Being Black in Public

When you’re black in America, you’re either seen as a problem or not seen at all.

Protesters gather on Monday at the Starbucks location in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested.
Protesters gather on Monday at the Starbucks location in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested. Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last Thursday, an employee at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two black men who were waiting for the arrival of a business partner without having ordered anything at the counter. When police arrived, the men were arrested for trespassing. A bystander caught the encounter on video, which showed the men resigned to their fate as other white patrons protested the arrest, and the incident went viral.

Starbucks is now in full-on damage-control mode, with plans to shut down its stores nationwide for an afternoon of employee unconscious bias training. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said that the officers acted according to protocol, but his department has launched an internal investigation.

The events have sparked yet another conversation about what it means to be a black person in a public, predominantly white space, but it’s unclear whether this will lead to any real shift. Below is an edited and condensed conversation between Slate writers Aisha Harris and Jamelle Bouie, NPR’s Gene Demby, and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom about the significance of this happening at Starbucks in particular and about navigating public spaces while black.

Aisha Harris: OK, it’s not like we haven’t seen this play out time and time again in both the media and our personal lives. So how did you react when you first read about what happened at Starbucks?

Tressie McMillan Cottom: I have post-traumatic stress disorder at this point with videos of white people doing horrible, routine racism. Like a lot of black people, I suspect, reading the latest on this primed all the emotions of my experiences of being profiled or othered in white spaces. And then you deal with the inevitable shock from white people, which in its way only reinforces how utterly hypervisible yet invisible we are. The constant shock to white sensibilities is part of the black trauma.

Jamelle Bouie: Right. I’m not sure that I had any reaction beyond, “Ah, another example of black people getting arrested for the crime of—checks notes—existing in public space.”

Harris: Same. I think my blood boiled for about 10 seconds, and then I was like, “Welp, white people gonna white.” Gene, this actually happened in your ‘hood, your hometown. Was that Starbucks even there when you were growing up?

Gene Demby: I don’t remember it being there. I grew up not too far from there, maybe a 20-minute walk, in South Philly. I guess gentrifiers are calling it Southwest Center City now. That area, Rittenhouse Square, has always been sort of wealthy and hoity-toity. But because of how centrally located it is, it’s pretty diverse during the day, full of people passing through on their ways to and from work and shopping. So the neighborhood’s residents are super white, but you wouldn’t know it if you walked through there during work hours, if that makes sense.

Bouie: I had a conversation with a reader over email who insisted that one should think of it as a diverse space. But having been there on many occasions, it strikes me as more akin to somewhere like the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Virginia—putatively diverse, but curated for the experience of white people.

McMillan Cottom: White people’s definition of diverse is fundamentally different than ours, of course. Performative safe diversity that maintains majority culture is exactly what Starbucks and places like Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall traffic in. Starbucks takes this diverse, cosmopolitan form of colonized spaces to its logical ends. It is their whole shtick, which is why they had to work hard and quick to get this narrative back on track.

Demby: What was so interesting was how resigned those dudes [in the Starbucks video] were. Like, “This is some bullshit, but you can’t argue with the weather.”

There was a big report on stop-and-frisks in Philly for the year of 2015 that came out last year. It found that, like, 68 percent of the pedestrian stops in that police patrol area around Rittenhouse Square were of black people. But that’s just pedestrian stops. That’s not the contact that black people in the area may have had because members of the public sicced the police on them.

Bouie: Gene’s bit of data gets to something that, I think, gets lost in discussions of police abuse and reform. The police act autonomously, yes, but also they are often called with the express purpose of regulating the presence of black people in a space. Randomly select a group of 10 black people, and at least one of them will have a story of the cops being called on them and their friends for no particular reason.

McMillan Cottom: In a broken-windows approach to policing, being black is the broken window. It is just cause for aggressive policing. The Philadelphia police commissioner wasn’t wrong when he said the officers did their job. They did. And that’s the problem.

Harris: Yes. While Starbucks is getting this image makeover, no one is questioning why this is a justified method for regulating space in the first place. Maybe the cops don’t have to arrest these guys for not ordering fast enough.

Demby: I was talking to Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and a Philly dude, who said it’s a mistake to partition the public’s racial bias off from the police’s racial bias. The police were called into this situation, as a colleague said, to mediate a misunderstanding, like they were RAs in a dorm and not armed agents of the state with broad discretion to use violence and detain people. And so there’s this way that the reasonableness of white people’s fears about black people is backed up by institutions. Folks call the cops to back them up in disagreements with other members of the public in ostensibly public spaces open to everyone.

