Talking about race is not easy.
Many of those who have called out racial injustices face repercussions — sometimes, they’re silent like close ones turning away from them and others extreme, like assault or death. I have no reason to believe our coffee community would ever have a radical reaction to discussions surrounding race, but that doesn’t make bringing it up any easier.
Talking about race can often be like walking on eggshells — white eggshells — especially for me as a Black woman. Even in furthering the conversation within the scope of specialty coffee after Jenn Chen’s piece, our industry has never been called out to the extent it is now. If you pair that initial shock of a progressive and generally accepting industry not realizing it has been perpetuating racism with white fragility, the walls of defense go up, creating the room of eggshells.
I attended the very first panel of The Coffeewoman in Kansas City, MO this past Febuary. This was a huge first step in being a “lady for ladies”, as some of my friends would call it. I wasn’t one to ever feel threatened by other women, but I often fed my silent desire to be better than them, especially in coffee. Through management, I was able to clearly see the inequalities my lady baristas faced on the cafe floor. On top of that, having a clear view of how much our male baristas and other management got away with was infuriating. Double standards abound. In those moments, I checked myself and vowed to encourage, empower, and advocate for the women I worked with instead of trying to put myself ahead of them.
The Coffeewoman panel was emotional for me for several reasons. One, I really realized how problematic my attitude towards other women coffee professionals was, and I faced it during that event. These women were sharing experiences about shortcomings in the cafe, underrepresentation in competition, and what it all felt like — things I could attest to, as well. I felt immense guilt for once using women as motivation to work harder and get ahead.
Two, the very fact that I wasn’t alone in these experiences was comforting. I was appreciative of the conversation and platform being created so that I could have the support I needed and in turn, be the support for others.
While the discussion continued, I thought of the things I dealt with in my own corner of coffee in Phoenix, Arizona. It came to mind that I had another layer of experience I didn’t hear anyone talking about — race. I scanned the room to see the faces of all of the women with whom I shared a passion for coffee. I became disheartened and lonely, once again, because I was the only Black woman in the room. I started to question whether the problems I encountered as a woman in coffee were mutually exclusive to those I faced being a Black woman in coffee. I recalled situations where I was held to unfair standards my fair-skinned coworkers weren’t expected to uphold. I always felt like I was being looked at under a magnifying glass, and employees and consumers alike had no problem scrutinizing me for small missteps in my service. I wondered if other baristas of color, women and men, shared this, too, and the very beginnings of my last post started to take form.
When The Coffeewoman faced criticism for failing to present a diverse panel at their Seattle event and Laila called people to offer solutions, I have to admit, I stayed silent. At the time, I was still trying to find confidence in my voice on the topic of race, despite the conversations I helped create in sharing my experience. As I stated before, talking about race is not easy. For as much support I received for speaking up, I got negative response, too. Some responses were unknowingly dismissive and others were straight up personal attacks. I felt boxed in that room of eggshells, creating noise I wasn’t sure I should have created, at the time.
During my preparations for Tamper Tantrum, I still experienced that uncertainty for continuing the race conversation, though I knew it was extremely important and necessary. Will the community I’m speaking to be receptive to my points? Will there be people just waiting to dismiss me and my experiences? Do I even know what I’m talking about? I started to feel crippled by my fear of taking another step on the eggshells. But then, The Coffeewoman released a piece by Kim Elena, taking responsibility on behalf of the platform for their unconscious discrimination. She also shared her experience about learning how to advocate for those who are oppressed, especially as a white woman in authority.
Her voice was important for me to hear and is important for me to be supportive of because she’s owning up to the racism she, and the majority of our industry, benefits from. She is aiding in breaking down the walls of defense and clearly her share of the eggshells on the floor, so that I can take my next step and with confidence.
There are so many other coffee professionals of color who share this fear of making noise about their experiences, inside and outside of coffee. It is up to our white counterparts to work past their defenses, go forth, and clear out the eggshells of their white fragility. We need you to in order for true equality to exist, and then we can all step together.