Written by Stephanie Renee on March 22, 2015
Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO and well-meaning social justice advocate, found himself on the hot seat last week after trying to force racial harmony conversation on people who patronize his business for their daily caffeination. And the baristas. Or, perhaps, anyone. Because while we all need to stand up and do our part to eliminate racism and injustice, very few of us like to have our arms twisted to advance the issue.
Penn was the first time I ever felt this intellectual and moral demand, as some kind of representative leader of the herd. Before I left for college, my world was overwhelmingly Black. All of my cultural frames of reference. All of the things I held dear and saw as positive emanated from that experience (save for a handful of British pop acts). So I found it highly intrusive when, in a Legal Studies class, someone asked a question about Black people related to a current news story, and the whole class turned toward me–instead of the professor–for the answer. Excuse me? Since when did I get hired to provide “the official Black response”…to anything?
My best friend was put in the same position at Tufts, with more of a sinister edge, when approached by a group of strangers in the cafeteria. Vivian lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, the first-ever “nuclear-free” residential neighborhood designated by voter ordinance, just down the street from the grandson of famous denim manufacturer Levi Strauss. She was the product of middle-class American utopia. But these students sat themselves at her table and, without any reason or prompt (other than her brown skin) asked her, “So…what was it like, growing up in the ghetto?” They grabbed their trays and walked away laughing, leaving her to call me in a rage-induced crying jag later that evening. Ghetto. Some nasty synonym to her identity. All because of being born.
There are not enough hours in the day to approach this kind of hostility in a kind manner, and especially not during your morning commute stop for a hot, high-priced cup of java from a barista who probably wasn’t even born when you first experienced the pressure of being deputized to represent your Blackness for the masses. And, according to statistics, my life experience is far from typical for “my kind,” so I may not be the person to ask if you’re looking for the standard response.
I understand the source of Schultz’s inspiration. And I pray that more of us are neither scared into silence, nor put on the defensive in anger, to represent the feelings and opinions of our people. But I damn sure think it’s time for us to talk. I may be exhausted from being asked to wear the Badge of Blackness all the time, but silence equals death. And I plan to go down swinging and screaming. I intend to be heard.