On Loving Starbucks and Losing a Safe Space

I began trusting Starbucks with my sanity during my sophomore year of college, when my entire friend group moved off campus except for me. It wasn’t “cool” to live in the dorms past freshman year, but I knew my parents’ general approach to my life excluded non-adult-supervised housing, and I was the rare 19-year-old Texan without a car, so I stayed. And as a sophomore deserted amongst a sea of new freshmen, I turned to the on-campus Starbucks to have somewhere to go.

“I’ll have a venti nonfat misto with—”

“One pump of sugar-free toffee nut?” the barista would finish. It was a simple interaction, but a powerful acknowledgement. This middle child felt a tiny morsel of being seen. Since my college was in Lubbock, Texas, a town where the whiteness is as vast and expansive as the land, I stood out among the pale-skinned baristas and patrons at Starbucks, but I didn’t think twice about this reality within its calm walls. I was free to pick the best table (window seat, away from the restrooms) and plow through endless math and physics homework or the latest Glamour magazine. This was in the early 2000s before every student had a laptop, so it wasn’t as common to see students sitting around at Starbucks, a detail I relished as it offered a break from the possibility of running into a classmate or retired crush. I’d sit there for hours, sipping a giant caffeinated beverage on a Saturday afternoon, flipping through glossy pages of aspiration, fully content with the little world I’d created for myself. Unbothered.

After school, my relationship with Starbucks started to change. I ditched the artificial sweetness of my mistos and started ordering my caffeine straight-up: Americanos. Black. I was overwhelmed with my engineering job, dating life and other challenges presented by young adulthood. Starbucks became the equivalent of a nervously inhaled cigarette. I’d wait in line, twitching and nervously checking to see if my terrible boss or any of the people who kissed his ass were standing in line. I needed the caffeinated fix that would calm my nerves, but more importantly, I needed an interaction with a Starbucks barista to remind me that real people existed who had no desire to measure my performance. Some of these baristas offered me words of optimism on a Monday morning. Others joined in my relief that I’d almost made it through another week on a Friday.

Eventually, God answered my prayers and I got laid off from my engineering firm. While I was teaching myself user experience design, which would become my next career, I started growing restless with Starbucks. Or at least that’s what I told myself. Truthfully, I started feeling too good for the predictably bland chairs and tables, the loud music, the uninteresting drinks. My eyes had been opened to a hip, emerging tech industry and its adjacent world of coffee shop snobbery. I still used Starbucks for my requisite workday battery charge, but when it was time to get some essay writing done after work or read a book on a slow Saturday afternoon, I thought only of indie coffee shops. So much space! So many syrup flavors! So many vibes!

I saw that patrons took notice of my black presence, but convinced myself that the comfort of the cozy environment trumped the discomfort of their lightweight prejudice. The moment I walked into most of these trendy coffee shops, the baristas would look concerned and prepare to give me directions to wherever it was I should be that wasn’t their newly purchased coffee shop painstakingly manufactured to look quaint.

I hear myself code-switch and lay on the Queen’s English thick to doubly reinforce that it’s okay, I come in peace.

Now that I’ve been steeped in high-brow tech culture for almost a decade, I’ve built a high tolerance for this kind of hostility and the required assimilation to combat it. I hear myself code-switch and lay on the Queen’s English thick to doubly reinforce that it’s okay, I come in peace. Unlike Starbucks’s easy willingness to correct a wrong drink or top off an Americano with hot water, I’ve learned to just bite my tongue when my drinks are made incorrectly or at a sad room temperature at these places, so as not to draw any unnecessary attention to my blackness.

A couple weeks ago at one such coffee shop in Tribeca, I didn’t know where the lids were, and so I asked: “Excuse me, where are the lids?” at least three times, before the barista finally quipped, “Um, like, they’re right behind you,” exaggerated eye roll included. I wanted to school her on why, from a design perspective, placing lids “right behind me” around a corner and away from the counter was the worst possible place for coffee cup lids, but I had to think of not only my blackness, but the blackness of other black patrons after me. We have to be on our best behavior so that we can be allowed back next time.