McMillan Cottom: It reminds me of that story from years back where the Fox News guy was surprised that the black eatery Sylvia’s in Harlem was so civilized. There is no room in white imagination of a black civilized space. By default, all black people, to the extent that we may make a space black, pose a risk of uncivilized consumerism.

Demby: To piggyback off Tressie’s point on race and space, can we talk about who Starbucks is for?

McMillan Cottom: They commodified this idea of the “third space”—the space that isn’t home and that isn’t work. The thing is, this space is supposed to be made by the culture. Starbucks said, “Oh no, we will make it about consumption.” And black people are always going to lose in that version of a third space, because the right to transact is lost when all the ideas of property and police become a tool for a basic-ass cup of coffee. The Starbucks third space is a place where white people can consume an idea that they’re being in a diverse public, while their $5 coffee buys them the safety of a barista who can call the police on someone to keep the space safe for them. Which is to say, it isn’t for us.

Harris: Remember how they Disney-fied and commodified the concept of the indie, small-business coffee house buy selling those compilation CDs that were basically white adult contemporary—Norah Jones, Train, and so on? The entire aesthetic is, for lack of a better word, whitewashed.

Also, remember “Race Together”?

Bouie: Oof, I completely forgot about that.

Demby: Oh, yes. The barista-just-wants-to-have-a-friendly-chat-about-race campaign!

McMillan Cottom: They really want to be the guy in the office who “gets” it. They have to be that guy, though, because their whole business plan rests on the demographics of a place like Rittenhouse Square. You need cheap labor for the baristas. You need foot traffic and transportation. You need urban-suburban density. All of those things come with “diversity.”

Sorry, but I gotta do this.

Demby: Don’t do it, Tressie! But yes! If you think of “talking about race” as just getting to understand each other better … that’s, I suppose, well-intentioned? That campaign, which cratered almost as soon as it was announced, made me think of something I think a theologian at Boston University named Dan Hauge said to me on Twitter once: “I think one issue is, we whites imagine the endgame of anti-racism as harmonious relationships rather than equal power to shape society.”

Harris: Kumbaya vs. “I just wanna be treated fairly like everyone else.”

Demby: If you think that the implications of race are ultimately that we just have different foods and idioms—that fixing racism is about dialogue and talking it out and not about fundamentally rethinking how our society is arranged—then yeah, that ill-fated Starbucks campaign makes sense.

Bouie: The idea that the end stage of anti-racism is that black people (and others!) have equal ability to shape society, including notions of what is public and who it is for, is basically foreign to a lot of people.

Harris: Everything you all have just said, plus Jamelle’s piece about the concept of white spaces vs. black spaces in light of this incident, has gotten me thinking about how blackness can be rendered both invisible and visible in white spaces, depending upon how it might benefit whiteness or play into white people’s fears of blackness. When a white person feels threatened, like in a Starbucks, or when they see a “suspicious” black person on their block, we are a stark aberration to be dealt with swiftly and handily. Yet in other white spaces, like a restaurant where you are supposed to be served, you might be rendered invisible by your server. I cannot count how many times I’ve dined somewhere that was über-white and felt as though I was being ignored because of my blackness.

McMillan Cottom: So a few months ago I try to go to a yoga class. I pull up and park in the lot attached to the building. I am early, so I sit and eat my snack and read a book for a while. First, a white woman did that aggressive “Hello” thing at me through the window. Five minutes later, the front-desk employee came outside to tell me they don’t allow trespassing. Automobiles are supposed to be a space with a boundary. We’re socially invisible in them. We purchase them so, in a way, we’re in our own property when in them. Not even then could I be visible as a paying customer (which I was—I had paid online). But also I was hypervisible as a security threat.

Demby: Damn, Tressie.

McMillan Cottom: That’s how that visible-yet-invisible thing works over and over and over again. In all these routine transactions we have to make to be part of a culture, we have this constant friction.

I sometimes daydream about what it must be like to move around frictionless in this society. The closest I come to it is when I am abroad. But it must be amazing—so amazing that white people will call the National Guard to protect it at all costs.

Demby: Karen Attiah of the Washington Post pointed to a bunch of other stories like this Starbucks one, in which black folks had the police sicced on them for being … in public. Skip Gates. The girl who was yoked up by that cop at the pool party in McKinney, Texas.

Bouie: Black people are viewed broadly as pathological, such that if we’re not controlled, our mere presence threatens to destabilize the order of things.

Harris: That pool party video still haunts me—the image of that girl being dragged by the police.

McMillan Cottom: The pool party haunts me too, Aisha.

Harris: Has anyone else besides Tressie had an experience along the lines of being invisible/visible like this Starbucks story?

Demby: Oh, God.

