You can read this series from the beginning here.
I had to go to four different Starbucks before I found somebody that would talk to me about race. The first place I went to was the regular place I go to, and they thought I wanted my usual, which is a caffe americano, shade-grown, with hazelnut and soy milk. I had to explain that I wanted a grande dark roast, black.
"Why do you want that?" the barista asked.
"It seems like the best way to start a conversation on race," I said. "Unless you’d think it would work better if I got a flat white."
"I’m going to make you what I always make you," the barista said, "and you’re going to pay for it, and then you’re going to work. We got a line here out the door, in case you can’t tell."
The line at the second place was even longer, and they were even less chatty, and they wrote "Justine" on my cup. By the time I got to the third place, I’d had so much caffeine that I didn’t even notice that nobody else was talking about race at Starbucks, either. It wasn’t just me.
When I finally made it to work, I went on Twitter and did a quick search of the #RaceTogether hashtag just to see if I could find where there was a Starbucks in the DC area that had baristas that were interested in initiating our national conversation on race. I mean, I understood that baristas are busy during the morning rush, and that Starbucks is, after all, still a business (despite their admirable record on social causes) and that maybe not everybody has time to participate that early. But making a difference requires a national conversation on race, and there’s no reason that can’t start at Starbucks, and it’s more important than coffee anyway.
I wasn’t shocked that conservative Tweeters had hijacked the #RaceTogether hashtag. I probably would have done the same thing in their place, if the Koch Brothers had ordered that all conservatives should initiate a national conversation on pollution and climate change at Exxon stations. But it was still annoying. The only way that we’re going to ever make any progress in racial relations is if people stop making jokes about it, and, you know, do positive things like make new speeches and pass new laws and send the National Guard in to shut down everyone who doesn’t agree with the new speeches and the new laws, because that’s worked better than anything else ever has. But if we can’t get people to talk about race, even at Starbucks, then how is anything ever going to improve?
So I spent my lunch hour figuring out whether or not the DC Metro trains run out to Southeast Washington–it turns out that they do!–and I found a Starbucks that was in a nice office building just north of the Waterfront station. I knocked off early–we’re mostly in a holding pattern now, waiting for the former Secretary to make her formal announcement–and took the train south.
I walked in the door. The Starbucks was, blessedly, almost empty. I didn’t even see anyone working on their screenplay. There were a couple of police officers sitting in the corner, drinking Frappuccinos and eating scones. I thought about making a "Hands Up Don’t Shoot" reference, but I tried that on the security guard in my building once and he told me a story about his nephew who got beaten by state troopers in North Carolina one time and I didn’t feel good about myself for like a day and a half.
"Coffee," I told the barista. "Dark roast."
"Cream and sugar?" he asked.
"Black," I said.
"Black like me?" The barista smiled. It wasn’t a happy smile.
"Well, see, that’s just it, isn’t it. We ought to be able to enjoy our coffee without any racist overtones."
"If you want your coffee with that hashtag on it," he said, "I can do that, but you need to put an extra dollar in the tip jar."
"Look," I said. "I came down here in good faith, to participate in a national conversation about race."
"And so you are. But it will cost you. You want to talk about white privilege, show some green money."
I took a five-dollar bill out of my wallet, folded it so that the big 5 on the back was visible, and put it in the jar.
"Now we’re talking," he said. "So what’s on your mind?"
I was going to say police brutality but thought better of it. "How come more people aren’t concerned about racism in this country? You’d think everyone would realize how important it is to talk about race, but there isn’t hardly anyone else here."
The barista finished pouring my coffee. "You sure you don’t want cream and sugar? Pardon me for saying so, but you look more like a caramel macchiato guy to me."
"Soy milk and hazelnut syrup," I admitted.
"Honesty is important. Most people don’t want to be honest about themselves, let alone other people, let alone other people whose skin color is different. Right?"
"I dig what you’re saying," I said.
"You dig? What are you digging? This is not the nineteen-seventies, I am not Jimmie Walker. We are not talking jive to each other. I am a coffee service professional, and you are whoever you are, and we’re having a conversation and not digging anything. You understand?"
"I understand."
"Most people–most black people–would have said something rude and condescending to someone looking as white as you do the second you walked into a coffee shop in a black neighborhood. I didn’t do that. I treat people with respect. That’s all anyone wants, of any color. So there’s your five dollars’ worth of race conversation for the day. Enjoy your coffee."
I took my coffee–complete with the #RaceTogether inscription–out of the Starbucks and down the escalator to the Metro station. The train wasn’t coming for another five minutes. The barista had put almond milk in my coffee instead of soy milk. And it made a big difference to the flavor profile. The black coffee was the same as it had ever been, but adding in a different type of milk made it even better. The conservatives were wrong again. Starbucks was right to encourage conversations about race. The results were too delicious to ignore.
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