Last month on Talking Race & Kids, EmbraceRace co-founders Andrew and Melissa and the EmbraceRace community spoke to special guests about upstanding. (LIGHTLY EDITED TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS.) Melissa "Missy" DePino and Michelle Saahene were not racial justice activists when they made their way to Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12, 2018. They connected because they were among the few who spoke up in a busy coffee shop after seeing two black men arrested for not buying coffee while waiting for a business associate. Michelle, who is black, also took video of the incident. Missy, who is white, posted the video, which soon went viral. They join us to tell us what they’ve learned over the months since and to talk about the advocacy work they now do together through their new organization, From Privilege to Progress.
EmbraceRace: I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about how the day started for you and just take us through it.
Michelle: It was a very normal day for me. Very normal Thursday. It's interesting because I normally go to a completely different Starbucks and that day I decided to go to that Starbucks. I had only been there maybe three times in the five years that I've been living here.
I saw the whole thing happen from the beginning. When the two gentlemen walked in and asked to use the bathroom I heard her say, "No. It's for paying customers only." And then the men sat down, nothing else. I saw her walk back to the back of a store and she muttered something to herself. When the cops showed up 10 minutes later, and I heard her lie. I heard her say, "Those gentlemen are refusing to leave."
EmbraceRace: So just to be entirely clear, nothing else happened, there was no other interaction? You're saying these men walked in. They were told the bathrooms are for paying customers only. And you're saying there was no interaction between them again until the police came in.
Michelle: So I didn't see anything but I heard them on an interview actually say that the barista came up from behind the counter and walked up to them and asked them if they needed anything else. Now everyone that's on this webinar right now, you know when you go to a Starbucks, the barista, it's not a service type of environment. They don't come up to you and ask you for anything. So she was looking for something, right?
When I saw the cops come in I realized the cops were actually going to go through with the arrest. That they weren't going to display any discretion in that instance or really try to figure out what was going on. I started sweating and my fingers started trembling and my hands started going numb almost like I was having a panic attack, because at that moment, it wasn't a matter of if I was going to do something, it was what was I going to do.
The white guy next to me had been there for 45 minutes. He didn't buy a coffee. I saw a white woman come in mid jog, use the bathroom, and leave. She didn't have to buy a coffee. So I'm seeing all of these white people sitting there without coffees. And these two black men are being arrested for doing the exact same thing. And when I looked at them they reminded me of my brothers. - Michelle Saahene, From Privilege to Progress
EmbraceRace: And Missy, were you there for the entire thing as well? What did you see? Were you aware there was something happening? Did you know why the police officers came in when they did?
Missy: No. The two gentlemen were sitting in front of me and I saw the police come over to them. And I heard the guys saying you know, "What did we do? Why do we have to leave?" I saw two police officers come and then four and then eight. And then I heard their friend [who’d by then arrived] talking and saying, "They're meeting me for a business meeting." You can hear on the video their friend Andrew is sort of protesting what's happening and then I heard Michelle saying, "What did they do? What did they do?"
I try to think about how I felt at that moment because you know, I knew in my head that these things happened, but I've never seen anything happen like that in real time. And I felt so ashamed for Donte [Robinson] and Rashon [Nelson]. I felt ashamed to be watching and witnessing this happen to them. I felt angry. I felt confused. Honestly, in that moment, I just went on autopilot. I stood up and I started saying something along with Michelle and then we all sort of walked outside followed them outside when the police took them outside.
It's so different experiencing that in real life, knowing that if that had happened to me, I would've just talked right back to the police and said, "What are you doing. I didn't do anything." I mean I wouldn't have been ashamed and I wouldn't have been scared. I can't know what it felt like to be in their skin but being there with them, man everything sort of changed after seeing that. - Missy DePino, From Privilege to Progress
EmbraceRace: So the police arrested the men. You know Michelle is video recording this. You follow them outside. We know that the white man that they were there to meet has shown up and he's protesting the arrest, too. And I'm wondering what are the rest of the customers doing at this point?
