April 4, 2019

Being Black in Specialty Coffee


Who do you picture when you think of a barista in specialty coffee? How about the average customer in a third wave coffee shop? Although people of colour are represented throughout the supply chain, most obviously in production, the average consumer of specialty coffee is young, white, and male. The chances are that the barista who makes your coffee is also white.

But why is this? And what’s it like to be black in specialty coffee? To find out more, let’s have a conversation with some black industry professionals about their experiences.

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A barista prepares a drink. Credit: Gabriel Rhodes

Why Most Specialty Coffee Consumers Are White

The National Coffee Association’s 2019 National Coffee Drinking Trends (NCDT) survey found African-Americans to be the least represented racial category of Americans who had consumed coffee in the last day, at 54% versus 64% for white Americans.

This evidence supports the generally accepted view that people of colour don’t drink as much coffee as their white counterparts. In a 2016 post on her blog, The Chocolate Barista, Michelle Johnson stated bluntly, “Black people don’t drink coffee, especially specialty coffee.”

One contributor to this divide is the relative expense of specialty coffee. People of colour are more likely to live in poverty in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The divide is even more pronounced in inner cities, where specialty coffee is most likely to have a firm hold.

Gabriel Rhodes is a barista at Blue Bottle in San Diego. He tells me, “Specialty coffee… creates an economic dividing line between those who can afford a $4 cup of coffee and those who cannot. It’s hard to push an agenda of gentrification with black and brown faces at the forefront.”

Cydni Patterson, a barista at People’s Coffee in Durham, NC. Credit: Cydni Patterson

There’s also the issue of how coffee is advertised. In an 2018 article for Roast, Phyllis Johnson, the president of BD Imports, wrote about the relationship between marketing and race in coffee. She argues that “producers of carbonated beverages and juices have been quite successful in targeting marketing campaigns toward African-American communities, and African-Americans over-index on consumption levels in these product categories.” She links the use of white, middle class male celebrities as spokepersons for coffee to the racial divide.

Maliesha Pullano is the founder of Mamaleelu Cold Brew in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She links the lower rates of coffee consumption by people of colour to colonialism.

“It seems like to my knowledge – and I’m no expert – that coffee isn’t consumed as much, even though it’s something that’s produced and then sent away,” she says. “And I know that us black people don’t consume coffee as much, just from my own anecdotal experience.

“I think that colonialism, to me, will always [make me] just think of black and brown people being producers, but on this [consumer] side of it, we’re not the beneficiaries.”

The modern coffee industry reflects its foundations in the slave trade. In the 17th century, indentured black and indigenous people produced the crop in colonial states for the consumption of wealthy, white European consumers. To some degree, this dynamic continues today. Most of the world’s coffee is grown in Latin America and most consumers are in wealthy nations in the global north.

Maliesha Pullano, of Mamaleelu Cold Brew. Credit: Kaitlin LaMoine Photography

The lack of black representation behind the bar is also a contributing factor. Cydni Patterson is a barista at People’s Coffee in Durham, North Carolina. She says, “Your customer base is only as strong as how comfortable they feel in your bar.

“When you go to these [specialty cafes], you have Ethiopian coffees or you have the Kenyan coffee, or here you have coffee from Honduras. And then you look behind the bar, and there’s nobody from there.”

But why aren’t there people of colour behind the bar?

Barriers To Entry

Because coffee shops are established venues for white, middle class customers staffed by employees of similar backgrounds, many people of colour may not consider the coffee industry a viable career option.

“[If we’re] primarily talking baristas, shift leads, café managers, etc., it’s all about economic exposure,” says Gabriel. “This also applies to employment, but from the context of not having access to spaces that require more complexity and training.

“Most of our communities have to step outside of their comfort zone to experience coffee, but are met with unwelcoming environments due to economical barriers and conditions. For members of the black community in coffee, there are many layers of division that ultimately keeps black folks away from pursuing careers in the industry altogether.

“How empowering would it be if it were common knowledge that coffee culture originated in Africa, and is the source for the success of this billion-dollar industry?”

Derrick Johnson at Arctos Coffee and Roasting Company in Spokane, WA. Credit: Claudia Gunhus

“There weren’t a lot of, like, people who looked like me,” Cydni tells me. “I remember being at this cupping that I wasn’t allowed to get to until I was a shift leader at one of the locations. When we’re talking about knowledge, and respecting that it’s a craft, you can’t withhold information and experience from people just starting out simply because you just want to give them enough information for them to be functional but not enough information for them to grow.

“When we’re talking about inclusivity and diversity and spaces, we cannot always centre white intentions and white growth,” she says.

Derrick Johnson is a barista at Arctos Coffee and Roasting Company in Spokane, Washington. He tells me about when he first started out in the industry. “I was able to have, like, a management position, but actually [when] I think about it I wasn’t the first choice. The first choice was a white girl who was, like, leaving in a month or two, and… I was the second choice.

“I can’t attribute that 100% to any reason, but there is an element of it where [I wonder if being black was] part of the consideration, whether or not that was a factor,” he says.

Arctos Coffee and Roasting Company. Credit: Arctos Coffee and Roasting Co.

Being The Token Black Person

Several of the people I spoke to told me that they had experienced feeling like they were a token black person and that the pressure to represent their community was uncomfortable.

“Having that sole token representation filling that weight on your shoulders, that anything that I say, anything that I do, is going to be what people perceive black people as being as a whole, it’s a lot of stress and it’s a lot of pressure,” says Derrick.

“You really feel like you have to kind of filter yourself. [It’s] not even [being] just a model for the majority, but the model for the minority as well. You can’t really be fully you.

“It’s just a whole other level of stress that you really can’t understand unless you’re part of that minority group.”

