure?!” without really acknowledging our own implicit bias and racial frameworks.

I would suggest that one of the problems with both of these responses is that both inherently rely on a system which ultimately demonizes a certain response without really promoting any intentional, sustainable dialogue regarding the ubiquity of racism.

Let me clarify this with a caution. In almost all incidents of racism or race-related events, the dialogue relies on POC of to be educators, and I recognize that this insistence on POC to act as cultural bridges is not fair, is usually traumatic and smacks of privilege.

First, I believe it is dangerous to limit the discussion to “two sides.” Whether you are blaming the police response or the white manager’s response, the truth remains that – more often than not – white people are often quick to call the cops on black people.

It is what white people are taught.

Think about it. In an article, I shared earlier in my blog: On the Subject of Tokenism and White Mennonites, I referenced that the majority of white people do not have non-white friends.

And, this segregation fundamentally impacts one’s ideology, particularly regarding whom one recognizes as a truth tellers and as a “safe person.” It is critical to understand that racial segregation is a fundamental part of the System. And this system was built intentionally on the bones of POC. And yet we act surprised when confronted with its resulting reality. It is equally important to remember that the #starbucks problem isn’t just limited to a lone Starbucks store or even to the business world.

Because it has never been just about #starbucks or #flintmichigan or even #Ferguson

Generally, I try to caution myself from using words like “always” and “never.” Because, after all, those words leave no room for experiences which are outliers; but, I would argue that at least in the past 200-300 years:

  • There has always been lead in the water
  • There have always been “nice” white women (and men) calling the cops on black persons
  • There has always been “nice” racists

This historical framework is critical to understand and consider when exploring how racial bias impacts the contemporary systems, institutions and persons in which we engage with on an everyday basis. 

Thus, I find it fundamentally irresponsible to consider that the Starbucks incident can be/has been and/or should be looked at as a singular event. Incidents of racial bias and racism cannot and should not be presented as exclusive or even extraordinary incidents. When we isolate racial bias incidences and pretend that racism happens only in certain areas or by certain businesses, we downplay and de-value the experiences of all marginalized communities because we center rather on particular elements rather than dismantling and deconstructing racism on a larger scale. 

It is perhaps fair to argue here that change must happen on a small scale before it can happen on a larger scale. And, I would assert that this is a valid point; however, I would and do insist that it is misleading and irresponsible to present the Starbucks incident as a Starbucks problem. I wonder what it would look like if the Media would incorporate an understanding of historical frameworks within each racial bias article. I wonder what would happen if black persons and POC were presented as truth tellers regardless of the #nationalconversationaboutrace era. I wonder what would happen if the NY Times wrote a Think Piece about how this incident would not have garnered national attention in 1960 or 1970 or 1980 or 1990 or even in 2005. I wonder what it would look like if white people were able to actively identify themselves in the situation and I wonder if we are brave enough to let that happen. 

As I have been reflecting upon the Starbucks incident, I have found myself lamenting a few realities: 

  • I lament the fact that it took a viral incident for Starbucks to implement Implicit Bias Training.
  • I lament the fact that it now takes viral incidents to propagate change. There are plenty (most likely hundreds and thousands, most definitely hundreds of thousands) of racially charged incidents which happen Every.Single.Day and yet, where is the Implicit Bias Training for the rest of America? 

It is easy, in situations like these, to nod your head and to label the store manager as  “that bad store manager” or even Starbucks as “that bad company.” Or, maybe even question the two black men’s behavior. It is easy to do all of this without intentionally investigating why or how the systems in which we engage in and with reinforce racial segregation and racial bias. 

It is easy to depict the store manager as racist without really wondering if another “nice” white person (maybe even you) would have reacted in the same way. After all, in her phone call to the police, she did call the two black men “two gentlemen.” 

In the aftermath of the Starbucks incident, I intentionally decided to take some time to formulate my response because my gut reaction was: why is this news?

To clarify – it is not that I don’t believe that incidents of racial bias should not be news, but racial bias is not a new invention and white people using police officers as agents of racial prejudice is part of America’s historic framework. 

So, I found myself questioning why this particular incident at this particular time in the world during these particular national “moments” is special, and I found myself honing in on one important and fundamentally disturbing truth:

Nationally, it is a convenient time for White (liberal) America to discuss race because the Trump Era political agenda has particularly emboldened the alt right…Charlottesville….confederate flags/statues…police brutality

I want to hone in on that “it is a convenient time” piece because I believe that when we talk about race and race-relations, it is critically important to identify who are the critical leaders by examining whom is really running the conversation. Identifying these underlying persons/institutions/systems is particularly important because it allows those involved to identify if the conversation will be sustainable, honest and/or held with integrity or if the conversation is only a guise for another underlying agenda.  

