It’s now a verb — as in “He was Starbucked.” Definition — living your ordinary life while black, and having the cops called on you.
The word was first used a month ago when Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested for the crime of sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks.
They were waiting to meet someone to talk about a real estate deal. The call history revealed the white store manager called 911 just two minutes after they arrived in the store.
When they refused the cops’ request to leave, they were arrested for “defiant trespassing” — a crime few, including me, had ever heard of before. Cellphone video puts a lie to the defiant characterization; they quietly submitted to handcuffing. Later both said they feared that if they had resisted they might have ended up dead.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Starbucks leaders removed the manager who called 911, apologized to the community and the men, drew up a $1 deal with Nelson and Robinson and agreed to fund a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. The coffeehouse chain also announced a day of in-house race sensitivity training scheduled for tomorrow. Eight-thousand Starbucks stores will close for this one-day employee training focused on unconscious bias.
What really scares me is that in the short time since Nelson and Robinson were arrested, there have been a half-dozen other Starbucking incidents. Police were called when black women on a golf course were accused of playing too slowly, when a black man was barbequing at Oakland’s Lake Merritt where thousands of people have barbequed for years, when three African-American artists stepped outside their Airbnb, and when a black Yale student took a nap in the dorm’s common room. Two Native American high school students were Starbucked on a college tour when a woman called university police because their quiet behavior was “odd.”
These scenarios both anger and alarm me. Anger because I know how very easily I could be a victim of Starbucking. Alarm because I know that I’m always dealing with some racist-related suspicion particularly in spaces where I am the only person of color. It happens often because of my work and lifestyle.
This is not paranoia. I’ve been searched when another customer claimed someone stole her wallet, and I’ve been pulled over at a drive-through window because two police officers thought my friend and I might be escapees from Framingham women’s prison. Don’t tell me it can’t happen.
Starbucks behind-closed-doors conversations tomorrow will no doubt be poignant and painful. I don’t expect this one effort will solve much, but if it helps illuminate the ordinary racism some of us deal with all the time, that’s a good beginning. I also don’t know if this is a cynical PR move by Starbucks, or a sincere gesture, but I have to recognize the company’s attempt to grapple with the everyday reality of racism. So many others have blinders on.