The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black in Specialty Coffee


Photo by @shaunte  

Photo by @shaunte  

The story of how I got into coffee isn’t much different than other baristas I’ve met. I found a shop in Maryland that was willing to train me from scratch, l fell in love with the craft, and the rest is history. When I fell into specialty coffee, it didn’t take long to see that I worked alongside and served a specific demographic of people. I wasn’t bothered at first. At least until I started noticing the microaggressions. The microaggressions eventually turned into passive aggression, and then blatant disrespect. Specialty coffee is a progressive industry, but being Black in a community majority of Whites still lends itself to the same oppression felt across multiple industries in our country and around the world.

The Black Coffee Consumer

Black people don’t drink coffee, especially specialty coffee. Shaq missed out on making millions with Starbucks for this reason, but there are some statistics to prove it. There are only a couple of studies that analyze the racial breakdown of coffee consumption. The USDA in 2007-2008 found that Whites consumed twice as much as Blacks. Hispanics are somewhere in between. In 2013, the National Coffee Association came to a similar conclusion.

Let’s forget the numbers. Just walk into your local coffee shop and look around. Frequenting coffee shops is what I’d identify as a WPA (White People Activity). The culture that surrounds specialty coffee shops isn’t particularly attractive to the Black community. And it’s true: going to the independent coffee shop that just opened up down the block is the cool, hip thing to do. White people love doing cool, hip shit! And y’all always want to be the first to discover it, so you can put that shit on Instagram! I get that! I do it, too.  

That’s just one side of the die.

Coffee Costs Too Damn Much

I know why coffee costs so much, and it should probably cost more, but it doesn’t hide the fact that specialty coffee is fucking expensive. I wonder which demographic is the poorest in the US?

I grew up drinking gallons of Maxwell House with a shit ton of sweetened cream and sugar packets we’d steal from the nearest 7-11. My mom loved it; it was cheap. Though there wasn’t always food in the fridge, my mom could not live without her Maxwell House.

My family is still very poor. And while she loves that she had an influence on my passion for coffee, it’s asking a lot for her spend $5 on a single cup of coffee when she can spend $5 on a week’s worth of that Maxwell House.

I’m not suggesting we need to make specialty coffee more affordable. As long as the majority of Black people are broke, you probably won’t see them in your local coffee shop. 

The Black Coffee Professional

Remember what Anthony Bourdain said that pissed off a bunch of coffee pros and enthusiasts?

There are few things I care about less than coffee… I don’t want some man-bun, Mumford and Son motherf*cker to get it for me… It’s a beverage; it’s not a lifestyle.”

I have a weak spot for those man-bun, Mumford & Son, Warby Parker-wearing coffee daddies out there, but Bourdain isn’t completely out of line here. While the barista he describes is definitely a stereotype, it isn’t surprising to find at least one at most shops. That being said, I can comfortably claim that specialty coffee is a White man’s world. All of my bosses have been White men; at competition, most of the judges and baristas are White men, and so are a majority of my guests when I’m working behind the bar. As a Black woman working in this industry, though, this dynamic can get a little weird.

I have a whole laundry list of things that have been done or said to me, both as a consumer and a working barista; some of which I assume are because of who I am, and others might be a reach. I’d like to list a few of my favorite accounts:

  • I asked a guest if he wanted room for cream in his coffee, and he replied with, “No, I like my coffee how I like my women: black.” 
  • If any Hip Hop or R&B played at my shop, guests would ask me about it. 80% of the time, someone else chose the music.
  • When I had braids, I watched a guest beeline towards me at the register, hands outstretched in front of him like a child, and he came within centimeters of grabbing a fist full of braids. I swerved real hard, and told him that that wasn’t an okay thing to do. “I was joking. Your hair is cool,” he laughed it off before walking away. I saw that guest a second time outside of my shop as he was riding by on his bike. He made a grabbing motion at me and thought it was funny.
  • Also when I had braids, a guest handed my coworker a photo of a guy with dreadlocks because I reminded him of that guy. 
  • Colleagues and guests who didn’t believe I worked at my coffee shop.
  • Racist and sexist comments from managers and owners.  
  • Constant questioning to my commitment to coffee. (“So, this is just a job for you, yeah?” “No, I plan to be in coffee for a long time.” “Wait, really?!”)
  • Guests asking a White coworker questions that should’ve been directed to me. Or guests asking me question, dismissing my answer, then asking a White coworker.
  • I was served a drink I didn’t order because the barista was under the assumption I didn’t know what I was asking for.

