white fragility

Interrupting Racism at Starbucks: My Talk with a Fellow White Woman

Starbucks blog post

Well, turns out that visiting Starbucks the day before they close for the racial bias training was kismet. This just happened today:

 

***

I am sitting at a bench with two round tables at a Starbucks within a very white Indiana city that is a suburb of Indianapolis. A white man and woman sit at the other end of the bench. They are perhaps in their 50s? But I have difficulty judging age. They sit down to read. I notice the woman’s iPad wallpaper is a scripture quote.

I turn back to my work – which coincidentally is examining analyzing how white people categorize themselves within a survey I sent out.

It looks like they are getting ready to leave. The man comes back from the counter and tells the woman “They are closing at 2pm tomorrow”.

“What? Why for?” she asks in annoyed tone.

I hear all of this over the riot grrrl playlist I’m listening to on headphones. I take them off, as I am very curious how they will discuss this topic.

“Because of some training,” he responds. “It’s that sensitivity training.” His tone is placid and I cannot determine his opinion of said training.

The woman seems to express further annoyance, both in tone and facial expression. “How are they doing it? Videos?”

The man wasn’t quite sure.

I saw this as a good intervention moment.

My voice is low and soft; my goal is to come across friendly and not aggressive. “I think they are doing it seminar style with each team.” In all honesty, I have no idea how Starbucks will do the training. I just wanted to gently step into the conversation (USA Today does mention how the training will be conducted, if you are curious).

They both kind of go “Oh”.

Then the woman, still seated on the bench just two feet away, turns to me. Her voice takes on a sly, conspiratorial tone, sharing a secret that only I – a fellow white woman – can enjoy and appreciate. “It’s because of that thing that happened with the two men…”

It felt in that moment like she completely expected me to roll my eyes and laugh about the absurdity of it all with her.

I do not.

I quickly nod my head, as if I am misunderstanding her train of thought and share her opinion.

“Yes, I agree. It’s good they are doing a training on racism. There is a lot of it everywhere.” It is a push-back. I do not agree with her. This is usually not what a white person who explicitly or implicitly says something racist hears back in return.

I don’t have time to explain how white supremacy has shaped and continues to shape our country or give her a reference page full of critical race theory academic papers she should google. I would honestly like to see the conversation keep going and to help her interrogate her perspective that it is unnecessary (or worse) for Starbucks to have this bias training and that the men in Baltimore did not experience racism. So I kept my words short and waited.

Flummoxed, she shook her head and began stuffing things into her bag. “I’m not one of the younger generation who sees racism wherever I look,” she scoffed.

Her husband, probably for the better, is silent during this exchange. He’s still standing next to the table and waiting for his partner.

What I want to say is: “I have no idea how old you are, but I am sure you have seen some racism. You just didn’t care enough to pay attention.” But this is a bit more aggressive and people – strangers – don’t usually learn through aggression. It is a totally different story if they are the ones who are being aggressive, however this was not an aggressive situation. My goal as a white person is to be patient as needed when educating other white folks (while continuing my own education and listening to people of color – we all have a lot of collective work to do!).

“Well, you wouldn’t,” I respond. My voice maintains its softness, but there is a strip of steel running through it – I want to grab her attention. She looks at me with uncertainty. “We don’t usually see racism because we don’t experience it,” I continue while glancing down notably at my white arm and then back to her.

My statement bothers her. Her voice heightens just a bit in pitch and speed. “I don’t know what they talk about with that white privilege,” she says with derision. “I’ve never had anything handed to me. I’ve worked hard for everything.” Aggression spills out through the last two sentences, like a plastic bottle of mayonnaise that just got stepped on in a grocery store.

This is a common refrain from white people. Again, I don’t think she will give me the time to give an hour lecture on white privilege – or even time for the knapsack metaphor. I know she will leave soon. I’d rather her not leave without having some more food for thought.