Michelle: Well I feel like everyone started to get a little bit agitated after seeing this. I know that when we walked out, after I stood up and Missy stood up, maybe another 11, 12 people must have stood up with us and said, I'm leaving too. Because it was just so obvious.
Right before that I had actually approached the barista because I went to the cops first and I said, "Why are you doing this?" And he said to me, "Go ask the barista," as if there was no accountability on their part. So I went up to the barista and I said, "Why did you call the cops?" And she didn't want to answer me, her chest got red, her face got red, she was ignoring me.
I asked her twice and she wouldn't listen to me so I told her she was a coward. And I think when maybe everyone saw all the different interactions it was just so clear that it was obviously racism.
I remember talking to a few of the women and they said, "Those men were so calm. They were so calm. We would have flipped out." And I said, "And you would have been able to flip out because you're white." And I remember I said it kind of harshly but then they looked at me and then they were like, "You know what. You're right." And they recognized that would never happen to them. - Michelle Saahene, From Privilege to Progress
Missy: I mean it was it was so clear what was going on that nothing had happened prior to that, that we were all sort of in shock. Not really in shock that it happened but just in shock seeing it's so blatant in front of us and you know we always talk about the fact that that there's a lot of, and I know Michelle always talks about this is, often you see racism but you don't recognize it necessarily. But this was clear.
So I sort of impulsively said, "Oh, somebody needs to tweet this” and there was another woman who had videoed it and she didn't want to and I said, "Send it to me." And she sent it to me right there and then I just quick wrote that caption. I was shaking. I literally was not thinking. And then I sent it out I sort of tweeted that at a couple of different people. I tweeted it at Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson and I still didn't think it would get any pick up and then by the next day it was just, it went crazy, went crazy viral.
EmbraceRace: Obviously for each of you, your own response to it was intense and emotional and it was very upsetting and it seems to me that very many of us have these experiences that could be these pivotal moments where you say, “Wow, the way I thought the world worked isn't quite how it works.” Or maybe it works as I think it but now I really feel it, right, and now I'm in the moment and I'm feeling it and I'm going to be a somewhat different person now. And very few of us act on those possibilities. So I wonder if you could take us to your decision, once it goes viral, to start From Privilege to Progress, which is your organization that promotes upstanding of whites in particular. Can you say more about just what was going through your respective minds that led you to actually make a departure from your life at that point?
Michelle: I have been somewhat ready for this for a really long time. I grew up in an African household in a white town. And I was separated from black America so I didn't really understand black American culture. I knew that black people in the U.S. were treated as less than but no one really explained to me in detail why and at my white school I didn't really learn any black history at all. And so there was a time in my life where I kind of tried to disassociate because being an African, white people would tell me all the time that I was different [than black Americans]. They made me feel honestly better than, and I wanted to separate so I didn't feel [less than].
But when I had my own experience of police racism when I was about 23, 24 it really hit me that no matter how educated, no matter the way that I talk and who I'm friends with, I'm a black woman in America and I can be subjected to racism at any point and time. I then visited Africa and I went to a slave castle it really made me reflect - every single black person in America could be my neighbor, could be my relatives, could be my friends in Africa. So when I came back I started studying more and I watched [the movie] 13th and I couldn't look at a black person without thinking we could be related. So when the incident in Starbucks happened, I had already been kind of woken up to the fact that these are my brothers and I have an obligation to stick up for you know people of color across America. So when Missy approached me, she can tell you, I was ready immediately to do something about this in however way that we could.
EmbraceRace: How did this experience trickle into your personal lives?
Missy: Had it not gone viral, I think I still would have felt the same transformation. I think the transformation came from the experience of being there. Seeing such blatant racism right in front of me and feeling it with my heart instead of just my intellect, knowing that it happens.