Harris: As soon as I typed that, I was like, “Maybe I should rephrase this as, ‘Choose one, from the many I’m sure you’ve had.’ ”

Demby: LOL.

Bouie: Hah!

McMillan Cottom: There are the big ones like the yoga studio, but I also want to shout out the more muted versions of this. It’s the extra question that, to be asked, had to assume that you are somehow in the wrong place. “Are you looking for X?” when you’re perfectly fine, for example. Or, “This is the [insert obvious description of the place you’re standing],” which is a way for front-line staffers and just regular white people to initiate an exchange where we are supposed to explain why we’re there. It’s that we are always somehow in the wrong place. It looks like service, but it is social control.

Bouie: I was just thinking about those muted versions, Tressie.

Demby: Yep. Every time I’m in a department store. Especially if I’m wearing a hoodie. Especially if I’m not wearing my glasses.

Bouie: What’s difficult in talking about those is that it’s hard to convey what that feels like to people who don’t experience it.

McMillan Cottom: I asked someone recently if I have resting lost face. Why do people assume I’m so lost all the damn time? Of course, we know why, but yeah.

Bouie: I think, to someone who isn’t faced with it all the time, it just seems innocuous. “Oh, they want to help.” But if I’m clearly looking at—to use a recent example—a piece of photography equipment and someone comes up to ask, “What can I help you find?” I don’t feel like I’m being helped at all!

Harris: Nine times out of 10, they’re really trying to “help” you not steal.

McMillan Cottom: You know that’s what the question is, because if you don’t answer it with an explanation, they go a little bananas. I do that now, by the way, for cheap entertainment. “Hi, can I help you find … ” and I go—blank face—and watch them fall apart. I should note that I can get away with that passive silence because I’m a woman, I think. I suspect black men can’t.

Harris: The funny thing—to bring it back to the visible vs. invisible dichotomy—is that when I really do need assistance, it’s often like I’m not there. I am 2 feet away, looking directly at you, maybe while holding an item in my hand that I need a different size of, and the salesperson is so obviously avoiding eye contact!

McMillan Cottom: Exactly, Aisha! When you actually try to consume, you’re not a customer, so you’re invisible. You can only be visible as a problem. That’s it exactly.

Demby: So the last few years of covering this stuff has made me a little more on-edge about my night runs. D.C. is a glorious place to run during the few weeks of midseason weather we get. But I remember running on Q Street at night and being worried about my footsteps, coming up fast behind pedestrians—white pedestrians. It’s one of the reasons, I guess, I love running on the Mall at night. There are fewer people who will jumpily turn around because a black dude is coming up fast at night. And I still try to stay as visible as possible—run in the light, while jangling my keys, if I see folks who aren’t paying attention. (Of course, there are Capitol Police all over the Mall, soooo … )

Harris: It’s those little extra precautions we have to consider, in order to hope that we don’t get hurt/killed. What they really boil down to is making white people feel safe.

Demby: This has become more pronounced in recent years as I stopped wearing glasses in public. I didn’t appreciate how much they subtly marked me as “middle-class” and nominally less threatening.

Harris: Glasses are HUGE. It’s like an inverse of the “guy/girl is suddenly hot when they take off their glasses” trope. Black people are suddenly “safer” with them on.

Harris: OK, last question from me. Is Starbucks’ game plan—to shut down all of its stores for an afternoon and provide unconscious-bias training to its employees—a step in the right direction? Could it fundamentally change its role as a “third space” meant primarily for the comforts of white people?

Demby: I dunno. Whatever they arrive at, the thing about inclusive spaces, about creating and maintaining them, is that they are a lot of work. It’s a lot of signaling and a lot of being affirmative about what’s happening in a store at any given moment. Do y’all think Starbucks is up to that? It’s frankly going to require a kind of work that baristas don’t get paid enough to do and training that they probably won’t get. And given how hard it is to regulate policy across a chain as vast as Starbucks—this mess revealed how wildly varied the bathroom-use policy seems to be in their stores from place to place—it’s going to be really difficult to make this work in practice. But it might work as PR. At least enough for this to quiet down, anyway.

Bouie: It’s great PR. But the larger problem, I think, are city governments that facilitate “diversity” but aren’t as interested in inclusivity and who turn public space over to the developers and interests who build these spaces for affluent white people.

Harris: I concur. It’s also not clear if the conscious-bias training will be part of the onboarding process going forward. Starbucks is not a job that everyone works at forever. A new batch of employees will likely start working at some locations just a day after this session is supposed to take place. And then what?

McMillan Cottom: It is a step in the right direction FOR THEIR BRAND. It is totally on-brand. It’s extra on-brand. From a crisis-management perspective, it is genius. Will it change the experience of black customers at Starbucks? Likely not.