“Yeah,” I say slowly as my wheels turn to find a relatable – and quick – story of how I experience white privilege. “I’m white and I grew up poor. But people definitely treated me better because I’m white than if I wasn’t, like with scholarships.” At my undergraduate institution I was often ‘a face’ for various things for the administration. This certainly privileged me. I was a good example of a poor kid trying to improve her life, but I am absolutely sure that if I wasn’t white I would not have received this same level of recognition.

I add quickly because she is getting up now: “Think about resumes and people with certain names don’t get—”

She cuts me off. Her words are stilted and not full sentences, as if she is at a point in her anger/annoyance/discomfort that she is trying to come up with something. She then says something akin to: “Well then what about women? If we going to talk about this…”

I internally roll my eyes. I am presuming her social class based on dress and devices, but it is a very older conservative middle-class white woman tactic to not care too much about sexism until it is a tool they can pull out of their purse to beat back issues of racism.

“Oh yeah!” I say this almost cheerfully, like ‘yes, that’s right, let’s discuss the interaction of multiple identities’ (note: intersectionality by Dr. Kimberlee Crenshaw gets misused too often, thus this wording).

The woman gives me a confused look. I continue. “Like I experience sexism because I am a woman, but also I experience privilege since I am write.”

She stands up. She has probably had enough of my ‘hippie liberal shit’ at this point (I assume).

I bring out what I hope will be my deus ex machina (a plot device that saves the day) even if previous experience community organizing in Christian churches for social justice has taught me it unfortunately is not.

“It’s what Jesus would want,” I say quietly. I believe this, even as I weave my own spiritual path that comes in contradiction of some religious institutions.

Her eyes narrow and, now standing, she almost looms over me (‘almost’ because she’s roughly five feet). “What did you say?” Venom soaks her voice. Either she heard me and disagrees or truly has no idea what I said.

I continue in a soft, yet not meek, voice. “I believe in getting rid of these issues like racism because that is what Jesus would want.”

An ugliness crosses her face that would (I assume since none can speak for any entity) inspire shame in Jesus. Her pale lips press into a thin line and she stares at me with furrowed brows.

“We have read the Bible back and front. There is nothing like that in there.”

I wish she could hear how she sounds. But her reaction is actually quite a common belief for many white Americans who go to church and read the Bible but are nowhere close to understanding God – not to say I understand God, but I sure know God is explicitly against evil. Racism is an evil.

“Sure there is,” I offer encouragingly. She begins walking away. “Think about the Samaritan story. That is all about race and difference.”

She says nothing more, nor does her husband. They leave Starbucks.

I honestly hope this woman (and her silent partner) think more on my words. If anything, I hope she asks herself the 1998-era saying “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) and recognize that Jesus would not be down with racism.

***

Why do I share this story?

It’s important for white people to share strategies on how to interrupt racism in everyday life. The fact that this took place at a Starbucks with a stranger due to Starbucks closing to do racial bias training? It was a timely reminder that these conversations can happen anywhere and at anytime – so let’s make the most of these opportunities when we can.

I hope my example can help others find the words and actions they can use to interrupt racism (and other acts of systemic oppression) within their own lives. However, I don’t hold up this example as perfection. I am imperfect and I do wonder if there are other speaking points or actions I could have taken; I certainly need better examples of white privilege that are brief to explain. But if this can help motivate other white people to jump into conversations, push back, and to educate – then awesome.

We, as white people, lose very little in confronting racism, especially compared to indigenous people/people of color  whose very lives can be at risk. But we also live in a world of ‘nice-ness’ where society teaches us not to confront people, especially strangers or elders, and to work towards harmony. Harmony only protects racists, so interrupting racism is important.

Starbucks, I’m glad you’re doing a bias training tomorrow. If anything, it provided an opportunity for at least one conversation on racism and white privilege to occur.

***

Feel free to leave a comment sharing your thoughts or send me a tweet at @NikiMessmore.

 

 

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