Decoloring My Mind: analyzing racism and resentment in light of the infamous Starbucks arrest

Christine Zhao, Editor-in-Chief Investigations

One evening driving home from crew practice, I turn on the radio to NPR. On deck is an author who discusses the months of experience he’s had at Starbucks, quietly working and moving about, without purchasing anything and without any barista’s interference. After days of reporting on the chain’s racial bias training day, this is disappointingly the first time I actually heard what had happened in the Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square branch: that two black men had been arrested for requesting use of the lavatory without buying anything. And it perfectly aligned with what the author had saw: time after time, two categories of people, African-American men and homeless individuals, were specifically targeted and asked to leave the store.

Would they have done the same if I was black?

Starbucks is my favorite location for writing, the low, indistinguishable guitar tunes and incoherent murmurs drowning out the presence of the world. I almost never buy any of the overpriced lattes and snacks, which I swear are marked up 500% of their cost. I use the restroom without anyone noticing, I sit in plain sight of baristas without anyone caring, and have never, ever been asked to leave. So in all of this, I can’t help wondering:

Would he have done the same if I was black?

Yesterday, I got caught behind the airport security line – again. The culprit was a vegetarian falafel sandwich that I’d stuffed into the bottom of my bag. When I reached to check my bag, the security man gently smiled and cautioned me about tampering with evidence. No suspicion that I was a criminal: no narrowed eyes, suspicious glances, and cold tone I’ve seen so often used with African-American men. He didn’t even bother to check inside the bag, just swiped the outside and trusted that my other white bag carried a shirt. I couldn’t help but wonder:

Would he have done the same if I was black?

Two days ago, I entered the Centennial Olympic Park bus stop shelter for the Atlanta Streetcar system. The system didn’t accept our BreezeCards or payment so another man and I had to board the streetcar without a ticket. 5 stops down along the track, a homeless, African-American man boards the car. Immediately, the conductor asks for his ticket which, given the defunct ticketing system, will inevitably be absent. When it becomes obvious that the man does not have a ticket, he’s shouted and pushed off the train, ironically by another African-American man. Meanwhile, in my alcove of the streetcar that leans right up against the conductor’s space, I watch the scene as if I were invisible: no one taps me for a ticket. All this time I can’t help wondering:

What would’ve happened to me had I been black?

In all the cities I’ve visited, nowhere are the racial and socioeconomic tensions more stringent than when played out on the streets of Atlanta. You can take the segregation out of the South but taking the segregation out of their minds is almost impossible. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable and shocked than when I watch the myriad of ways people express their racism: leaving when a black man sits down, traveling to the edge of the car to avoid sitting next to a person of color, and all the ways that I’ve mentioned up to this point.

With #BlackLivesMatter calling out white people to check their privilege, I’ve begun to reflect on mine too. And I see a world largely colored by race, from college admissions to public transportation; I see a world largely pitted against African-American men, from the moment they enter this world, to the over 800,000 of them who are incarcerated at any moment in time. I’m disappointed and self-critical, of the ways I know I and others will inherently think of black men strictly in terms of the color of their skin. It’ll be a fight against myself in the effort to change the course of my mind, but I’m determined to do it. The world doesn’t need more racism to color the direction of their thoughts.