In the winter of 2015, Starbucks tried to get its patrons to talk about race.
Across the country, baristas in the iconic coffee shop slapped a black-and-white sticker onto cups: “Race Together.” They initiated dialogues; they committed publicly to hiring ten thousand disadvantaged youth and to open more stores in low-income neighborhoods. Their stock rose. Critics claimed the coffee franchise giant just wanted free publicity. Others said it was a trite way to talk about race. Still others mocked Starbucks’ efforts and suggested they should tackle income equality instead — including the fact that a twenty-ounce latte at Starbucks costs nearly one hour’s pay for a minimum-wage worker.
Starbucks says it ended its “Race Together” campaign in March 2015 exactly as planned, not in response to the criticism. And a year later, as cars continue to line up in Starbucks drive-thrus and people continue to sit hunched over laptops in Starbucks cafes, the weeks when the franchise tried to get its patrons talking about race seem quietly forgotten.
It’s easier that way. We don’t like the discomfort of that conversation over our steaming mochas and cappuccinos. But of course, for some of us — white, Protestant, salaried — it’s a privilege to say “no thank you” to the race conversation. We take another sip of our coffee, sit back in the black leather chair, listen to the music playing from the speakers overhead. We talk about a story we heard on NPR on our way over.
This is not everyone’s privilege in this country. My daughter, who is adopted from Ethiopia, thinks about race constantly. She is only nine, but every moment of the day, her difference confronts her. In school, her white and Hispanic friends ask to play with her beaded braids. They are curious. They love the bright colors of the beads but also the way the complicated parts pattern Mitike’s scalp. When she wears her hair free, her friends ask, How did you get it so curly? No girl with straight blond hair attracts as much attention.
When Mitike joined a city volleyball league for nine-to-ten-year-old girls in August, she noticed immediately that she was the only girl with brown skin, black curly hair, dark brown eyes. All the other girls, mostly residents of the affluent Denver neighborhood surrounding the recreation center, have blue or green eyes, blond hair, names like Payton and Ashley and Piper. Meredith and I picked up Mitike at the end of the first practice, expecting to hear about games and drills. Instead, Mitike frowned at the ground and asked, “Is there any place in Denver where a blond girl would stand out?”
Of course. In the east Denver hair salon where I take Mitike to get her hair braided every six weeks, I am the only white person I see all afternoon. I sit in one of the black plastic chairs in the waiting room and endure the double-takes of the patrons who push open the door (it sticks) and nod and smile at the Ethiopian owner as the little bells on the door handle tinkle. They catch sight of me, then look again. A white girl? In this salon? The men shake their heads and proceed to the back, where they get their beards oiled and their heads shaved. The women stare a little longer, then survey the salon suspiciously until they find Mitike wincing in her chair, the stylist parting another section to braid. Ah. A white woman with a black child. Well, at least she knows where to bring her to get her hair done.
The first time we visited one of these salons in Denver, Mitike couldn’t stop talking about it. “Everyone looked like me!” she said. “Now you know what it feels like to be so different!” Embarrassed of my embarrassment, I tried to hide my red face, my quivering lip. For four hours, I’d endured the stares and the muttered asides, and one woman’s glare. But I understood: Mitike feels this level of scrutiny every day. It was my turn.
My Ethiopian daughter has pulled me bodily into the dialogue about race. I didn’t think it applied to me before. That had been my privilege.
And that’s part of the problem.
When Mitike was in preschool, a fifth grader chasing her on the playground yelled at her, “You’re such a dirty, oily-haired n*&@#*!” The principal, sober-faced, and a teacher who had been supervising recess told me this when I arrived that afternoon. They said the fifth grader’s parents claimed they never used such language at home and couldn’t imagine where he’d learned it. The principal expelled the child. She wanted to make it clear that her school tolerated no bigotry, ever.
Shaken and exhausted by the fact that Mitike had been the victim of such abuse, I sat my little curly-haired four-year-old on my lap on the front steps of our house and carefully asked her what she remembered the fifth grader saying. “He called me dirty, Mommy!” she said indignantly. “That’s why he got ’spelled, ’cause he lied! I take a bath every other day!” She didn’t remember the “n” word, because she didn’t understand it. As for the “oily-haired” part of the epithet: that was just true. Every day, we massage Mitike’s scalp with coconut oil. It’s the secret to an itch-free head.
I shared this experience on a blog I was keeping at the time, and one of my aunts wrote, “My love is color-blind! When I see Mitike, I just see a little person I love and adore!”
My aunt’s intention was good. Before I knew Mitike, I might have said something similar. But now I understand that I want people to notice Mitike’s beauty, her colorfully beaded braids, her coffee-brown skin, her slim Ethiopian figure. Her heritage — and those turquoise and purple beads — are part of who she is. Color-blindness is its own brand of ignorant racism. We are different. If we pretend otherwise, we’re faking our interactions with each other. The key is to notice more than just skin color and hair type. I also want people to notice Mitike’s quick smile, her genuine laugh, her gift as a storyteller, her confidence as a leader. I want the world to see her. That fifth grade boy with his ugly words didn’t see her at all; his blindness allowed him to speak violently.
Recently, I read the incredible and important essay “What a Black Woman Wishes Her White Parents Knew” by Mariama Lockington, a black woman adopted by white parents and raised in Denver in the 1980s. She’s angry, now: her parents pretended race didn’t matter, and so they didn’t acknowledge her ongoing reality, which was that race mattered quite a bit, in every moment of her life. She felt crazy, as if her perception of the world was false. Addressing her parents, Lockington writes, “Maybe you think your silence is better than fumbling awkwardly through uncomfortable realities. It’s not. I am a black, queer woman in America, I am your daughter, and I am always in danger.” She insists that by refusing to openly discuss oppression, her parents “erase” her. Lockington’s essay broke my heart. I want Mitike to feel she can talk to us about anything she experiences in her difference; I want her to feel visible – never erased.
Many of the comments on Lockington’s essay are defensive and angry. People are uncomfortable. Privileged, they want to choose not to talk about race. They want Lockington – and Mitike – to just express gratitude to their white families for raising them, as if raising them in white America eliminated all difficulty for them. They don’t want to see that my daughter – beautiful, black – hears about race differently than they do: in every news story about another police shooting of a brown-skinned person, in every racial slur directed toward one of Obama’s daughters, in every bigoted comment Trump’s supporters make, in every statistic about people of color in poverty.
I often remember a day in one of my high school English classes, when we had just begun reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I asked the students to freewrite about the “n” word and how they felt about its presence in the novel. In the ensuing discussion, a white student argued, with annoyance, that the word didn’t matter and it was a waste of time to discuss it. Many other students chimed in to agree, until an African American boy raised his hand. “Look,” he told the class. “The word hurts. It matters to me in a way you can’t get. Until it stops mattering that much to me, it’s got to keep mattering to you.”
What I know: Starbucks was right. We need to hold more dialogue about race. All of us. It’s not comfortable, which is exactly why we need to sit ourselves down in those black leather chairs. Some of us, like Mitike and Mariama Lockington, need to do more talking. Others of us need to start listening.