And so yeah it changed everything, it was in every part of my life. It really actually still is. I was so overwhelmed by everything, the media and the feelings you know, as cliché as it sounds, the waking up of seeing the world through this different lens. And I have two sons who are 15 and 18. And my son saw how overwhelmed I was and he said, "Mom, you did something important. It was really good it got this attention. Why don't you just turn it over to the experts? Let the activists do the work from now on." And I said, "I can't. I can't see things the same way anymore." And I told him, "You know, there's part of the reason that people paid attention, because a white person shared this."
I did a thing on CNN and the chyron underneath me said, "Witness says this doesn't happen to white people." And I thought, of course it doesn't!
Missy: My son remarked, “You're kind of like a double agent now. You felt this experience in real-time. And now you can talk to your side about it," and that meant something to me so I kept doing it. I can't stop. Today someone on Twitter called me the “annoying Starbucks coffee lady” and said “Shut up! Your 15 minutes of fame are over?” I said, thank you for calling me the annoying Starbucks lady - that means people are probably listening. I'll take that title. I like it.
EmbraceRace: I wonder if you can give us some detail about From Privilege to Progress, the organization you've started together. The incident happened on April 12th of this year, so your organization is very new - you are building the car as you drive, I imagine. So describe the car to us. What are you trying to do and how are you trying to do it?
Michelle: Yes, so our request is pretty simple. “Learn, Speak Up, Amplify.” We want people to educate themselves. We also ask people to speak up in their everyday lives. And then we're asking people to amplify [voices of POC] on social media because our social media networks are very segregated.
EmbraceRace: You have both said that the incident at Starbucks was very clear racism. But oftentimes it's not as blatant and one's intention or one's bias can be denied when you call someone on it. So I'm wondering how this experience has made you all think about addressing more subtle racism. We can maybe take a stand against the prison industrial complex by calling out this blatant injustice in Starbucks. But what about the million points along the way on that pipeline to prison, the mass criminalization of black and brown people for being black or brown?
In other words, how do you bring it home to the folks who are attending this webinar? What is the challenge you have to people in their everyday lives?
It sounds so simplistic honestly. But what we learned from this whole experience is that there are so many [especially but not only] white people who think they know what's going on but they don't. So really, simple as it sounds, you just need to educate yourselves. There are tons of resources on the Web. You can follow people of color on social media. You can follow us on social media because we're amplifying all kinds of information. - Missy DePino, From Privilege to Progress
Like for example today. I don't know how many of you saw the thing with Megan Kelly where she said, "Oh well when I was young it was OK to dress in blackface." And well the internet went wild and no when she was young it was not OK to dress in blackface! And part of the reason people don't understand is because people don't know the history. They don't know about minstrels. They don't know about the different ways that was part of the fabric of racism in our country. So it comes down to really educating yourself. And every time you educate yourself, you can increase your value as an ally and you'll be able to recognize these things more and be able to speak up more.
EmbraceRace: We put out this poll. We asked: “Have you ever not spoken up when you witnessed an injustice and regretted it later?” 78 percent of you answered "yes." If people could just share maybe in the chat what holds you back when you say nothing.
Personally, when I [Melissa Giraud] think about what holds me back when I don't advocate or haven't in the past …. I'm a white-presenting, mixed-race person. And I think very oftentimes we remember aggressions committed to us and we don't even recognize when we're doing it to other folks, right.
When I think back to the times when I didn't say something, I think about feeling unsafe but also feeling impolite, feeling rude. I'd very much been socialized as the child of immigrants who didn't feel safe or integrated a lot of the time to keep my head down and not make noise.
And here's one comment from JT in the chat. JT says, "Sometimes a comment takes me so by surprise that by the time it registers and I have a response, the moment has passed." So we can all appreciate that, right that amazing response you come up with an hour later. "If I could do it again I would be there and at least have an ‘ouch’ ready," JT says.
Michelle: Yeah JT I mean I even experienced that. Like I said growing up in a white town I would hear racist comments and I would be so shocked by it that I think it was just on my face to where I didn't even have to say something. And the white person’s response to me would be, "Oh Michelle, well we don't really mean you!" Even as a black person it's shocking to the point where you are flabbergasted and you don't know what to say and you kind of walk away. It's tough even for us.
