Talking About Race

by Kim Elena Ionescu

A few weeks ago, during and after The Coffeewoman’s public event at Roy Street Coffee in Seattle, social media was abuzz with quotes and photos of women from the coffee community sharing perspective and delivering encouragement to one another. Among many positive responses, retweets and conversations sparked by the event and its coverage, the event drew some criticism for the perceived racial homogeneity of the speakers. The tone of the criticism ran a spectrum – from gentle reminders to seek out women of color to more overt frustration and disappointment – and when Laila acknowledged it on Twitter and asked who would work with The Coffeewoman on issues surrounding race, I volunteered.

Wait… what?

kei-bio-photoYou read that right. I, a white woman in a position of authority in our coffee community, am writing about race, despite the risk that a white woman writing about race may smack (to people of any ethnicity) of hubris. This thought has crossed my mind pretty much every day since I agreed to the article, but I persist because white people don’t talk about race very much.

Several months ago, I participated in a two-day racial equity training hosted by a group called Organizing Against Racism (OAR) with approximately 75 other people from my hometown of Durham and surrounding communities in North Carolina. I had heard good things about the training from a diverse array of people – diverse not only in terms of race but in age, political viewpoint, religious affiliation, and educational background – so I was looking forward to it. I figured it would focus on teaching white people about racism and that I would probably be familiar most of the rules already, but I was wrong. I got a lot more than I bargained for, both as a white person and as an ethnic minority in that room. While the workshop did not shy away from discussing white privilege and individual action, it delved deeply into systemic racism. I learned things about the history of the United States that I didn’t know. I acknowledged aloud how white privilege has made it possible for me to do illegal things without fear of serious repercussions – from driving with an expired license to shoplifting. I’m embarrassed about shoplifting makeup from drug stores in college, but you know what feels worse? Accepting that I was able to attend that private university because my white family spent generations owning land, accumulating wealth, and accessing government support that was only available to white people.  

The most important part of the training, though, was hearing the experiences of people of color and being asked not  to respond, but just to listen. White people tend to take up a lot of space, whether in pop culture, in history, in day-to-day conversation or in discussions of race. We fail– no, actually, I should keep this focused on my behavior, lest it feel like an excuse or spawn some kind of nightmarish #notallwhitepeople discussion – I have failed to check my assumptions and when challenged in my judgment or challenged in my fairness, I have reacted defensively and wanted credit for my good intentions.

I appreciate that no one responded defensively to criticism of The Coffeewoman. Saying some version of “I tried” or “I’m not racist” can quickly derail a conversation and shift its focus away from building a better future and community and onto the individual. On one hand, The Coffeewoman is no more accountable to defying the norm – that is, all-white panels of coffee experts – than any other group, and I want to avoid the all-too-common trap of holding women to a higher standard than men. On the other, I don’t feel frustrated – it’s a valid critique, and the earlier we hear that critique, the more open we will be to examining and dismantling traditional hierarchies. As a group of predominantly white women, The Coffeewoman may face the same obstacles to attracting women of color as a coffee company with all-male management might face in attracting women. We intuitively understand that while those managers may be unflaggingly supportive of women in their roles as brothers, sons, partners, and fathers, if they’re not wondering how they ended up on a management team without women, and more to the point, if they’re not actively working to address biases in their company, they’re perpetuating gender inequality. I don’t want to build The Coffeewoman that way.

We also know that even if we achieve gender balance on every panel of speakers at every conference, we won’t have achieved gender equality in the coffee industry. In addition to its manifestations in our day-to-day interactions and public events, racism underpins the history of coffee production, trading, and consumption – as well as its present state – and begs us to keep working in pursuit of greater representation and equity. I am challenging myself to use my time, resources and influence to speak courageously, but also to listen, especially to people whose voices are less likely to be heard as a result of multiple factors including, but not limited to, race and gender.

I recognize the contradiction in telling white people to listen more and talk less in an article on race written by a white person. I could have not written it, but would that have been better? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. There are no easy answers to complex problems. White people aren’t going to solve the issues that result from racism, but not talking about race and racism just perpetuates the idea that victims of racism are responsible for fixing oppression while I go about my business as usual. I don’t want to be part of that anymore. I believe that as a leader in this community, I have a responsibility to be uncomfortable and acknowledge where I’m not succeeding, as well as speaking up on the subjects where I know I excel.

Thank you, coffee women, for listening to me. I’m listening to you, too – compliments and criticisms alike.

Kim Elena Bullock is listening at @kimelenabullock.

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