Editor’s Note: Melissa DePino is co-founder of From Privilege to Progress. She is a principal of Leapfrog Group, a branding and marketing firm for non-profits, and the co-author of a novel, “Pretty Little World,” and “Neighbors (The Real Thing Collection).” The views expressed here are solely hers.
I do not consider myself to be an avid sports fan, but last fall, an NBA coach got my attention with remarks he made that were shared on Twitter. It was Gregg “Pop” Popovich, the seemingly surly but universally beloved coach of the San Antonio Spurs talking about race, specifically white privilege. “We still have no clue of what being born white means,” he said.
I recall thinking how rare it was to hear a white person like me own that privilege and speak frankly and publicly about racial injustice.
On April 12, I was in a Starbucks in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia and watched as two young black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were taken away in handcuffs for doing what is completely normal for me – sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a friend, without having ordered anything.
The woman next to me and a few others started recording the incident, and a few of us, including their friend, began to confront both the Starbucks employee and the police, trying to explain that the men hadn’t done anything.
As we watched Nelson and Robinson being taken away in a patrol car, I tweeted the video with the caveat to the other bystanders that I didn’t have a lot of followers, but it was worth trying anyway. Within 24 hours my tweet had gone viral and the video had attracted over 10 million views, putting these young men’s trauma on display to the world.
The impact of this event is still unfolding. For Starbucks, it’s taken the form of new policy allowing people to use its bathrooms and sit in its cafes and patios without buying anything. It’s also visible in the fact that on Tuesday, employees in 8,000 Starbucks stores and their corporate office will step away from their jobs to undergo training – devised by civil rights leaders like Bryan Stevenson, Sherrilyn Ifill, and Heather McGhee – “designed to address implicit bias.” The training will also be part of the onboarding process for new hires.
I am cautiously optimistic about Starbucks’ ongoing efforts to address this incident and set an example for corporate America. That said, my focus is on the rarity of Pop’s honest public remarks about racism, and the paradox that his (and my) white privilege gives us the freedom to speak up. What’s become apparent to me through this experience is that not nearly enough of us do – and I’m looking especially at self-proclaimed progressives in favor of racial, economic and social justice.
These are the folks who need to be using their voices, their privilege, to amplify conversations about systemic racism and “living while black” that are largely only happening in the black community. I don’t just think this on the basis of my own personal experience, although that experience has certainly been eye-opening, but on data. If black Americans feel like they have been preaching to the choir, particularly on social media, it’s because they have been.
According to a 2016 study by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), 91% of white Americans’ social networks are white and 83% of black Americans’ social networks are black.
Another study, also in 2016, found: “Black social media users (68%) are roughly twice as likely as whites (35%) to say that at least some of the posts they see on social networking sites are about race or race relations. When it comes to their own postings, a similar racial gap exists. Among black social media users, 28% say most or some of what they post is about race or race relations; only 8% of whites say the same. On the other hand, roughly two-thirds (67%) of whites who use social media say that none of things they post or share pertain to race.”
There is an important opportunity for white Americans to bridge the gap and share information about racism in America in their circles of influence – and in particular, their social media networks. Not just about dramatic events like the one at Starbucks, but of the everyday indignities, discrimination and marginalization that are part of the fabric of racism in 2018 America.
I was asked recently in an interview by Toure if the Starbucks experience has changed me. My answer was that It has, in a number of ways. Most importantly, as of April 12, I was officially finished tiptoeing around the race conversation that so many in my liberal white circle of friends and acquaintances have avoided for so long.
Even though I know I still hold biases I have yet to fully address, even though I know it will feel uncomfortable to many, I am done. It took this incident for me to finally admit to an African-American friend who I have known and loved for 20 years that I have held back talking with her about race because I was worried she would judge me or that I would offend her.
People of color have been fighting against racism for hundreds of years, but much of white America has been blind to or complicit in it. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, expressed his disappointment in “white moderates” and their “appalling silence” about racism. That silence is still too prevalent today, on Twitter and everywhere else.
After the incident, I connected with a young black woman, Michelle Saahene, who was the first person to speak up in Starbucks that day. It is her voice we hear on the video, and it was her bravery in speaking up that motivated me to act.
Together we have started a project called From Privilege to Progress. It asks white allies to #ShowUp against racism and social injustice by speaking out, sharing and amplifying the voices of people of color on social media and in real life. In addition to social media campaigns, we will connect people to existing organizations already doing the work of anti-racism so they can get involved and take real action.
When white allies understand and use their privilege to show up, we can give the conversation more attention in places that really need to hear it, which can lead to more action and hopefully to lasting change.
Racism needs to be fought from the inside out, together with people of color, with them in the lead and their voices believed and listened to. Michelle and I watched our combined effort spark a public dialogue among people who don’t normally talk about what it’s like to be black in America, which hopefully led to many more one-on-one conversations that might not have happened otherwise.
Michelle and I saw that what we did together that day worked. With more of us paying attention and showing up, we believe it can keep working. We hope you will join us and #ShowUp. This is a fight that needs all of us.