EmbraceRace: But maybe even especially as a person of color, a lot of people are talking about self-care in the chat, self-care when you're being targeted or feeling unsafe. Andrew and I had a thing the other day where we were in a conversation with someone who hurled microaggression after microaggression. It was a situation where you stand up to a couple of them and the have to walk away because they’re so constant.
Part of what you guys are advocating is using whatever privilege you can, because we all have privilege in different situations, to stand up for someone who maybe is feeling targeted.
EmbraceRace: I'm remembering this great quote by a pretty well-known political scientist and he said something like … “When a fight breaks out, look at the crowd because they'll determine how the fight's going to go, how it's going to turn out.” And for me what comes first to mind in considering obstacles to my speaking up is this uncertainty, this fear that you speak up alone.
So something happens. Someone tells a joke that's really not so funny or digs in deep into some pretty ugly stuff. And you think, well that's a problem, so I'm going to not laugh. Is that enough? It's probably not enough. The question is if we weigh in are others going to weigh in, too, are people going to find the joke problematic? Are they going to agree with me or are they going to find me problematic for disturbing the positive vibe of a group or being humorless? You know if “it's supposed to be a joke!” - that sort of thing. And it seems to me that it's really how we collectively respond to those moments, that's when we're saying we collectively think it's OK or it's not OK. And that person and the group get a signal about whether or not they can do this again. Am I taking a risk if I make this kind of joke again or not? These are critical moments.
We're getting some great comments here and we got some that I can read from earlier as well. So this one: "I heard someone in a public place making comments about people of color cheating the welfare system. I think what stopped me even though I heartily disagree with him was because I felt I didn't have statistics on the tip of my tongue. I wish I had said something." That's an issue for lots of folks, right?
EmbraceRace: We have a question for you Michelle and Missy. How do you describe microaggressions? What do we mean by the term?
Michelle: I'll give some examples. I know Missy experienced this with a friend. One of her friends said, kind of in shock, that a black person was "so articulate!" Calling a black person "articulate" as if you wouldn't expect them to be. I got that my entire life. I even got that in one of the interviews that I did about the Starbucks thing! Yeah I was like... why would I not be?
I've been told that I sound white. I ask what that means and people usually don't even know how to articulate that themselves. Or making a comment about a black or brown neighborhood being dangerous. Yet at the same time you claim not to be racist. So subtle things that you say and do that are tied to race that aren't necessarily true.
Or someone coming up, this happened to me a few years ago. Someone came up to me and started actually physically touching me and she was touching my arm and touching my hair. I had long braids and she wanted to compliment me but how often would you see a black woman walk up to a white woman and just start touching her hair and caressing her arms and being like, "Oh, your skin is so milky white and smooth." That made me feel like more of an animal than a human being, you know? So it's things that you don't realize are racial [or other] stereotypes but they are.
EmbraceRace: It’s funny. Yesterday, I was reading an article about Andrew Gillum, the [black] Democratic candidate for governor of Florida. In the article they interviewed some senior citizens, predominantly white, who were supportive of his opponent and insisted that their problem with Gillum had nothing to do with race. They were simply worried that if he became governor you know crime would go through the roof. [Laughs!] Literally, that was their number one concern!
EmbraceRace: Or even, for example, I was talking to someone recently about where I [Melissa] grew up and the idea of “bad neighborhoods” came up. I actually used to say when I was growing up that I lived in a bad neighborhood. I used to say that all the time because that's what it was called! But it’s code for neighborhood of color, poor neighborhood of color, which clearly can't be inherently bad. I definitely find it jarring to hear that said.
I don't want people to start feeling afraid to talk and, as I said, I used to call some neighborhoods “bad” including the neighborhood I grew up in. And I think the real thing we have to do is ask more questions and listen more. Approach conversations with a composure that suggests that you're open and even willing to be corrected. And it's hard, it's hard to be that way. But you know that's the best we can do because we're all gonna mess up.
