Starbucks Enlightenment

Update 29 May 2018: With the launch of a new anthropology blog, Footnotes, this post received renewed attention from the Footnotes Twitter feed. With thanks for the shout-out, I would like to point out that my post cites the experiences of Discuss White Privilege in academic anthropology and on the anthropology blogosphere. For more of the “unsettling” done by Discuss White Privilege see the comment stream for Ryan Anderson’s November 2012 Stop the silence, and some suggested reading (more about the state of academia), particularly the interaction between Discuss White Privilege and famous anthropologist David Graeber.

Is Anthropology better than Starbucks?

In late March 2018, anthropology raised a ruckus responding to a David Reich Op-Ed in the New York Times. Led by Agustin Fuentes, anthropologists were outraged when the Times refused to print a letter signed by 67 anthropologists and geneticists. Buzzfeed published it: How Not to Talk about Race and Genetics. And I got a lot of hits on my updated Race Revival page.

Some of the same people responded to the mid-April Starbucks incident in Philadelphia. Agustin Fuentes tweeted out the article by Jason Johnson in The Root, “From Starbucks to Hashtags: We Need to Talk About Why White Americans Call the Police on Black People,” which then got a re-tweet from Anthropology News. But the general response followed a familiar pattern. We anthropologists tend to get much more worked up around issues of science and race, in the belief that such debunking is a necessary antidote to racism. When it comes to actually manifesting racism, we anthropologists tend to be quieter, leaving that aside as activist politics. In short, we exactly follow the script Michel-Rolph Trouillot outlined in 2003, a problematic embrace of a “privileged space of enlightenment”:

The desire to occupy a privileged space of enlightenment is a frequent feature of both philosophical and political liberalism… It echoes dominant ideologies of North American society… Liberalism wishes into existence a world of free willing individual subjects barely encumbered by the structural trappings of power. The dubious proposition follows that if enlightened individuals could indeed get together within their enlightened space, they could recast “culture” or “race” and, in turn, discharge other free willing individuals of their collective delusions. But is racism a delusion about race? Or is race made salient by racism? That is the crux of the matter. Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises 2003:111; bolding added)

Is racism a delusion about race? Or is race made salient by racism? That is the crux of the matter. (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 'Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises' 2003:111)Click To Tweet
The second part of this familiar pattern is that we anthropologists are always calling out people who are external to anthropology. It is always the people in those other academic disciplines, like geneticists or evolutionary psychology. Or the evil corporations. And especially the very very bad Donald Trump.

During times like these, I get perspective from someone who once commented extensively on the old Savage Minds blog, wrote one guest post, and has also commented on this blog. For Discuss White Privilege–who has been saying this long before the Trump era–these episodes make it easy for anthropologists to focus our attention on external villains, deflecting from problems internal to anthropology. This post draws on incidents that parallel what happened in that Starbucks in Philadelphia–but in this case prevented Discuss White Privilege from finishing her anthropology graduate school program and instead made her a potential target of police violence and legal harassment.

Anthropology & Starbucks

In my Googling research for this post, I ran into three instances of anthropological discussion around Starbucks. The first is the now somewhat classic The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States written in 1996 by the late William Roseberry. In some ways, Roseberry’s article could have been prescient. But while Roseberry has a lot to say about class and the politics of coffee, issues of race, ethnicity, or gender are absent. The one sentence in which any of those words appear: “Theorists of niche marketing have since gone much further in dividing national populations into class, racial, ethnic, and generational groups than Roman would have imagined in the early 1980s, as books like The Clustering of America (Weiss 1988) make clear” (773). And that’s it. It may be that Marxian-inspired anthropologists like Roseberry get unfairly caricatured as blind to race, ethnicity, and gender; but from a look at Roseberry’s Yuppie Coffee article, the caricature sticks.

The second example is a curious popular press account, Anthropologists: Starbucks More Welcoming Than Local Coffee Shops which appeared in the August 2013 Gothamist. Why yes, who wouldn’t feel truly welcome to meet these shiny white people in their privileged space of enlightenment?
Gothamist Starbucks
Curiously, these anthropologists, or “trio of anthropologists” according to the Boston Globe, are as far as I can tell sociologists from West Virginia University. This may be one of the few instances in which self-identified sociologists get branded as anthropologists for the popular press.

Finally there’s the article that provides the image for this post, “Starbucks, Race and ‘Corporate’ Anthropology” in the March 2015 CFM Public Affairs Blog. “The ‘Race Together’ initiative was another effort by CEO Howard Schultz to stir things up. . . . What Starbucks is doing to spur conversations about race can be seen as in line with a broader movement to embrace culture anthropology as an avenue to gain insight into customer preferences.” Now, there is no indication that CEO Howard Schultz brought in cultural anthropologists for these conversations. And if he did, he should probably ask for his money back. All the same, the article fits an image of anthropology that we are best suited to be a kind of diversity consultant for outside entities. As Ulf Hannerz wanted it, Diversity Is Our Business (a discussion of this Hannerz article was what first launched Living Anthropologically).

