Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and the author of “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” (Dutton). The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
As a black man who was kicked out of a coffee shop in 2015, I had some thoughts when I heard about the two black men being kicked out and arrested for loitering in a Starbucks in Philadelphia recently. For the record, I wasn’t kicked out of a Starbucks. I was kicked out of The Elmwood Cafe, an independently owned and operated coffee shop in Berkeley, California. While the right (alt and otherwise) would have you believe that Berkeley is the liberal utopia, those of us who live out here know that’s not true – at least we hope this isn’t what a liberal utopia is.
My story is in many ways the same as the two black men in Philadelphia. Days after it happened I wrote about it. I also told the story on “This American Life” and wrote about it in my book. But my story is also markedly different. No one called the cops on me, but I do remember being nervous that was a possibility. And in January 2015, when I was kicked out, the news was filled with stories of Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson cop named Darren Wilson, so what could have happened if the police had shown up was front and center on my mind. I can’t imagine what those black men in Philadelphia went through, being locked up until 1:30 in the morning. I can, but I don’t really want to.
Our stories are similar in a couple of ways. We both had white women step up to get involved. The white woman in their situation is Melissa DePino, who tweeted the video of the arrest and has spoken out about what she witnessed. That is the only reason we are all talking about it right now. In my case I had a ringer, my wife. She was there when I was kicked out of The Elmwood Cafe. In fact, in a weird way it was her fault I was kicked out, because I was kicked out for talking to her. They thought I was trying to sell her something. I was showing her and her friends a new children’s book I had just bought about Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who is responsible for making interracial marriage legal throughout the country. And if that doesn’t seem corny enough, it was also my birthday! “Happy Birthday! The Elmwood Cafe got you some racism!”
The other way in which my situation is similar to the black men in Philly is the playbook that Starbucks is running is eerily similar to the one The Elmwood Cafe ran:
1. Initial hastily thrown together, ham-fisted, and unsatisfying apology
2. “Responsible parties” getting fired
3. Initial apology is replaced with a better apology that promises change and a new day
I don’t know if the next thing on Starbucks list is going to be the same as The Elmwood Cafe yet. There hasn’t been enough time. To be absolutely clear, the next thing on The Elmwood Cafe’s list was:
4. Wait for the media backlash to blow over and the return to business as usual while making but not measurably adhering to ANY OF THE CHANGES PROMISED.
After the better apology, my wife, Michael Pearce (the owner of The Elmwood Cafe), a cadre of activists, and I had a community forum on racism in Berkeley at a middle school. The owner promised to end implicit bias in his cafe, then in the stores on his block, then in the neighborhood, then in Berkeley, then I guess eventually in the entire the galaxy. For those not on the cutting edge of rebranding the worst of society’s ills, “implicit bias” basically means racism where nobody dies or needs to go to the hospital. At the community forum, when Pearce announced his plans he added that he and I were doing this together. I immediately looked over at him like, “We are???” He put my reputation on that line. After the meeting I repeatedly followed up with him about “our plans.” He quickly stopped returning my emails. The website he built, ImplicitBiasTraining.com, is currently just a white space, surrounded by yellow. If there is a better visual representation for white cowardice than whiteness engulfed in yellow, I don’t know what it could be.
So we have yet to find out if Starbucks will just wait for this heat to blow over and go back to business as usual, but believe me, people of color (and woke white folk) won’t be surprised if that is what they do. That’s why people were outside the Philly Starbucks this weekend. That’s why the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks is trending. People know that if you don’t actively hold companies accountable for their actions, then you believe they will just change things on their own. Remember, it was not that long ago that Starbucks was trying to end racism by writing on their cups. What did they do after that failed? They just went back to business as usual. But this time we can’t let that happen. Because these gentlemen’s story isn’t that unique and it isn’t just limited to coffee shops. Every day black people find themselves in simple situations where suddenly out of nowhere, we are treated like criminals. This Starbucks situation is not that far removed from Brennan Walker, the black teenager who was shot at by a man just for asking for directions.
That’s why I am against just firing the employees who are deemed the guilty parties. That just makes the employees the scapegoats for America’s entire history of institutionalized and structural racism. This isn’t just about a couple of rogue baristas ignoring the employee manual. I’m sure the Starbucks manual says, “DON’T BE RACIST/SEXIST/ABLEIST/TRANSPHOBIC/HOMOPHOBIC/JERKHOLE-IC!” all over it. It has to. Starbucks is a major corporation. But I’m guessing the manual doesn’t tell its employees how not to be racist/sexist/ableist/transphobic/homophobic/jerkhole-ic. This is key. I remember how the owner of The Elmwood Cafe told me that he didn’t train his employees to be racist. But he didn’t have to train be to be racist for them to act in racist ways. You have to un-train people. Racism is baked into America’s cake. It is the flour, the white, bleached flour.
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So if Starbucks wants to truly make a difference, then they need to not just commit to ending discrimination in their coffee shops, they need to commit to being advocates for ending discrimination in America. If they can get us all to pay five bucks for coffee, this should be no big deal. Or they can just be like The Elmwood Cafe in Berkeley and let it blow over and get back to business as usual. My family and I haven’t been back to The Elmwood Cafe since. I fell in love with small double shot, no whip, mochas at Starbucks, but if they don’t make real lasting changes, I can get them many, many, many other places.
An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly stated that Melissa DePino recorded the video. She did not. She posted it to Twitter with written permission of the person who recorded it.