I think that it is important to clarify that the contemporary national conversation about race was intentionally reactionary. Black, brown and marginalized communities have not suddenly emerged as new voices regarding racism. Black, brown and marginalized communities have been naming systems of oppression and injustice for decades. And, the current contemporary national conversation regarding race was and is not a come-to-Jesus or a Kumbaya moment but a convenient moment.

The #sittingwhileblack and #livingwhileblack and #walkingwhileblack stories on Twitter are not exceptional moments particular only to this era because these stories hold historic implications and are products of historic racism. 

I want to clarify that just because the current conversation about race is convenient for white people doesn’t mean that black voices should not be heard. Finding moments to give voice to POC stories and POC pain is particularly important, but when black nd POC voices are only elevated for white convenience, the “conversation” no longer centers on black/POC narrative because there can never be true, sustainable change if the inherent structure of change relies on the tokenization of POC and the convenience/comfort level of white folks. 

Indeed, as I struggled to identify my additional disdain and reluctance to jump on the label-Starbucks as-racist (bandwagon?), I find myself reacting to what I would classify as the “White Liberal Avoidance Game.” This game is when contemporary white liberals feel the need to distance oneself with racism by fundamentally relying on two strategies: 

  1. Ally identification by way of publicly denouncing racialized incidents while intentionally claiming ally status (ie: I grew up in a lily-white town and met my first black friend in college, so I understand what it is like to have limited diverse social upbringing but even I know that the Starbucks store manager was a racist!)
  2. Ally identification as a distancing/shielding technique (ie: I have a lot of black friends and they would say that I don’t treat anyone differently, but I think that if I worked at Starbucks, I would have asked the gentlemen to leave as well…after all, they weren’t paying customers…). 

In the aftermath of Starbucks, I have noticed that many of my white friends -when discussing this incident – employ at least one of these strategies. And, I find this particularly problematic because

  1. Each strategy fails to recognize that the Starbucks incident is part of a larger racialized framework &
  2. Each strategy utilizes black/POC friendship in order to claim indisputable ally status which thus justifies implicit white innocence

While I recognize that, arguably, most of the national conversation about race happens via the Media and Social Media networks, which can often include say, reading an op-ed to reading disparaging comments which often devolve into personal attacks (and/or participating in personal attacks), I have yet to see many media related which commit to sustainable, cross-racial dialogue. What I have seen are the following:

·         PWI’s hiring a Diversity & Inclusivity Specialist in order to “fix” the “race problem”

·         Predominately white universities holding a one-time two-hour dismantling racism workshop

·         PWI’s holding one-day Implicit Bias Training while simultaneously ignoring the inherent racial structure of their institution

Let me be clear: each of these strategies are important when tackling crucial conversations regarding race. However, it is equally important to look at why, how and when these techniques are employed. What would have happened if the “Starbucks incident” never went viral? What would have happened if, say, the incident involved a black woman or an American Indian or an Asian American? Would the company have reacted in the same way? Additionally:

·         I wonder if Starbucks’ one-day training will include intentional monthly follow-up

·         I wonder if Starbucks’ will require employees whom are POC to participate…and, if these employees are required, I wonder how this requirement could/will continue racial trauma and tokenization

·         I wonder what the ramifications are regarding the sustainability of race-relations when Starbucks’ corporate leadership is predominately white? (Check out their leadership board here
·         I wonder what the point of a one-day training really is besides lip-service

I think these questions can also be applied in a wider setting. When any PWI holds a “one-day” or “two-hour” racism workshop…what is the point? To say that white people were uncomfortable and now they are not complicit with racism? Or maybe it is done so that it can be used as a shield next time said institution is accused of racism? (ie: Oh, but we had a racial bias training so we aren’t really racist…)

While, perhaps these responses are cynical, I really question the legitimacy and intentions of short-term missions racial bias training.  We have a lot of work to do – both as Americans, as Global Citizens- and, for those of you whom are, as Christians. Naming and addressing racial injustice and oppression requires hard, gritty, conversations which will continue to happen over a long period of time. Racism won’t dry up in a day. And companies can’t magically change the culture by implementing a one-time training when their “racist slip” starts to show.


As always, I welcome your thoughts.


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