I could go on forever. This isn’t just me. Some of this is because I’m Black. Some of this is because I’m a woman. At the qualifiers this year in Kansas City, I went to a panel called, “The Coffeewoman”. I was incredibly moved by the stories told by those coffee women of excellence which gave me the courage to speak about my racial experiences within this industry. But as I scanned the room, I noticed I was the only Black woman. I felt alone; I couldn’t shake it the rest of my time in Kansas City. 

There were 48 competitors in the Western Conference of this past USCC Qualifying Round. I was the only Black competitor. There were 36 competitiors at the Big Western in 2014 in Palm Springs. I was the only Black competitor. There were 75 baristas at my last job. I was the only Black barista. At my last two coffee jobs, I was the first Black/Black woman manager. It’s shocking to think about, but I think location has a lot to do with this.

Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the United States and only 6% of its population is Black, while 5% live in the whole Western region. But where I’m from, Washington, DC, it was a different story. Back east, it’s not uncommon to see multiple Black people working behind the bar. That makes sense. Black people are half of DC’s population.

Such low numbers on this side of the country surely play a role in the overall lack of racial representation in the industry, especially when keeping in mind the number of large, well-established coffee communities here. While the population of Black people in the west is relatively small, we are still vastly underrepresented in coffee. 

What We Can Change

Stop tokenizing the baristas of color you do have. It feels like shit to be “The Black barista”. Yes, I’m a Black woman. I’m also a barista. Judge me for the quality of drinks I serve, the service I provide, and the steps I’m taking to improve the coffee community. 

Stop telling racist jokes. They’re unnecessary and insensitive. Racist and sexist jokes create a hostile environment for both guests and employees.

Call folks out on their shit. Even if it’s not directed to you personally, it’s important to promote an environment where everyone feels welcome. If you find that your upper management isn’t willing to back you up, ask why racist jokes and comments are more important than the coffee you serve.

Profile your coffee, not your customers. Shopping while black isn’t a crime, neither is ordering a caramel macchiato. Consumer racial profiling only shuts out groups of people we could and should be welcoming.

I recognize that for now specialty coffee is mostly a white man’s game, but it doesn’t have to be a racist one. Even with the many negative experiences, I feel tremendous love and support from the coffee community. Seeing how receptive and passionate this community is as of late regarding the gender disparities throughout the industry gives me much hope on the racial front.

Specialty coffee spans continents, yet still feels very small. Using both of these aspects to our advantage, we can set the precedent for other industries and inspire global change.

– m.

The Black Cup of Excellence is an ongoing blog series that will continue to focus on race, the coffee community, and the effect they have on one another. My ultimate goal is to promote self-awareness that further leads to acceptance and open-mindedness within and outside of our community. 

Special thanks to Ash, Lauren, Aly, Kaajal, and Jenn for being a fresh set of eyes and helping me structure my ideas and edit this blog post.

*I was once served a chai tea latte when I’d ordered a cortado. It was hard for me to confuse whether the drink belonged to me; I was the only one in line and there were no other drinks in the queue. The barista believed I wanted a chai instead, and apologized.


September 24, 2016

30 Comments

  1. Reply

    Frank

    June 7, 2016

    This article is long overdue. Well done. As a Barista trainer in the UK I can relate graphically to some of your experiences.

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      Hello from Phoenix to the UK! Thank you so much for reading. I hope our experiences can pierce the UK coffee community to promote change and acceptance!

  2. Reply

    Sam

    June 7, 2016

    Thank you for putting words to the experience I’ve been having for the last three years as a barista.

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      This means a lot to me. It took me my five years in coffee to find the courage to express what I know so many of us experience in this industry. Change is upon us, friend!

