Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Is Milk in my Coffee a Racial Metaphor?" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (21 March 2015)

I fear my skillset has been rendered redundant and that all prospects for my employability have been lost. What has given rise to this panic, you ask? The announcement that the American coffee company Starbucks, which boasts a global presence, has now positioned itself as an expert on race. Earlier this week, the company announced that it was going to initiate a programme called “Race Together”, wherein baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations across the United States would engage patrons in conversations about race. Who knew that all it would take to end oppression was a nice chat over a cup of coffee? And what does this say for those of us who work on race-related issues, but are no good at making a decent cup of joe?

When I acquired my Masters in Asian American Studies from UCLA, it was with the awareness that that degree was conferred upon me by an educational entity that had been borne out of the political struggle of the US Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the legendary Campbell Hall where my MA programme shared space with other Ethnic Studies centres, such as the Native American, African American, and Chicano Studies programmes, was the site where John Huggins and Bunchy Carter – members of the Black Panther Party who were UCLA students – had been slain in 1969. It would be revealed that the FBI had had a hand in the murders. 

Thanks to my MA in the study of race, I went on to acquire work where I could analyse how effective high school programmes were at catering to the specific learning needs of multicultural student bodies. And, in case you were wondering, the answer is not very well. But as simply rendered as that answer seems, it was arrived at after a great deal of data-collection and analysis at my first post-graduate school job, which was with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The team I was part of hoped that in answering that question, which seemed like a foregone conclusion anyway, that the way would be paved to bring about necessary educational changes. This, not least because Los Angeles is a city where, as US census data indicates, the birth rate among minority groups has outstripped that of whites. Now, imagine having that kind of conversation while buying your cup of coffee as you try to make it to work on time in the morning!

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a putdown of the capabilities of baristas to, both, get your day started on the right note with a much needed caffeine boost and to aid dialogue that could foster community relations. In fact, coffeehouses have quite the history of being the sites of information exchange, hotbeds of revolution even. Take the European coffeehouses of the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, where people gathered precisely because those were the spaces where news could be sought and conversations had. And these were not always genteel affairs. On 12 July, 1789, Camille Desmoulins stood atop a table at the CafĂ© de Foy, shouting out a call to arms while, himself, waving two pistols in the air. “Aux armes, citoyens! he is believed to have proclaimed, a moment that would go down in history as the precursor to the fall of the Bastille a mere two days after. Something tells me that, in this day and age, getting one’s non-fat soy latte at Starbucks is not going to inspire the same kind of fervour… 

To be fair, however, it has less to do with political apathy than with what Starbucks itself has come to represent. Arguably, the popularity of Starbucks lies in its sheer ubiquity rather than in the quality or taste of its coffee. In most major American cities, one is guaranteed to find a Starbucks location (or three) in the most well-trafficked spots, and even in less frequented areas. Like McDonald’s, it’s the place you go because you know they probably have a restroom you could use without necessarily having to buy something. To discuss race relations? A less likely choice. 

Even as Starbucks rolls out the #RaceTogether programme, little has been said about what the company has done to educate its baristas on the most pressing of racial concerns in the United States today. Without judging the intelligence of the person who makes my coffee, I expect them to know how to do precisely that and not to need to entertain queries I have about why white cops can kill unarmed black people and be acquitted for crimes of that nature. Honestly, it’s probably hard enough dealing with customers desperately in need of a cuppa ahead of going into a soul-crushing job without also having to make believe that talking about race is as simple as creating a hashtag.

From The Goan.

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