EmbraceRace: You know EmbraceRace is about trying to get our own stuff together with respect to race and doing that so that we can help the children in our lives do the same. Whether those are our children or we're teachers or play another role - almost all of us have a part to play in socializing at least one child. So you know, Missy, I know you mentioned your two teen sons.
EmbraceRace: Michelle I don't know that you have any children.
Michelle: I do not.
EmbraceRace: But do you have young children in your life? Are you an aunt or?
Michelle: Yeah I have a lot of little young ones around yeah.
EmbraceRace: So thinking about those children in your respective lives how do you, first, what does this meant for them right? What should we take away from this in terms of engaging our children in the struggle?
Missy: The most important thing is to model behavior. And again I keep going back to the simplistic but educating yourself and then modeling that behavior for your kids so that they understand what they need to do. I mean I know my son after the Starbucks situation happened, he saw something happen that he recognized that was basically a microaggression because he had seen my example and we had been talking about it at home. So I think the most important thing is a parent or whoever is dealing with young children is to model that behavior of educating yourself and speaking up when you see things.
EmbraceRace: Thank you.
So I think we should go to questions, yeah? So JT's saying that she/he/they is mindful of falling into the savior category and to be a true ally. Do you all have any advice for how, I think this stuff is so messy that we don't want to, as I said before, paralyze people but what are the, so there's not like there's not like a hard and fast rule but any examples of when maybe even in your own relationship when you know you strategized about sort of your privilege and were able to act in a way that felt good to everyone involved.
Missy: JT, just that you are aware of that, of the white savior complex, is definitely the first step. There are lots of good resources out there. We love a book called White Fragility which can really explain that to you in detail so that you can understand the perspective that you can come from and not be the white savior. But yeah it's not your job to save anyone. It's your job to stand alongside people and fight for equity and justice. And that's really the basic way of looking at it. But I would say that being aware of that is important.
EmbraceRace: On one hand, of course white people are the racial majority in the country. And certainly have more than their share of social capital or what people call privilege. At the same time obviously the number people of color is growing and a lot of the action in terms of race and race relations is among people of color. As many people have said, it is by no means simply black and white. As I understand it, From Privilege to Progress is mostly about white people standing up, elevating the voices of people of color. You know speaking up and doing the right thing. What does your platform and message say to people of color who might also do the same thing?
This isn't quite the you know the right example but I remember seeing this really impressive video of a young black man who went to D.C. to protest the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings and in that case, right he framed it in terms of #MeToo. And in terms of, it that it was really important for him as an individual but also as a black man to stand up for women for sexual abuse survivors and so on. So you see where the analogy might be but what do you say to people of color who might have some privilege they could exercise?
Michelle: I always say that that day [at Starbucks] I had privilege. My privilege was that I was not in their situation. I would just say that no matter where you are at some level you may have a level of privilege. If it's not happening to you at that moment, you know use your discretion to figure out what is the best way to tackle that issue at hand. I know for black people it can be daunting to approach the police. That day at Starbucks I was shaking because I was scared. I thought to myself, if they're arresting those guys, what's to say that they're not going to arrest me?
EmbraceRace:. Yeah, right. So we've got a question, asking about strategies you can share that would be helpful in situations when you have to stand up to someone who's close to you - a work colleague or a family member - because it can be easier to stand up to strangers. And here’s a related question you've touched on this a bit. Have you gotten any pushback from people close to you for doing this work?
Michelle: You know what. It's really unfortunate. Two friends that I had for 26 years don't really talk to me anymore. And I think that's because they started to become aware of a lot of their unconscious bias. When I started speaking up more – one woman in particular had expressed a lot of white fragility. Once you start speaking about these things that are happening, people start to wake up and realize, “Oh. I'm one of these people [who has unconscious bias, etc], too.”
I tell [white friends] because I grew up with you and like you I know that you have it. Most of my friends have been wonderful and supportive. But there are some friends that have taken a very obvious step back from our friendship. And I think that's just something that they're going to have to get over when they come to terms with how they have played a role in white supremacy or how they have not stood up themselves. Maybe there's some shame and guilt there that makes it a bit difficult to be around me? I'm not really sure but it's unfortunate.