  3. Reply

    Nigel

    June 7, 2016

    where i went to college african americans made up 4% of the student population. i’ve spent my 20s on wall street where often i was the only black male in my group. i’ve spent my 30s behind an espresso machine in dozens of shops where i was the only black person both in front and behind the counter most days. never have i ever felt "out of place" or "alone" because i didn’t see any black people.

    i do not think i will ever understand why ethnicity, gender, sexual preference or cultural leanings have any significance on what you get from an experience. unless you’ve experienced a blatant racist or sexist incident, those "surface" observations are irrelevant, to me at least. but anytime i have this conversation i am amazed at how many individuals do.

    i have a multi ethnic family and maybe that is the reason why i comfortable in any setting. maybe the more individuals of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds interact with one another these observations will matter less and less. idk but that’s my two cents anyway.

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      Hi Nigel! Thanks for reading and responding.

      I have a similar background and am comfortable around many groups of people, as well. Still doesn’t change or dismiss the racial aggressions I’ve dealt with. I was once able to ignore them to create a more comfortable environment for everyone else, but that doesn’t solve anything.

      • Reply

        Nigel

        June 8, 2016

        this morning before email, twitter, instagram, etc i had to check your blog. i continued this discussion over dinner last night with a few colleagues and it was enlightening for me. i didn’t say this in my previous post but thank you for starting this dialogue, it amazing what happens when something is said out loud. you have a new follower.

  4. Reply

    Joe Marrocco

    June 7, 2016

    Thank you for this. Thank you for not only speaking against something, but also for providing steps toward change.

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      I’m extremely appreciative of your kind words. I truly believe we can set an example for industries all over!

  5. Reply

    Dee

    June 7, 2016

    first off, thank you for all of this.

    as a black woman barista in Pittsburgh, which is also a place not very diverse, being a coffee professional can be both a joy and a nightmare. it’s awesome and inspiring to see your words uncannily vocalizing the things I feel on a daily basis.

    I’m tossing so much love and respect your way. you are an inspiration, and don’t you ever forget it.

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      Thank you so much for your support and for being a steadfast Black woman in an industry where we are the extreme minority. Keep on keeping on over there in Pittsburgh! My uncle lives there so maybe I should make a visit sooner than later and we can meet!

  6. Reply

    Daniel Noffsinger

    June 8, 2016

    Great article.

    The lack of black people in the coffee industry seems to be another instance of a recursive cycle we see over many industries/professions. X demographic avoids an industry/profession because they don’t see anyone from their demographic in it so they conclude that it’s not for people like them, but their isn’t anyone of their demographic in that field because of that very reason (women in STEM fields is another example). Historically we’ve addressed these issues through affirmative-action solutions, which work by effectively lowering other barriers (like financial via scholarships) in an attempt to counter the additional social barrier that said demographic faces that others may not.

    I don’t see how a solution like that can be applied here, and your steps at the end (aside from the inherent virtue of just not being racist) seem to me like they would only help keep black coffee professionals in the industry as opposed to drawing in more. So I guess my question you is, should we[the industry] focus on just making the industry as welcoming and supportive as it can be, or should we also be reaching out in some way?

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      Hi Daniel 🙂 Based on the recursive cycle you mention, If the industry works to keep the Black coffee professionals it does already have, then it will in fact draw in more, no?

  7. Reply

    michael witham

    June 8, 2016

    Michelle,

    I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now and gotten more brave about asking more direct questions to understand my role in things. Asking in sensitivity & in a genuine problem solving/being a part of the solution spirit.

    What’s the best way for me (a 31 year old, white male) to help?

    I have the feelings to (1) pretend it’s not my issue & should get out of the way, (2) join Black Lives Matter (3) be myself (4) get "white-awkward" because I feel a sense of shame… and all the shades of gray in between the spectrum.

    How can I be a better participant?

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      Michael! Hey! Thanks for reading my blog, and I appreciate you for feeling comfortable enough to ask these questions.

      Turning a blind eye and ignoring the situation doesn’t necessarily add fuel to the fire, but it continues to let it burn. Raising your voice against insensitive comments and jokes is a great place to start. It’s probably the most common form of subtle racism, or microaggression, in every day society. Also, just stopping and listening to those who are retelling their experiences speaks volumes. A lot of people have a habit to “‘splain” when an oppressed person talks about what it’s like to be oppressed. While you’re not blatantly doing anything wrong, it does dismiss the person and the experiences they face.

