my body woke me up from what i can only assume was a peaceful sleep at 5am saturday morning. my reaction was anything but peaceful. i struggled to fall back to sleep for a few hours before i just gave up. i had a pretty lengthy to-do list so i decided to get started. first up was a little light cleaning.
it’s hard to be black and not spend some portion of your saturday morning cleaning. it’s one of those rituals that crosses region and generation. black people clean their houses on saturday mornings. it is known. after cleaning the kitchen and bathroom i mapped out my route for completing errands in the allotted time because i had a few events to attend later that afternoon and evening. it was in completing those errands that my entire day was derailed.
i live in a neighborhood where i can walk very easily to all the necessities like the bank, library, grocery store, restaurants, breweries and a number of little shops, bakeries, coffee shops, and general services. i have everything in my hood. after finishing my list, i decided to stop at the neighborhood starbucks and get my morning coffee. i make really bad coffee so it’s best for me to let someone else do it for me. besides, i’ve started to embrace the concept of letting others do things for me that aren’t a requirement for me to live. freedom!
so, i’m standing in line at the starbucks and there is an older man at the counter. i don’t know what he was ordering but it seemed pretty involved based on the strained faces the barista was making at him. after watching their exchange for a few minutes i grew bored and turned my gaze to a set of high school girls who were enthusiastically describing something to each other. i couldn’t actually hear what they were saying but it was clearly a big deal. finally, the barista pulled my attention back to the register when she asked what she could get started for me.
i notice the older gentleman is still at the counter standing in front of the register so the barista had to step to the side to get my attention. he’s fumbling with his change, a few dollar bills. even after ordering, paying, and getting my card back from the barista, the older gentleman is still standing at the counter. he still held one dollar in his hand. then all of a sudden he takes out his keys, turns to me and in a soft voice says, “this is a shackle.”
yes, you read that correctly. “this is a shackle.” it was a purple key chain – the kind that has the revolving knob that you spin like a cylinder on a revolver gun to open and close. then he turned around and walked to the end of the counter to collect his drink. but i was left standing at the counter in shock, mouth open and mind racing. did he really say shackle? did i hear that right? he said shackle. ok. shackle is a very intentional word. and you might have guessed i’m a black woman and this gentleman was white. “this is a shackle.”
the words are still ringing in my ear a day later. as he walked away i noticed he was wearing a jacket that had an american flag patch on it. i don’t know why i noticed that. it is one of the many odd data points i collected as i tried to make sense of what had just happened to me while completing an act so routine the baristas at my regular starbucks complete my order before i even make it to the counter.
normally, i’m ready with a response to something so grossly unjust and offensive. but i was rendered speechless. i stood in the heavy silence, smothered by that unexpected encounter with a patriotic old white man who thought it was acceptable to put me in my place by conjuring the images of slavery and hatred. with just four words, he tried to strip me of all my dignity and humanity. four words. “this is a shackle.”
my heart goes out to the barista who as a white woman in one of the whitest cities in america has probably never encountered the blatant racism she witnessed this past saturday morning. we stood in silence together, unable to speak, unable to move, unable to bridge the gap of shock between us.
as i tried to force my emotions into a recognizable state, i stood to the side of the register and waited for this man who had violated me and left me to deal with the residue of his hatred to get his drink and go. after he left, the barista brought my drink to me and said, “i’m sorry about that.”
“i’m sorry about that.” four words. but unlike the first set of words, they didn’t carry any weight. i’m sorry about it, too. i’m sorry i live in a country that was built on the backs of my people – african people – and yet all imaginations of its greatness conveniently omit a place for someone like me. as my little brother said today, “you wouldn’t have an america to call home if it weren’t for my ancestors.”
i absolutely hate that he could say that to me, that he felt ok saying that to me. that he likely went on with his day as if nothing had happened but i’m still trying to make sense of what he said to me while i was waiting to get my coffee. coffee, a crop that my people cultivated in shackles.
i posted my experience on my facebook wall where a friend who happens to work for starbucks saw it. she shared it with some of leadership who reached out to me. i learned the barista who was forced to witness this humiliating exchange struggled to process what happened. i hope her bearing witness to my pain awakens something in her.
and me, i’m just trying to process why those four words left me speechless when words are my weapon of choice. when needed, my voice betrayed me, leaving me mute. powerless. exposed. vulnerable. i didn’t ask for my starbucks with a shot of shackles and shock, but that is exactly what i got. i would that this cup would pass.