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“I used to barely drink Starbucks, now I’m drinking pour-overs…” -Jacob and Judas

I think it’s safe to say that coffee shops have now replaced the dinner table as the universal meeting place for conversation and civil discourse. The precursor to a face-to-face dialogue seems to be a combination of carefully brewed beans and minimalist furniture aesthetics.

Business agreements are brokered, friendship reunions are celebrated, and socio-political views are even explored at the coffee shop. For Christians, the coffee shop has housed anything from mentorship/discipleship meetings to sermon preparation.

Demographics

All that said, the social dynamics of the coffee shop is still an evolving phenomenon. There are branding elements to consider. Certain types of coffee shops essentially solicit a certain type of consumer experience.

Dunkin’ Donuts is the working class citizen’s coffee. Ultra-hipster, one-of-one coffee shops square off in a battle royale of pretentious presentation and upper echelon barista specification. Tim Horton’s falls somewhere in the middle. Starbucks seems to stand alone as the mainstream chain option that offers just enough quality in coffee and aesthetic ambiance to qualify for an exclusive experience. Plus the free wi-fi is clutch.

Let me be clear, the coffee shop experience has not historically been a significant part of the black experience. Our public places of conversation would typically be beauty/barber shops, Applebee’s type restaurants, and even traditional black churches. However, recent trends indicate a rise in interest and investment in the coffee shop experience for the modern, urban-black intellectual. Still, the coffee shop is a primarily white-dominated space, and the aesthetics for most coffee shops across the board convey certain cues that if a black person enters a coffee shop, you are the exception rather than the rule.

Caught On Tape

I recently watched the viral video of the two young black realtors in a Philadelphia Starbucks who were arrested for “loitering.”

I immediately resonated with the scenario. It is clear to me why these men were singled out and so treated as intruders. The coffee shop experience was not designed for us. The Starbucks brand did not consider the cultural vernacular of the black community when it created its menu options, let alone conceptualized its interior decor.

The experience it has been selling does not align with the appearances of those young men, from their clothes all the way down to their skin tone. I’m willing to bet that not one Starbucks executive examined the question of how it would feel to enter a Starbucks as a black person. I admit I’m openly musing here, but I would take that bet.

As the mainline coffee shop brand, this subtle exclusionary message has been circulating for years now. In this situation, we simply saw this subtle message take its fullest explicit expression through an individual employee.

Police: Protect & Serve…Starbucks?

Not all coffee shops are created equal, and not all Starbucks employees would have done the same thing. Still, the coffee shop experience for the black community will have to continue working through certain branding disparities. The CEO of Starbucks has apologized and says he plans to try to meet with the young men who were mistreated. I hope their discussion uncovers the reality of the black experience of suspicion and “otherness” in many Starbucks locations everywhere.

There aren’t many (if any) Starbucks in majority black communities. I know black entrepreneurs have franchised different Starbucks locations and possibly tried to debunk the overall branding assumptions, but the caricature of the white woman ordering an absurd variation of a macchiato still holds true in how many see the coffee shop experience.

When the conversations about being black in America offer practical examples of everyday systemic injustice, they should include product marketing and consumer branding. Racial profiling is informed by these exclusionary tactics to invite certain consumers and exclude others.

When whites are found eye-rolling during the accounts of black people who face these exclusionary practices regularly, they suddenly seem to be shocked at the video evidence. It is time to leverage our “I TOLD YOU SO” to actual accountability for brands who will not even attempt to appeal to a black consumer.

The outcry is legitimate. Let’s not downplay the boycott concept just because of our consumeristic culture. These branding strategies contribute significantly to heinous applications of gentrification, academic segregation, and police brutality. In a very real sense, the police responded to a call from Starbucks in the way that they did in order to protect the Starbucks brand.

The Others

Because our country has experienced a significant uptick in racial tensions, the coffee shop has often been the meeting place to discuss these issues. In the church, many have been involved in the work of “racial reconciliation,” often tagged as the most important modern movement of the American church. This movement has required discourse at the coffee table.

Many of us who have been having these coffee-laced fireside chats never had an affinity for coffee before these conversations. I’ll use myself as an example. The lyrics I quoted above are my literal testimony.

Until I started worshipping with my white brothers and sisters under the banner of “racial reconciliation,” you would barely find me at a Starbucks unless I was getting a tea out of protest (I still do that sometimes today). Now, I’m drinking pour-overs as a borderline coffee snob in denial. Do you hear what I’m saying? I didn’t even mess with the stuff until white folks introduced me to this as a conversational concept! Now I’m regularly “intruding” upon the coffee shop scene as an invitation to social conversations.

With this consideration, I could vividly see my life in those young guys in the Philly Starbucks. I’ve walked into different coffee shops feeling like an outsider. I have white friends I meet with who are tardy at times, so I’m often left waiting for them to show up—not ordering anything because I want to share a coffee with them rather than drinking alone.

Could I be asked to leave? Could I be required to order something? Would I be refused if I asked to use the restroom? Would I be arrested for loitering?

The branding of these shops gives me pause to consider this a real possibility. Systemic injustice based on skin color is alive in everything from our government policies to our restaurant policies. But I was especially impressed with the dignity of the young men in the face of such a blatant injustice.

May we take these real moments captured on camera to heart as a sobering picture of the brokenness this society still largely denies, strengthening our resolve to fight for a cause we know is just.

Taelor Gray is a contributor for The Witness who serves as a teaching pastor at Cornerstone Community Church in Westerville, OH. He is also a hip-hop artist, most recently releasing latest album In the Way of Me in February 2017. He is currently living in Columbus, OH with his wife Liz, their son Levi, and daughter Chloe. Follow him on Twitter @taelor_gray

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