      TLDR, speak up against shitty things happening around you, listen to those telling their stories, but still be yourself through all of it!

      Never hesitate to ask me anymore questions! So good to hear from you!

      • Reply

        Michael Witham

        June 8, 2016

        Thank you.

        …let me know when you come to LA, I’d love to grab a coffee with you ☕️

  8. Reply

    Eduardo Esquivel

    June 8, 2016

    Interesting article. I own a specialty coffee shop in Bogotá, Colombia. there are two baristas from the Pacific Coast of Colombia working in our café. They are such a hard workers, committed, and expertise baristas. Thanks to the Specialty Scene in Colombia our baristas, maybe the only two African-Colombian in the Specialty Coffee World in town, they are experiencing a beautiful empowerment process. I have for these two baristas, just feelings of gratitude and admiration.
    https://www.facebook.com/QuipileCafe/photos/a.228358823931277.37901.219980848102408/8319486

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      June 8, 2016

      Hello Eduardo, and hello to your cafe in Columbia! Thank you so much for reading my blog! It’s amazing to hear about the two Afro-Columbia baristas you’ve employed and they’re dedication to coffee. Hopefully one day, I can come visit you all and we can enjoy and talk about coffee and culture together!

  9. Reply

    Peter Smith

    June 8, 2016

    Some of it might not be to do with being black or a woman and more to do with you being angry and paranoid

    • Reply

      Nigel

      June 8, 2016

      what i love most about the internet is the ability to have a conversation with so many in "real time” and simultaneously that is what i dislike about the internet the most. if you don’t have something to add to a conversation what do you gain by making personal attacks against someone who is genuinely trying to start a heathy dialogue? now is there a query you’d like to make peter? we’d love to hear your point of view.

  10. Reply

    Patricia G

    June 8, 2016

    YOU. ARE. AMAZING.

    Sincerely,
    A black barista/manager/trainer/consultant!!

  11. Reply

    An

    June 9, 2016

    I would giggle at how much you promoted the chocolate barista, and usually don’t seriously consider many of the blogs that people make. Most people I know just throw up pictures or update once a year, but I love how thoughtful and well written this is! I’m glad you’ve been sticking with it, and spreading your message. 🙂

  12. Reply

    Brianna

    June 9, 2016

    What stuck out to me the most and rubbed me the wrong way was the almost-hair-grabbing guy. It has nothing to do with you being black, a woman, or a black barista woman. It’s because he’s weird and he doesn’t know boundaries. He literally proceeded to compliment your hair. Why? Because you’re black and your hair isn’t pin straight blonde? No, because it’s braided and it probably WAS cool. It’s not the ethnicity behind it, it’s the simple fact it’s styled differently, that it made him want to be weird and touch your hair without authorization. I’m in no way saying what he did was ok. But you’re painting the picture that it was racist of him to acknowledge your hair. Then you go on to say "it doesn’t have to be a race game." You’re literally creating this game. You’re overestimating the amount of racism in the coffee world. Not disregarding that you may have experienced real racism but, the examples you provided seem more like you just had some ignorant customers. Ignorant =/= racist. How could that be? Because being ignorant means you don’t know any better.

    Before you or anyone tries to disregard my response with "you’re probably white so you don’t get it" nope. 21 year old black girl from Vegas. I choose not to let race run my life and thoughts. I suggest everyone try it sometime!

    • Reply

      Tymika

      June 10, 2016

      It’s somewhat contradictory to say you don’t want to disregard that she MAY have experienced real racism–but then you do on to do just that. You, as a 21 year old who likely hasn’t worked in coffee for that long, don’t get to say what she has or hasn’t experienced, and it isn’t for you to say she’s overestimating anything. Your experience is yours–her is hers, and you simply aren’t qualified to say what she has experienced. And actually, if you had a clearer understanding of history, you would have better context for the sense of ownership some white people can have over black bodies without them even realizing it, because slavery. Even if she only experienced racism once or twice (which her examples prove she hasn’t), it’s once or twice too many, period. Not to mention you didn’t even touch on her very valid point of there not being many people of color I coffee.

