The past week has not been great for Starbucks.
Last Thursday, two black men were filmed being arrested at a Philly store and spent the evening in jail for sitting at a table and quietly waiting for a third party to arrive for a business meeting. And Monday, a black man was refused the right to use the bathroom in a Starbucks because he hadn’t purchased anything— this, immediately after a white man did the same thing, got the bathroom code, and experienced exactly zero negative consequences.
Today I’m not going to get into the fact that calling police on a black person who is not in the process of committing a crime is always an act of deadly aggression that amounts to racial terrorism (The Root did a fine job of that here).
I’m going to tell you about the White Lady Experiment my friends Heather and Sara invited me into yesterday.
We went to the whitest Starbucks we could think of and we sat there for an hour doing nothing but being obnoxious.
We used their bathrooms.
We talked loudly, sometimes using expletives (that was mostly me), about the injustice and destructiveness of white supremacy in black lives, particularly when expressed through corporate and institutionalized racial aggression.
We prominently displayed a sign that said, “This IS about Starbucks, and all businesses, and You and Me. #ExamineYourBias #BlackLivesMatter.”
And, notably, we did not purchase anything.
The consequences of our actions were astoundingly unremarkable:
Police were not called.
We were not asked to leave.
Rather, we were offered free samples of a new coffee drink.
One barista laughed at one of my expletive statements she’d overheard.And at the end of our time, immediately after we filmed a Facebook live video about where we were, what we were doing, and the (non-existent) consequences of our actions — all of which the baristas were watching and quite well-aware — we were actually thanked for coming and wished a happy rest of our day.
This, dear readers, is how Whiteness works:
Three middle-aged white women can loiter in a Starbucks for over an hour, purchase nothing, use their bathrooms, openly condemn the company and outspokenly challenge the racist norms that pervade the area of town we’re visiting, and we will be offered freebies and well-wishes for the road.
The worst we could note were the double-takes and wide-eyes a few customers gave in response to Sara’s Black Lives Matter shirt. And Heather noted how different her experience was from when she takes her black twins to Starbucks: Today, she was offered nothing but smiles. With them, she’s given blatant glares, looks of pity, and — occasionally — hero worship from white folks who fancy her the savior of those “poor black kids.” But never just the smiles like today.
It should go without saying in 2018, but nevertheless bears constant repetition, that this is not how the visit would’ve gone for our darker-skinned friends. Had three women of color done exactly what we did? Given the public scrutiny Starbucks is certainly facing, they may not have been kicked out or had the police called; but it’s highly unlikely they’d have been given free drinks or been wished a happy day on their way out. They certainly wouldn’t have avoided the glares and stares and passive-aggressive judgments of the other guests.
What’s most disturbing for us is that this whole experiment is utterly typical for a white person. I can’t count how many times I’ve used private business facilities or loitered for hours without purchasing a thing, and I’ve never yet been visited by an unfriendly comment, never mind police. This is how things should go — for everyone.
But the fact is, that’s just my whiteness talking and walking and breathing.
People of color live in a different world with different rules and different consequences for breaking them.
What my skin color allows me to get away with are the very things people of color are demonized, harassed, arrested, even killed for.
The onus is on we who are privileged by and within the system to destroy the system because it destroys others.