Minority stress is a recognised condition caused by chronically high levels of stress faced by members of stigmatised minority groups. Studies have linked it to physical and mental health conditions including high blood pressure and anxiety.

A shot of espresso at People’s Coffee, where Cydni Patterson is a barista. Credit: People’s Coffee

“As a barista, we constantly have to deal with the shape-shifting that the dominant culture requires of us in order for them to feel comfortable,” Gabriel tells me.

Code switching is a term used to describe the ways that marginalised people adjust their language, behaviour, and appearance to ease their entry to and success in social contexts based on the dominant culture. For some, the pressure to adapt their true self to appease others can be exhausting, particularly when dealing with microaggressions and racism.

“I don’t really respond to the negative stuff in a respectable manner these days,” Cydni tells me. “We’re all growing. Sometimes I’m like, big mad… Other people express their anger in different ways and express their experiences differently. Just for once I would like to not have to be this palatable version of me.”

She tells me that she finds inspiration in Michelle Johnson and her blog, The Chocolate Barista, which she says gave her the courage to “have big feels” and to write them down. “That’s what I’ve always respected about Michelle. She’s just her all the time.”

In an industry where you’re constantly toning down who you are and code switching to make others more comfortable, it can be empowering and inspiring to see someone like yourself be authentically and unashamedly herself.

Inside People’s Coffee, where Cydni Patterson is a barista. Credit: People’s Coffee

Questioning If You Belong

Several people I spoke to reported feeling insecure about their place in the coffee industry. “It’s been a challenge,” Maliesha tells me. “When I first started out, I tried to go to stuff… but it just felt like a bro-fest, and I didn’t feel comfortable.

“And I’m not saying they did anything deliberately to make me feel uncomfortable. It’s just the knowledge… that the systematic oppression has done its job. The system likes keeping people in their place.”

Maliesha’s experience highlights the importance of representation in encouraging others to join the industry. “I’ve always looked for opportunities to just do other things and I haven’t found other people who look like me to do it. That speaks a lot in 2019,” she says.

“This industry was one of the world’s largest economies in 2014 [when I first started Mamaleelu Cold Brew], but I couldn’t find anybody to mentor me who looked like me.

“I’m so thankful to have met Phyllis Johnson,” she continues. “She’s been in the coffee industry 20 years and she’s had a lot of the same experiences, so that validates my experience for me, that it’s not just me being aloof or not trying to get into areas.

Products from Maliesha Pullano’s Mamaleelu Cold Brew on sale in a shop. Credit: Mamaleelu Cold Brew

How to Make Coffee More Racially Diverse

So, what can we do to make the coffee industry both more diverse and more welcoming of people of colour?

“I think the only way to address racial inequality in the coffee industry is directly,” Gabriel says. “The majority of the time, these conversations are used to validate a coffee shop or for an employer to claim that they’re inclusive to obtain more business.

“If you really care about racial inequality in the coffee industry, go out and directly engage with the folks who need to be included. Talk with them about what can be done to make the industry more approachable for them.”

Others suggest evaluating your hiring practises and business relationships and considering whether you are really supporting minority communities. “It’s putting your money where your mouth is and putting your brain where your mouth is. You know: think about these things and unpack yourself,” Maliesha says.

“Figure out your biases. Do not shy away from them, and then see how you can support black members of society or businesses of colour. That’s going to eventually affect your community in a positive way,” she tells me.

Gabriel Rhodes behind the bar at Copa Vida, San Diego, CA. Credit: Gabriel Rhodes.

Cydni encourages business owners to learn about the community they’re based in and engage with local people in meaningful ways.

“A lot of times, the cheaper land [is the land] my peoples were relegated to live in,” she says. “If you’re gonna put your shop in a neighbourhood that is historically exploited, you should put the effort into hiring practices and find people who know the area.

“It makes more sense to… get to know the neighbourhood, [to] hire people in the neighbourhood… Do certain things to facilitate [your shop] being a part of this, not to ostracise people and then up local prices more.”

The view from behind the bar at Arctos Coffee and Roasting Company, where Derrick Johnson is a barista. Credit: Arctos Coffee and Roasting Co.

Derrick raises the notion of tokenism. “A big issue for employers specifically is how it’s going to be perceived: whether [the public thinks] they’re hiring people because they’re actually qualified and they deserve that spot, or if everyone’s gonna think, ‘oh, that person obviously got it because they’re black and they’re filling the diversity quota,’” he says.

One way that employers can avoid accusations of tokenism and ensure that they’re hiring the most qualified people without bias is to use blind hiring techniques. This includes removing candidates’ names and identifying features from applications before evaluating them, and using anonymized interviews such as phone interviews. Employers can also support training and mentorship for people of colour to encourage their development to leadership positions.

“How can we make these spaces feel safer for larger demographics of people and not just the dominant culture?” Gabriel asks. “By being conscious of diversifying our bonds in the workplace.”

Derrick says that he sees improvement but that it’s a slow process. “It’s being pushed in the positive direction, which is what we want, but it’s definitely not something that’s a fast process, or is anywhere near where it should be for many black professionals and people of colour who have so much to contribute,” he says.

And whether you’re a coffee professional or consumer, you can contribute by calling out incidents of racism and being an ally. “Not actively doing things to make this right is doing things to keep it wrong,” says Cydni.

Bottles of Maliesha Pullano’s Mamaleelu Cold Brew. Credit: Mamaleelu Cold Brew

There’s no easy solution to racial inequality within the coffee industry, but we have a responsibility to listen and learn from lived experiences.

Take a look at your own professional and personal relationships ad consider whether you can be an advocate or ally. Do your hiring practices prioritize diversity? And as a consumer, do you seek coffee shops and suppliers that employ under-represented communities? By collectively listening and acting accordingly, we can work towards making the coffee industry a more equitable place.

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