Starbucks will be shutting the doors to all their stores for racial awareness training on Tuesday May 29th. This comes in the wake of the incidence that saw two black men handcuffed for doing what millions of people do every day in coffee shops, waiting. The everyday racism endured by black people all across America has come into sharp focus as a result of phone camera video of this and many other incidents ranging from the absurd to the fatal.
But what exactly do all these incidents really tell us about racism, what exactly it is, and why it occurs? What if anything can the grand gesture undertaken by Starbucks hope to achieve toward our understanding of this most awful scourge.
We have a collective tendency when any of these incidents come to light, be it the Starbucks incident, or extremes such as Tamir Rice, the poor 12 year old who was gunned down by Ohio police while playing in a park. This tendency is to seek resolution for that particular incident, until the next incident, that is.
While each of these incidents is different in the specifics, what is clear is that none of these incidents happen in a vacuum. They all take place in the grand context of broad assumptions made about different ethnicities of people in America.
what are these assumptions, how do they come about and how can we challenge them to mitigate not just future similar incidents but the general disadvantages endured by African Americans and other People of Color (to varying degrees) in the United States and beyond?
I would posit that racism, just like sexism, is an institution that has a very specific set of edicts.
In the case of sexism, the mere fact that men are physically stronger than women means that smart or dumb, men have wielded their power over women to ensure that men enjoy a position of prestige and privilege over women. This ranges all the way from the home, the workplace as well as in positions of political power. This serves to set the wheels of sexism in motion with a momentum that has been hard to slow down let alone reverse.
In the same way Europeans having colonized and wielded their power over much of the rest of the world meant that smart or dumb, gifted or not, Europeans set in motion a system that advantages them over all other groups, setting in motion the wheels of the institution of racism that require little effort to keep moving.
It is generally well known that girls mature faster than boys and display a greater level of emotional intelligence over their male counterparts. Yet, that has not shielded women from the disadvantages of sexism in society. It does not translate into more positions of power and prestige or higher representation in the professions for women.
Dictionary.com’s definition of the word racism is as below.
- prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
The above definition of racism suggests that racism is a sentiment or act or behavior that is directed by one race toward another. In fact while I agree that the above dictionary definitions of racism do indeed describe different aspects of racism, I contend that the above definitions are only limited.
Far more than any of the above individual descriptions, the institution of racism has very specific dictates. The dictates of this institution are very specifically that there is a totem pole of a hierarchy of the races. At the top of this totem pole are white people, followed by a myriad other groups in between (which I will not attempt to categorize), and right at the bottom of that totem pole are black people. I believe that being able to properly contextualize the institution of racism is the beginning of providing a roadmap for dismantling this abominable institution.
Individual or collective acts of prejudice, discrimination or racial antagonism are damaging, dangerous and even often fatal, as in the case of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. However the far more insidious daily experiences of the institution of racism dictate that at any given moment in time and place, any black man will run head-on into the brick wall of this most sinister of institutions whose edicts are often unspoken, yet known, understood and perpetuated by almost everyone.
In fact, I would argue that racism does not require that the perpetrator be white or even of a different race or ethnicity. No, no, I’m not advancing that most false, absurd and insulting theory of reverse racism. Racism much like sexism does not even require that there be hatred between the perpetrator and the target. In the same way that men love, need and even celebrate women, but yet perpetrate and perpetuate sexism on a daily basis, so too is racism perpetuated by people who may hold no racial animus at all toward black people, including black people on other black people. Everyone becomes merely cogs in a wheel that was in motion eons ago requiring little effort on the part of any one individual to continue rolling along.
Tangibly what the dictates of racism decree is that smart or dumb, qualified or not, a black man walking into a job interview for example, faces disadvantages much like a woman walking in, regardless if the HR manager is themselves black or female.
This theory of an institution in which we are all participants isn’t meant to somehow soften the blow or exonerate racist behavior. No, in fact, on the contrary, the above is an illustration of just how baffling, and insidious racism is.
So while there may have been racial animus on the part of the woman who called police on the two young black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, the simple reality is that even without the racial animus, a black man will rarely feel welcome in any establishment that black people don’t frequent. The people behind the counter need not be white or even hateful of black people.
In his Buzzfeed article titled ”When You’re Black, Every Place Is A Starbucks”, Bryan Washington points out that for black people, the Starbucks incident is merely par for the course on a daily basis to varying degrees.
The worth of a black man at the bottom of the racial totem pole isn’t only a disadvantage during a job interview, or an inconvenience when all you wanted was to pick up a latte. Rather, it means that the life of a black man is of no value not just to the George Zimmermans of this world, but also to another black kid on Chicago’s Southside. My theory is that indeed, a black man’s worth, or lack of thereof at the bottom of the racial totem pole is the deeply insidious scourge that afflicts not just police murder but the murders of black men by other black men on Baltimore’s Westside and Chicago’s Southside.
While there is still much contention around the question of sexism and how to combat it, arguably, we as a society are better able to discuss the issue of sexism without quite the same level of dissonance as when we are discussing racism. I think that appropriately contextualizing the institution of racism may help to dispel some of the discord and defensiveness that is encountered when attempting to discuss racism and perhaps allow us to begin the important work of dismantling this most damaging of institutions.