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Black in America

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Every single reader of this blog should read this amazing conversation about being black in public spaces. Jamelle Bouie, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Gene Demby, and Aisha Harris get at the heart of what being black means in performatively white spaces, such as at Starbucks. And at the heart of it is that white people materially contribute to racism simply by living their day to day lives because they don’t have to think about what their actions, thoughts, and beliefs have to do with black people. Here’s a couple of excerpts.

Bouie: I had a conversation with a reader over email who insisted that one should think of it as a diverse space. But having been there on many occasions, it strikes me as more akin to somewhere like the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Virginia—putatively diverse, but curated for the experience of white people.

McMillan Cottom: White people’s definition of diverse is fundamentally different than ours, of course.
Performative safe diversity that maintains majority culture is exactly what Starbucks and places like Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall traffic in. Starbucks takes this diverse, cosmopolitan form of colonized spaces to its logical ends. It is their whole shtick, which is why they had to work hard and quick to get this narrative back on track.

Demby: What was so interesting was how resigned those dudes [in the Starbucks video] were. Like, “This is some bullshit, but you can’t argue with the weather.”

There was a big report on stop-and-frisks in Philly for the year of 2015 that came out last year. It found that, like, 68 percent of the pedestrian stops in that police patrol area around Rittenhouse Square were of black people. But that’s just pedestrian stops. That’s not the contact that black people in the area may have had because members of the public sicced the police on them.

Demby: I was talking to Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and a Philly dude, who said it’s a mistake to partition the public’s racial bias off from the police’s racial bias. The police were called into this situation, as a colleague said, to mediate a misunderstanding, like they were RAs in a dorm and not armed agents of the state with broad discretion to use violence and detain people. And so there’s this way that the reasonableness of white people’s fears about black people is backed up by institutions. Folks call the cops to back them up in disagreements with other members of the public in ostensibly public spaces open to everyone.

McMillan Cottom: It reminds me of that story from years back where the Fox News guy was surprised that the black eatery Sylvia’s in Harlem was so civilized. There is no room in white imagination of a black civilized space. By default, all black people, to the extent that we may make a space black, pose a risk of uncivilized consumerism.

McMillan Cottom: They commodified this idea of the “third space”—the space that isn’t home and that isn’t work. The thing is, this space is supposed to be made by the culture. Starbucks said, “Oh no, we will make it about consumption.” And black people are always going to lose in that version of a third space, because the right to transact is lost when all the ideas of property and police become a tool for a basic-ass cup of coffee. The Starbucks third space is a place where white people can consume an idea that they’re being in a diverse public, while their $5 coffee buys them the safety of a barista who can call the police on someone to keep the space safe for them. Which is to say, it isn’t for us.

Harris: Remember how they Disney-fied and commodified the concept of the indie, small-business coffee house buy selling those compilation CDs that were basically white adult contemporary—Norah Jones, Train, and so on? The entire aesthetic is, for lack of a better word, whitewashed.

Also, remember “Race Together”?

Bouie: Oof, I completely forgot about that.

Demby: Oh, yes. The barista-just-wants-to-have-a-friendly-chat-about-race campaign!

McMillan Cottom: They really want to be the guy in the office who “gets” it. They have to be that guy, though, because their whole business plan rests on the demographics of a place like Rittenhouse Square. You need cheap labor for the baristas. You need foot traffic and transportation. You need urban-suburban density. All of those things come with “diversity.”

Demby: If you think that the implications of race are ultimately that we just have different foods and idioms—that fixing racism is about dialogue and talking it out and not about fundamentally rethinking how our society is arranged—then yeah, that ill-fated Starbucks campaign makes sense.

Bouie: The idea that the end stage of anti-racism is that black people (and others!) have equal ability to shape society, including notions of what is public and who it is for, is basically foreign to a lot of people.

Harris: Everything you all have just said, plus Jamelle’s piece about the concept of white spaces vs. black spaces in light of this incident, has gotten me thinking about how blackness can be rendered both invisible and visible in white spaces, depending upon how it might benefit whiteness or play into white people’s fears of blackness. When a white person feels threatened, like in a Starbucks, or when they see a “suspicious” black person on their block, we are a stark aberration to be dealt with swiftly and handily. Yet in other white spaces, like a restaurant where you are supposed to be served, you might be rendered invisible by your server. I cannot count how many times I’ve dined somewhere that was über-white and felt as though I was being ignored because of my blackness.

