If you’re a person of color, you know what I’m talking about. You walk into a new coffee shop and your senses are overwhelmed with whiteness and you get the glare from the Karens. The white hipster barista lines herself up between you and the bathrooms, ready to tell you non-customers aren’t welcome.
If you have a white coffee drinking friend, he or she may have even let you in on the old coffee joke white coffee drinkers share when PoC aren’t around: “there are three things that are necessary in order to make a cup of coffee, and they are: first, a black man to roast the coffee; second, a yellow man to grind it; and third, a white man to drink it.”
Well, I’m here to validate your lived experience; coffee is in fact horribly racist, and there’s data to back it up.
Every facet of the coffee industry, in fact, is rooted in racism. From the moment the whites viciously stole coffee from Black and Brown People to the present-day Karen sipping her morning cup of white supremacy, whites have been able to drink the fruits of our labor and our culture with impunity.
An Afrocentric, anticolonial, and antiracist history of coffee
There’s nothing more important to Black folks than learning more about their rich history and embracing the unequalled creativity and genius of their Blackness. It’s only recently that historians have begun to recognize the achievements of Black people: from building the pyramids, to composing classical symphonies, to creating the day to day life fuel of the white supremacist capitalist system– wait, what!?
“The history of coffee is both fascinating and tragic,” writes Phyllis Johnson, founder of BD Imports, in Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry? “Working through this unpleasant history is necessary for everyone involved in coffee. For some, this history is a source of empowerment; for others, it is a source of anger, hurt and shame. Unfortunately, for many this history is unknown. It’s important that we understand and acknowledge this history.”
It’s a well-known fact that whites would be eating bland food, like plain bread and gruel, if it weren’t for their theft of culinary secrets from people of color, and especially Black folks. That’s precisely why when the whites found out about coffee, it became one of the reasons they decided to victimize and appropriate Black civilization wholesale.
“The first coffees exported to North America and Europe were harvested by slaves,” Johnson wrote. “Later, enslaved Africans prepared and served coffees for their slave owners, when they were not laboring in the fields.”
Coffee first came to North America and Europe between 1650 and 1700. But coffee was an important, almost religious, part of Black culture going as far back as the 1400s in Ethiopia. After the whites got the first sip of the Black delicacy, they brutally enslaved people of color to keep up with demand, turning a ritualistic drink into another consumer product in the colonial capitalist machine.
“As we trace the bean that started in Africa and spread throughout the world, slave ships departed West Africa to put in place forced labor to ensure an adequate supply of production to meet demand,” Johnson said. “As demand for coffee grew during this period, so did enslavement, which was used to sustain production.”
Urnex, maker of coffee equipment, agrees:
White supremacy is built into the foundation of the coffee industry. The global coffee economy was created through colonialism, the white supremacist system under which European countries invaded, subjugated, and exploited the countries of Black and Brown people. After Dutch spies stole coffee from Africa, Europeans forced Black and Indigenous people into slavery to grow it on colonized land.
White folks drinking coffee perpetuates gentrification and racism
Now that it’s been established that, historically, coffee is deeply rooted in colonialism and racism, you might be wondering what the next steps are. Aren’t we all addicted to the stuff? What do we do with our horrible knowledge?
If you think coffee culture can find refuge in specialty coffee, think again. This might be obvious to some, but I’ll spell it out for the folks in the back: the bourgeois notion of “specialty coffee” is explicitly rooted in classism, which is directly linked to racism (a whole other, and very long, topic).
It’s not just that Black folks cannot afford specialty coffee, but the very acceptance of the term “specialty coffee” suggests that some coffee is somehow superior to others, an idea that is rooted in whiteness. Values like “hard work creates better products” is an white supremacist idea that is constantly forced upon people of color and justifies stereotypes like the myth of “laziness” in people of color.
If you can’t turn to specialty coffee, at least you can support your local coffee shop, right? Again, hold on. The number one sign of gentrification of Black spaces and Black places is a new chic coffee shop. According to Bitterroot Magazine: “These shops seem to sprout on the corner of every neighborhood just as it’s beginning to gentrify — a phenomenon researchers are beginning to notice, too.”
And let’s not forget that so-called progressive coffee shops fail to pay a living wage. The average salary for a barista in Portland, OR is a measly $23,000. To put it short: think twice before entering your local anti-capitalist coffee shop. Despite their anarchist demagoguery, they’re trying to exploit people of color just like the 19th century colonialists.
That’s not to mention big retail coffee and coffee chains, which are just as bad as crypto-racist coffee shops in gentrified areas. At least white liberals pretend to be tolerant of us — Black folks are not even allowed to use restrooms in big coffee chains, as I’m sure you’ll remember from this tragic 2018 Starbucks story:
Two Black men who had not yet ordered anything were denied the code to use the bathroom and then were asked to leave the store. They did not, the manager called the police, and at the end of it all two black men were handcuffed and detained for several hours.
It’s time to boycott and divest
Unfortunately, coffee is not the only racist drink on the market. Milk also became racist after white supremacists began using the white drink as a symbol of their skin. Yes, racist roots in the coffee industry are certainly much deeper, but the whiteness of milk and milk’s devastating effects on the beautiful Black body makes it almost as bad as coffee for some Black people.
So, if both milk and coffee are racist, what can be done? Many people will insist that combining the two drinks actually cancels out the racism, because it represents the white becoming pregnant with Blackness, and creating a delicious Brown result. This is why antiracist folks often take milk in their coffee — a subconscious purifying ritual.
But ultimately, and I know this will hurt, a proper commitment to doing antiracist direct action requires that we give up coffee altogether. Unless you’re Ethiopian.
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