The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black in Specialty Coffee

The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black in Specialty Coffee

Photo by @shaunte  

Photo by @shaunte  

The story of how I got into coffee isn't much different than other baristas I've met. I found a shop in Maryland that was willing to train me from scratch, l fell in love with the craft, and the rest is history. When I fell into specialty coffee, it didn't take long to see that I worked alongside and served a specific demographic of people. I wasn't bothered at first. At least until I started noticing the microaggressions. The microaggressions eventually turned into passive aggression, and then blatant disrespect. Specialty coffee is a progressive industry, but being Black in a community majority of Whites still lends itself to the same oppression felt across multiple industries in our country and around the world.

The Black Coffee Consumer

Black people don't drink coffee, especially specialty coffee. Shaq missed out on making millions with Starbucks for this reason, but there are some statistics to prove it. There are only a couple of studies that analyze the racial breakdown of coffee consumption. The USDA in 2007-2008 found that Whites consumed twice as much as Blacks. Hispanics are somewhere in between. In 2013, the National Coffee Association came to a similar conclusion.

Let's forget the numbers. Just walk into your local coffee shop and look around. Frequenting coffee shops is what I'd identify as a WPA (White People Activity). The culture that surrounds specialty coffee shops isn't particularly attractive to the Black community. And it's true: going to the independent coffee shop that just opened up down the block is the cool, hip thing to do. White people love doing cool, hip shit! And y'all always want to be the first to discover it, so you can put that shit on Instagram! I get that! I do it, too.  

That's just one side of the die.

Coffee Costs Too Damn Much

I know why coffee costs so much, and it should probably cost more, but it doesn't hide the fact that specialty coffee is fucking expensive. I wonder which demographic is the poorest in the US?

I grew up drinking gallons of Maxwell House with a shit ton of sweetened cream and sugar packets we'd steal from the nearest 7-11. My mom loved it; it was cheap. Though there wasn't always food in the fridge, my mom could not live without her Maxwell House.

My family is still very poor. And while she loves that she had an influence on my passion for coffee, it's asking a lot for her spend $5 on a single cup of coffee when she can spend $5 on a week's worth of that Maxwell House.

I'm not suggesting we need to make specialty coffee more affordable. As long as the majority of Black people are broke, you probably won't see them in your local coffee shop. 

The Black Coffee Professional

Remember what Anthony Bourdain said that pissed off a bunch of coffee pros and enthusiasts?

"There are few things I care about less than coffee... I don’t want some man-bun, Mumford and Son motherf*cker to get it for me... It’s a beverage; it’s not a lifestyle."

I have a weak spot for those man-bun, Mumford & Son, Warby Parker-wearing coffee daddies out there, but Bourdain isn't completely out of line here. While the barista he describes is definitely a stereotype, it isn't surprising to find at least one at most shops. That being said, I can comfortably claim that specialty coffee is a White man's world. All of my bosses have been White men; at competition, most of the judges and baristas are White men, and so are a majority of my guests when I'm working behind the bar. As a Black woman working in this industry, though, this dynamic can get a little weird.

I have a whole laundry list of things that have been done or said to me, both as a consumer and a working barista; some of which I assume are because of who I am, and others might be a reach. I'd like to list a few of my favorite accounts:

  • I asked a guest if he wanted room for cream in his coffee, and he replied with, "No, I like my coffee how I like my women: black." 
  • If any Hip Hop or R&B played at my shop, guests would ask me about it. 80% of the time, someone else chose the music.
  • When I had braids, I watched a guest beeline towards me at the register, hands outstretched in front of him like a child, and he came within centimeters of grabbing a fist full of braids. I swerved real hard, and told him that that wasn't an okay thing to do. "I was joking. Your hair is cool," he laughed it off before walking away. I saw that guest a second time outside of my shop as he was riding by on his bike. He made a grabbing motion at me and thought it was funny.
  • Also when I had braids, a guest handed my coworker a photo of a guy with dreadlocks because I reminded him of that guy. 
  • Colleagues and guests who didn't believe I worked at my coffee shop.
  • Racist and sexist comments from managers and owners.  
  • Constant questioning to my commitment to coffee. ("So, this is just a job for you, yeah?" "No, I plan to be in coffee for a long time." "Wait, really?!")
  • Guests asking a White coworker questions that should've been directed to me. Or guests asking me question, dismissing my answer, then asking a White coworker.
  • I was served a drink I didn't order because the barista was under the assumption I didn't know what I was asking for.

I could go on forever. This isn't just me. Some of this is because I'm Black. Some of this is because I'm a woman. At the qualifiers this year in Kansas City, I went to a panel called, "The Coffeewoman". I was incredibly moved by the stories told by those coffee women of excellence which gave me the courage to speak about my racial experiences within this industry. But as I scanned the room, I noticed I was the only Black woman. I felt alone; I couldn't shake it the rest of my time in Kansas City. 

There were 48 competitors in the Western Conference of this past USCC Qualifying Round. I was the only Black competitor. There were 36 competitiors at the Big Western in 2014 in Palm Springs. I was the only Black competitor. There were 75 baristas at my last job. I was the only Black barista. At my last two coffee jobs, I was the first Black/Black woman manager. It's shocking to think about, but I think location has a lot to do with this.

Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the United States and only 6% of its population is Black, while 5% live in the whole Western region. But where I'm from, Washington, DC, it was a different story. Back east, it's not uncommon to see multiple Black people working behind the bar. That makes sense. Black people are half of DC's population.

Such low numbers on this side of the country surely play a role in the overall lack of racial representation in the industry, especially when keeping in mind the number of large, well-established coffee communities here. While the population of Black people in the west is relatively small, we are still vastly underrepresented in coffee. 

What We Can Change

Stop tokenizing the baristas of color you do have. It feels like shit to be "The Black barista". Yes, I'm a Black woman. I'm also a barista. Judge me for the quality of drinks I serve, the service I provide, and the steps I'm taking to improve the coffee community. 

Stop telling racist jokes. They're unnecessary and insensitive. Racist and sexist jokes create a hostile environment for both guests and employees.

Call folks out on their shit. Even if it's not directed to you personally, it's important to promote an environment where everyone feels welcome. If you find that your upper management isn't willing to back you up, ask why racist jokes and comments are more important than the coffee you serve.

Profile your coffee, not your customers. Shopping while black isn't a crime, neither is ordering a caramel macchiato. Consumer racial profiling only shuts out groups of people we could and should be welcoming.

I recognize that for now specialty coffee is mostly a white man’s game, but it doesn’t have to be a racist one. Even with the many negative experiences, I feel tremendous love and support from the coffee community. Seeing how receptive and passionate this community is as of late regarding the gender disparities throughout the industry gives me much hope on the racial front.

Specialty coffee spans continents, yet still feels very small. Using both of these aspects to our advantage, we can set the precedent for other industries and inspire global change.

- m.


The Black Cup of Excellence is an ongoing blog series that will continue to focus on race, the coffee community, and the effect they have on one another. My ultimate goal is to promote self-awareness that further leads to acceptance and open-mindedness within and outside of our community. 

Special thanks to Ash, Lauren, Aly, Kaajal, and Jenn for being a fresh set of eyes and helping me structure my ideas and edit this blog post.

*I was once served a chai tea latte when I'd ordered a cortado. It was hard for me to confuse whether the drink belonged to me; I was the only one in line and there were no other drinks in the queue. The barista believed I wanted a chai instead, and apologized.

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