About two weeks ago, I went to one of my favorite cafés to study with a friend of mine. She is white, blonde, thin, and conventionally attractive in the way you would picture when I list these aforementioned qualities. This (unnamed) café is one I frequent at least once a week. I love the maple wood the tables are made out of, the light seeping into the space from the high windows—not to mention that their coffee is great. I usually luck out and find a table in the far corner of the café, near the bookshelves, sit down, and work diligently. Something about that place makes me focus really well. Maybe it’s the fact that there are no distractions, but I study at many cafes, and for some reason, it’s always that one where I can get the most done.
Anyhow, the last time I went there, I was with this said friend. She was in line before me and when it was her turn, the barista struck up a conversation with her: “Any plans for tonight?” And she responded casually that she has a younger brother so she can go trick or treating and she got lucky, wasn’t that nice? To which the barista responded: “Yeah I can’t do that. I’m a grown man…” and the rest of their conversation was lost to the cacophony of morning sounds and then suddenly it was my turn.
He did not ask me what my “plans” were for the rest of the day. He did not engage in any sort of conversation with me. He merely asked politely what it is I would like to order. I, being the cognizant brown girl I am, expected this. I am used to it. So I told him I wanted an iced Moroccan mint tea, paid, and went to find a table for my friend and myself.
That same barista brought my iced tea to my table and then he turned to my friend and said. “You’re iced mocha is coming right up, Miss.”
Even she glanced at me to see if I had caught that.
This is where my story ends and my reflection begins. I go to this café at least once a week; my friend was just with me that one time. The barista that served me had done so many times before–so he undoubtedly recognized my face. So why did she get that special treatment? It sounds petty to white folks reading this. Why don’t I just get over it and move on? Why am I “overthinking everything?” But I still thought to myself, In all the years I’ve been coming here, this barista has never struck up a conversation with me like he did with her. In all the years I’ve been coming here he has never called me “Miss.”
Did that happen to me because I am brown? Or did it happen because I am awkward and inept at small talk? (Most people will say the latter because it’s an easier answer and it is true to an extent—I am awkward). But what if I was an awkward, socially inept, thin, and white like my friend is? Would I have been treated the way I was?
No. The answer is no, I wouldn’t have. Of course, this young barista probably meant no harm: he probably didn’t understand the gravity of his seemingly quotidian words and his disparate treatment towards me; he probably didn’t understand that the person he is serving has lived with this sense of weariness her whole life, and that she can detect racism, even the slightest hint of it, to the degree that she will then go home and write about it, and then she will write about it again two weeks later because it is still irking her. He doesn’t know any of this.
But I am annoyed. I am annoyed that this stuff happens to me in the Bay Area, where we are supposedly “unaffected” by these issues of race to the degree places such as, say, South Carolina, are. I am annoyed that he didn’t even try to mask the fact that he didn’t care to treat me with the same level of welcoming and respect. I am annoyed that I am still thinking about this two weeks later. I am annoyed that it will keep happening to me and there will never be anything for me to do about it. I am annoyed because I will keep frequenting that café—because I study well there, because I like the space, because I like their coffee. I am annoyed because my decision to do so acts as a form of resistance to me: it is my way of saying I belong there too, but underneath that sense of conviction is the pain that comes from having to think like that at all. But most importantly, I am tired.
I am tired of being treated as less. I am so tired of having to predict the way people will treat me, and of being right about it ever time. I am tired because I know this will never end, that the reality of being a brown girl in America is that it is a gruesome, never-ending, vicious cycle of mistreatment, pain, reflection, and then a stronger backbone that I would not have had to worry about cultivating had I been white.
With each microaggression; with each misrepresentation; with each insult, taunt, invalidation, I become stronger. But I also become more bitter. More angry. More hurt. More isolated. There are days where I lie in bed, tugging at my skin, wishing I could shed it off like snakeskin. But I can’t. It’s all I’ve got. And it keeps me warm. So I keep going.
Now it would appear that the obvious solution is to stop going to this café. But I refuse that. I keep walking into these spaces—spaces where I know I am not wanted, whether I receive this message in a subliminal way the day I did with my friend or whether it is more overt—precisely for that reason: it is my way of telling myself that this is my place too. I will keep saying it as my favorite café, because in doing so I resist that which would have otherwise eaten away at my soul. I will keep going.
by FATEMA ELBAKOURY