McMillan Cottom: So a few months ago I try to go to a yoga class. I pull up and park in the lot attached to the building. I am early, so I sit and eat my snack and read a book for a while. First, a white woman did that aggressive “Hello” thing at me through the window. Five minutes later, the front-desk employee came outside to tell me they don’t allow trespassing. Automobiles are supposed to be a space with a boundary. We’re socially invisible in them. We purchase them so, in a way, we’re in our own property when in them. Not even then could I be visible as a paying customer (which I was—I had paid online). But also I was hypervisible as a security threat.

Harris: OK, last question from me. Is Starbucks’ game plan—to shut down all of its stores for an afternoon and provide unconscious-bias training to its employees—a step in the right direction? Could it fundamentally change its role as a “third space” meant primarily for the comforts of white people?

Demby: I dunno. Whatever they arrive at, the thing about inclusive spaces, about creating and maintaining them, is that they are a lot of work. It’s a lot of signaling and a lot of being affirmative about what’s happening in a store at any given moment. Do y’all think Starbucks is up to that? It’s frankly going to require a kind of work that baristas don’t get paid enough to do and training that they probably won’t get. And given how hard it is to regulate policy across a chain as vast as Starbucks—this mess revealed how wildly varied the bathroom-use policy seems to be in their stores from place to place—it’s going to be really difficult to make this work in practice. But it might work as PR. At least enough for this to quiet down, anyway.

Bouie: It’s great PR. But the larger problem, I think, are city governments that facilitate “diversity” but aren’t as interested in inclusivity and who turn public space over to the developers and interests who build these spaces for affluent white people.

Harris: I concur. It’s also not clear if the conscious-bias training will be part of the onboarding process going forward. Starbucks is not a job that everyone works at forever. A new batch of employees will likely start working at some locations just a day after this session is supposed to take place. And then what?

McMillan Cottom: It is a step in the right direction FOR THEIR BRAND. It is totally on-brand. It’s extra on-brand. From a crisis-management perspective, it is genius. Will it change the experience of black customers at Starbucks? Likely not.

Effectively, every white person materially contributes to racism. It’s become (or always has been) so easy for liberals to point at guys in hoods and say “those are the racists!” But that is not the daily lived experience of race for most people of color in this country. Much more common is something like we saw at Starbucks in Philadelphia–a performatively liberal space in a supposedly liberal city that is in fact a distinctly uncomfortable and oppressive place for people of color.

This is the reality of race of America. That’s why I say and will continue to say that all white people are racist because we have all racial prejudice that exists on a continuum. We need to fight that racism actively, but it’s a battle that whites probably can’t even win. Unfortunately, most, and that’s especially true of many liberals, just don’t want to fight it. The “I can’t be racist! I voted for Hillary!” type of liberal is especially toxic. Whites materially contribute to racism in all sorts of ways other than having a Confederate flag on their car or subscribing to white nationalist beliefs–by giving a black person in a restaurant a funny look, by thinking someone is homeless or a gangster or somehow scary because they aren’t dressed the way we would think is respectable, by calling the police to solve a minor dispute when we know in the back of our heads that the police are as likely as not to use violence against black people, by being slightly scared when seeing a black man walking down the street at night, by flinching when a black man runs by us, and yes, by moving our children away from neighborhoods of color for the “good schools.” All of these are acts that directly and materially contribute to racism. The resistance we see in these posts to recognizing those acts as racist–those are also racist acts.

White racism can either be actively fought or we are basically comfortable with our racism. A space like Starbucks–which is often a sign of gentrification, another set of policies that led to more racism–comes with it an explicit, if unstated, set of white norms. When we enter that space and don’t see those white norms conformed to–a group of black girls speaking loud or a slightly disheveled black man wandering in to use the bathroom before he orders–we get uncomfortable or irritated. That is an emotional response that reflects and projects our racism, especially when we complain to the manager.

And if this sounds hard for you as a white person to solve and it feels like you can’t win no matter what you do–tough. Your experiences about being confronted with how your actions contribute to racism are nothing–NOTHING–compared to the lived experience of people of color based in part on your actions. So deal with and fight your racism in an active way or just be comfortable with your unspoken white privilege that hurts others. I am no different than any other white person in needing to fight my racism. Your or my voting for Democrats is nearly immaterial in this equation.

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