EmbraceRace: So from either of you then, how do you handle that? How do you address that in the moment?
Michelle: I mean we've had a lot of talks and discussions and you know I said I'm always here for you and always here to talk. But there’s also a level of self-preservation that I must keep maintain. I don't want to feel that every time I say something that's true or that's factual that a white person is going to start to feel uncomfortable around me. And so there has to be a level of trust and respect and understanding. If I do say something, I'm not attacking anybody. It's just there are biases and white supremacy all around us and it just has to be addressed. If you're going to have a friendship with a person of color, then you need to understand that these things happen to them and you need to be willing to listen and speak if you want a real actual connection with that person of color.
EmbraceRace: We're getting a lot of comments about self-care as a strategy for countering the effects of racism if you are from a targeted group. A comment came in from a dad of color. He says that the neighborhood called the police on him when he was with his kids walking with a stroller. Wow. Sorry that happened.
If you hear something that you're not sure might be a microaggression, just ask the person, "What do you mean by that?" Get them to elaborate on their thought and maybe they'll start to realize that, “Oh, maybe what I just said is rooted in some thought that may or may not even be true.” People often don't really think about what they're saying and if you just ask them to elaborate, some of that truth will start to come out. Then you can respond with, "Well, I don't agree with that." "That's not OK with me." Or if someone says a joke, you can ask, "What makes that funny?" - Michelle Saahene, From Privilege to Progress
Missy: You have to be willing to be vulnerable. Michelle alluded to the story before, about my friend who was well-meaning when she said, "Oh read this article - this man is so articulate" – said about a black man. And I'm in this work and still I cringe thinking, oh, how do I approach her? So I said to her, "I'd like to ask you a question. If the author had been white, would you have referred to him as articulate?" She immediately got defensive. And I said, "I just need you to really think about this, really reflect, and really be honest." And she did. And we talked it all the way through. And let me tell you she is really working to educate herself right now and I'm so happy for that.
It’s the one-on-one conversations that make a difference. You can ignore something on social media. You can ignore something on TV. But when you're having a face-to-face conversation with someone, you can't ignore it. But you have to be willing to be vulnerable in these conversations and be able to really think about things and understand another point of view.
EmbraceRace: Here’s a comment from the chat, from a preschool educator who says: “I think what happens is we forget social emotional behaviors taught in early childhood. I always tell my preschool children, ‘I'm sorry she said that to you. Did that hurt you? Go tell her. Say what you. Mean what you say. But don't say it mean.’”
So I think that sort of for me goes back to the question we keep getting - how do you start the conversation? Missy, your response is as simple as saying, "That's not okay." Starting there and sometimes fumbling along, trying to learn, and trying to make other people of various identities feel safe. This is actually something that our then kindergartener came back from school with: "If you see something wrong, be strong and say “That's not ok!"
Missy: I love that! I just want to add that I didn't think before I shared that video. Afterwards, some told me I took a big risk in sharing it. But you know what? Not at all. The rewards of creating that conversation, that larger conversation is always worth it. From my personal experience it's always worth it to speak up.
EmbraceRace: Thank you so much both of you for sharing your journey. And thanks to all of you who are sharing in the chat and who sent in your stories and questions.
Michelle Saahene spoke out and took video when two black men were arrested at Starbucks in Philadelphia for not ordering a coffee as they waited for a business collaborator to arrive. After that video went viral, she created From Privilege to Progress with her fellow upstander. Michelle has worked in healthcare and now is a Life Coach, where her focus and passion is to help others progress in personal development.
Melissa "Missy" DePino was there, spoke up and spread the video Michelle Saahene took when two black men were arrested at Starbucks in Philadelphia for not ordering a coffee as they waited for a business collaborator to arrive. She co-created From Privilege to Progress with her fellow upstander. Melissa is principal of Leapfrog Group, a branding and marketing firm for non-profits, a former high school English teacher, and a writer.
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