In addition to baristas’ micro-aggressions, it’s important to note that the vast majority of indie coffee shops are filled with white people. Even the trendy coffee shops in Harlem, arguably the blackest part of Manhattan, are filled with white people who bob their heads or mouth along to hip hop songs in which the n-word is not edited out. These coffee shops, too, are filled with self-described “woke” white people who assume their hashtags cancel out the prejudice they display in everyday life. I’ll never forget when Solange’s album came out and the baristas who regularly profile me just couldn’t get enough of A Seat At The Table and its chill vibe (to untrained ears). They played it on repeat at their coffee shop while simultaneously scowling at me the whole time I was there.

All the matcha flavors! All the interesting seating options! All the racist hostility.

After resigning from a startup under distressing circumstances last summer, I found myself dusting off my violin to turn musical tricks on the subway platform for rent money. As I confronted the possibility that the tech industry might not be for me, I humbled myself. I yearned for any reminder that we’re all out here trying our best to make it. I found myself craving the feeling of contentment Starbucks used to offer me. Because unlike indie coffee shops, its drinks are systematically standardized: My Americano will taste the same and have the same potency whether I’m in Manhattan or small-town Massachusetts. Unlike with indie coffee shops, I’d be hard-pressed to find a Starbucks with faulty wifi. And up to that point, Starbucks could not have been further from the racist tension I’d grown accustomed to at indie coffee shops.

On an unusually hot summer day, I found myself at the Starbucks by the Barclays stadium in Brooklyn, overcome with a sense of hope I hadn’t felt in a while. I saw black people, brown people, rich people, struggling people. Sure, Wiz Khalifa’s “Black And Yellow” wasn’t the first song that came to mind when I thought of relaxing with a cup of joe, but at least I didn’t have to watch wealthy white kids sing along to it while glaring at me for having the audacity to share their space. It was the perfect environment for me to pull myself up by my bootstraps and find my place in this world. Again.

On April 10th, two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks. They had asked to use the restroom, but were denied since they hadn’t purchased anything. When the men refused to leave, the cops were called. The two men were then arrested — not for trespassing, but for suspicion of trespassing. In response to this entire episode, which was captured on video and viewed over eight million times, and which many considered an egregious example of racial profiling, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced his plan to close thousands of stores for a day of anti-bias training. Racial bias scholars and experts have been tapped to create as comprehensive an anti-bias training curriculum as possible. Racism and prejudice won’t be eradicated in this one day of training, of course, but I guess it’s a start.

As the day of anti-bias training approaches, I find myself engaging in the mental acrobatics black people have grown accustomed to in this country. After watching the video of the arrest and scrolling through the endless think pieces about white spaces and boycotts, I’m left to reconcile my love for a place that has provided substantial relief from my anxious life all these years with the reality that even within a place of refuge, I am feared and monitored because I am black. Even in a place known for providing exceptional compensation and benefits for its employees, many of whom are black, fear and desire to police blackness brew abundant.

My own positive experiences must be seen through an unavoidable lens of systemic racism that, at this point, feels woven into our nation’s DNA.

Whether it’s the sense of contentment I feel reading my favorite book at Starbucks, the words of encouragement I’ve received in mixed-race churches, or even the relief of arriving to my own apartment after a long day, I must remember that all of these spaces are inherently white spaces. Just as I can be arrested for not leaving my beloved Starbucks, a fellow church member can hold her purse a little closer during service and a fellow apartment tenant can watch me suspiciously as I walk up the stairs to my own home. My own positive experiences must be seen through an unavoidable lens of systemic racism that, at this point, feels woven into our nation’s DNA.

Years after leaving the dusty flatlands of Lubbock, I still go to Starbucks on a daily basis. And every time I’ve walked into a Starbucks since the Philadelphia incident, it’s felt like I’m making some statement. To the outside, it could be perceived as a Kanye West-endorsed indifference to racism. But for me, it’s my own quiet form of protest. This unlikely sanctum will not be taken away from me. I will show up and order my Americano and sit in a window seat and plug in my electronics and use its restroom. And I will feel relief from the day’s challenges, while waging an internal war to keep showing up in all my blackness in my place of refuge.

Jennifer Epperson is a proud Texan living in New York. She has written for Lenny Letter, Estia Collective, and Blavity and writes sketch comedy for Magnet Theater. You can follow her on Twitter @comeonjennfoo.

Feature photo via Getty Images. 

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