      • Reply

        Michael Witham

        June 10, 2016

        Adding to Tymika’s critique,

        Brianna,

        So you have an extra tool in your toolbox. Try to avoid using the word "you" or any pronouns when talking about sensitive issues. It causes confusion and ambiguity in a conversation where statements, meaning, and spirit need to be clearly communicated from both sides.

        Michelle did her part.

        …Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean… (one could argue "you" or a pronoun isn’t "mean", but when the "you" and/or pronoun has judgment statements nested, or around the word "you"… the author of the writing has a difficult time listening to your point because you are not ‘saying what you mean’ & additionally, doing it in a way that leaves room for your critique to be interpreted as "mean" by the others listening to you. #IMO

        Does anyone else have any tools to share with Brianna so we can all have better conversations about sensitive topics? Those are my best thoughts…

  13. Reply

    Carolyn

    June 16, 2016

    Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for raising your voice and sharing this experience.

    I almost left coffee, after working in the industry in some form since I was a teenager, and working in coffee on more of a professional level for 6 years, in part because I was so frustrated at some of the experiences I was having with a handful of white men who seemed unaware of their privilege and unwilling to see or hear me. The bigger picture is that I have been overwhelmingly blessed in my time in coffee to be around a number of generous and compassionate colleagues and mentors – and many of them, due to our industry, are white and male.

    Like someone else who has commented below, I have grown up in a mixed family (white dad and mixed mom of European, African and Native American descent) and with predominately white peers. My ethnicity is ambiguous to many that I meet – some seem to assume I’m white, some expect me to speak Spanish. Some don’t seem to consider it consciously but their actions reveal subtle evidence – that they think I am whatever they are and that I belong, or that to them, I definitely don’t belong.

    Although being the only minority around is often the norm for me, I was also becoming increasingly weary of the way it felt to be the only brown women in the room every day – even when that room was often filled with people who I trusted, and respected, and who cared about me in return.

    One day, as my frustration grew, a mentor who I appreciate tremendously, (and who is also a white man), patiently listened to me curse and cry in frustration that I was tired of being surrounded by white men who think they know everything. Too tired to be anything other than honest, I said that all I wanted was to work with some brown women for once! In real life, I swore a lot while I expressed those two sentiments. I continue to be grateful that our relationship was such that he listened compassionately to my frustration, and continued to support me as I found the next step in my career.

    As it turns out, I stayed in coffee, and I’m grateful I did, as I love what I get to do now. In this new setting, however, I’m seeking to foster and engage in conversations around gender equity in coffee, and I’m very interested in this budding conversation around race in coffee.

    Thank you for the work you are doing, every day, as a black women in coffee, just being present, and for this additional and courageous step of starting a discussion. I very much look forward to being a part of it, and supporting the community that can form around it.

  14. Reply

    Larnelle S.

    August 11, 2018

    Hi Michelle,

    I came across your blog while conducting a Google search for "Black people in coffee," and I am glad I did. I am new to the coffee community, and as a Black man I find it quite intimidating at times. Simply trying to find a place down here in Houston that will be willing to train me from scratch has been quite difficult. I have often wondered if it is because I’m Black or if owners simply don’t have the time or energy to take on an apprentice. Either way, the frustration of not seeing someone like me in just about every shop I patronize or seek training in can get frustrating.

    I appreciate your perspective and it is encouraging for me to see someone push and make their own way in this industry. You definitely have a fan and a follower.

  15. Reply

    Mike

    November 22, 2018

    My name is Michael Loyd. I am a black coffee shop owner. What you are writing here is very dope. Very very dope. I’m launching a new brand in 2018 which is pivot from a my current stores and most of what you are discussing in the blog post is at the core of the mission. I’d love to talk to you more about this topic – it is up to us to change this culture because I believe that coffee is a microcosm for many of the other symptoms America is facing along the lines of socioeconomic stratificaiton.

    http://www.sc.coffee old brand
    realdope.coffee new brand…

  16. Reply

    You're the racist

    March 5, 2020

    The white man be holdin’ ya down. Obama fo President! Bernie too! Black coffee matters!

    Get over yourself.

    • Reply

      Michelle Johnson

      March 5, 2020

      Pull up on me and say this to my face.

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