I’m reading through Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension as I work to plan lessons for next year’s fourth graders. Yesterday, I was using her section on seeing our own biases and dealing with the bias of others. I took a break and flipped to my Facebook feed to find a friend suggesting that she will not go to Starbucks anymore and I thought, oh, if only we were in school right now, this would be a great example to use with the kids.
Last week, a customer told a barista at an Arizona Starbucks that the group of six uniformed police officers chatting over their coffee made her uncomfortable. The barista, who has not been described in the news articles I’ve read but who I can only imagine was a young person, walked over to the officers, one of whom she knew as a regular, and told them about the customer’s discomfort and asked if they could move to another spot or leave the cafe. The disheartened officers left, posted about the event online, and Fox News and company started calling for a boycott of Starbucks. A boycott of all Starbucks, not just this location.
Now, I go to Starbucks (though the venti iced coffee in this picture was made at home this morning). There have been times when I really relied on them. It was my spot to wait while my daughter took riding lessons. I treated the Starbucks cafe in the Barnes & Noble as my personal office where I could escape the house and get some writing done. When the kids were little, that’s where one of us sat with a coffee and a book while the other parent circled the mall trying to get them to fall asleep in the carriage. I feel fortunate to live close to better, locally owned cafes now, but I’d still walk into a Starbucks if that was my best option and I needed a latte or wifi.
As the description of my cafe visits makes clear, I have some privilege. I have the money to buy espresso drinks, I have the leisure time to sip them while I use the cafe’s wifi, I have a spouse to tag team parent with so that I could do these things. And, I’m a white woman, dressed in clean clothes, with no visible disability, and so no one ever questioned my right to linger at a table.
In 2018, two black men were arrested because they sat at a table in the cafe without ordering. The barista called the police because the men were “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Ultimately, six police officers were called in and the two men were arrested for trespassing. Never mind, as they tried to explain, that they were waiting to order until the third member of their party arrived. The arrest, caught on video and posted online immediately, led to protests against the cafe, a string of other complaints traded online, and then to Starbucks corporate shutting down all locations for a day of bias training for all employees.
Six police officers in to arrest two men waiting for a friend. Six police officers chatting over coffee. The connection is stronger than the coincidence of the number six.
Since 2015, news stories telling of police shooting people of color appear regularly. In fact the week before the latest Starbucks incident, police in that same town had shot a 14 year old Mexican-American boy while he ran away from them. This, on top of the national news stories, might put a few folks on edge.
The reports I’ve read have not identified the ethnicity of the uncomfortable customer.
I get that police officers have a more-than-stressful job. They put themselves in potential danger every time they go to work. They interact with people who are strung out on drugs, who are desperate. They see people on the worst days of their lives. The stress they bring home, the tension that lives in their shoulders all the time, must be brutal. I can’t even imagine.
As a teacher, I have a stressful job. It’s a very different kind of stress, of course, but I only mention it because, in my stress, I sometimes lose my cool. I yell and ball up my fists and say things I shouldn’t say. It happens, we’re human. And, knowing this, the district tries to offer opportunities to help. We talk about ways to help each other when we feel things getting out of control, we watch each other’s classrooms so we can take a calming walk, we organize weekly yoga classes and book clubs and drink-ups as ways to regain balance.
If I were told that my presence at school was making someone uncomfortable, I’d be annoyed at first. I’d be angry and hurt. But then I hope I’d take some time to reflect.
I’d like the police force to take some time to reflect, too. What is happening in the world, in their state, in their town that would make someone feel uncomfortable at the presence of six police officers? How has the police force interacted with the public lately? How are they going to do their job of protecting the public if the public is afraid of them?
The lesson I’m working on for my students, based on Ahmed’s book, asks them to move beyond the first reactions they might have to people. So, if they see a police officer and get angry or scared, I want them to be able to stop and look at the reasons why. What biases are they bringing to the situation? Can we admit that the sensational stories make the news and that a large percentage of police officers will not take their stress out on your brown-skinned son? Can we give this group the benefit of the doubt?
Maybe the answer to that last question will be no. Remembering that privilege I have, I know that I have never been pulled over or questioned or followed or asked to leave a public place because of the color of my skin or my gender or my appearance. It’s easy for me to assume the best in people. I get to see their best more often.
There is a fear in our country of brown skinned people. There is a fear of poor people. There is a fear of rich people. There is fear of police officers. There is fear of government. There is a fear of young people. There is a fear of difference. And we are all acting on that fear. The Starbucks customer acted on that fear. The police officers who posted about the incident acted on that fear.
How do I teach a room full of fourth graders, their skin every imaginable shade of brown and beige and pink, to move past that fear and try to really see people with empathy and compassion?