In short: When it comes to coffee, anthropology, and Starbucks, we anthropologists seem to have been race-blind for a long time. Our desire to occupy the privileged space of enlightenment makes anthropology pretty much like Starbucks. As Trouillot put it in an endnote to “Adieu Culture”: “The whiteness of the discipline (extreme among the human sciences and made more blatant by anthropology’s favorite objects of study), the conservative and essentialist deployments of culture, and the near-total disconnect between anthropology as a theoretical practice and the public deployments of concepts and images together beg for a public relations disaster” (2003:153).

The whiteness of the discipline... & the near-total disconnect between anthropology as a theoretical practice & the public deployments of concepts & images together beg for a public relations disaster. (Trouillot, 'Adieu Culture,' p.153)Click To Tweet
And so with a very few exceptions, such as Biological Anthropologist Robin Nelson, anthropologists had little to contribute from lived experience. In fact, it is more likely that we anthropologists are the ones calling the police.

Anthropology: Calling the Police

One of the huge lessons from the Philadelphia Starbucks is how quickly white people call the police when black people are around. In Jason Johnson’s article in The Root: “Calling the police is the epitome of escalation, and calling the police on black people for noncrimes is a step away from asking for a tax-funded beatdown, if not an execution.”

And that’s exactly what happened to Discuss White Privilege in a prestigious anthropology graduate school program. She was trying to visit the anthropology department to get advising and to re-start her degree program. Later, she would find that a departmental e-mail had been circulated about her:

A former student, Discuss White Privilege, has been coming to campus and being somewhat disruptive with certain faculty. . . . So far Discuss White Privilege has simply been disruptive (loud/argumentative), not dangerous or threatening harm, but even this behavior can be frightening.

Discuss White Privilege is a small, very dark-skinned South African. She has short cropped hair and usually is carrying a baby in a tummy pack. . . .

If she asks to speak with any faculty members you should call the faculty member’s office to see if they want to meet with her. . . . If at any point Discuss White Privilege becomes disruptive and you feel that you are in danger please call the campus police by dialing 911.

Yikes. If you see a small black woman with a baby in a tummy pack… and feel you are in danger… call 911. It definitely makes me wonder–how many other anthropology departments have called the police on our black students? Are most of us anthropologists actually speaking against this behavior? Or are we anthropologists more likely to be the ones calling the police?

According to Discuss White Privilege, here is the context of her visit to the anthropology department:

I was trying to restart my program after what was supposed to be a temporary maternity leave (I never had any intention of permanently leaving the program and was only forced to do so as a result of retaliation for speaking up about sexual harassment and hostile racial climate complaints, issues the department said at the time I was lying about but news stories have now shown to be truthful). I was speaking up about issues raised by #MeToo years before anthropology was willing to listen or admit universities regularly cover up racial and sexual harassment, and complained about the very kinds of behavior that Kate Clancy now defines as gender harassment. Additionally, the email was written in response to my coming to campus by invitation of a professor for a scheduled meeting in her office. It is only anti-Black racism, consonant with that on display in the Starbucks incident, which allowed for me to be described as coming to campus to be disruptive and being a former student. The reference to me as a former student showed the department’s goal was to push me out of the program in retaliation to speaking up shortly after posting now-deleted comments on Savage Minds.

The situation for Discuss White Privilege deteriorated from there. As the commenter “No Racist Anthropology” put it on this blog (October 2013):

There is a graduate of the […] Anthropology program continuing to falsely accuse an innocent Black woman he publicly cyberbullied, via the department’s graduate student listserve, of being a violent ghetto criminal who assaulted him, so as to cover up his cyberbullying from potential employers so as to get teaching jobs. The woman this anthropologist is claiming to be from the ghetto–so as to dupe people into believing that she is violent, simply by assuming that if one is a dark-skinned Black person who is supposed to be ‘from the ghetto’ and therefore have a ‘ghetto culture’ then one must be violent and criminally-inclined–is actually a Yale grad from small-town CT.

So I think that anthropologists need to remember that ‘we’ are ‘them’, too. Anthropologists often share the very racial biases reduced to or articulated as ‘culture’ that non-anthropologists do, especially in relation to assumptions of who has a proclivity for violence and criminality, or who is and is not a sociopath, or who is and is not an innocent and sympathetic ‘victim’.

Indeed, Discuss White Privilege was once the winner of Yale University’s Edward Sapir Prize for the best senior essay in anthropology.

Back to David Reich & Steven Pinker

Back a bit before Fuentes and others were responding to the David Reich Op-Ed, there was also an anthropological response to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now! In fact, in a massively popular (for anthropology) tweet, Fuentes lumped Pinker, Reich, and Nicholas Wade:


Discuss White Privilege had written an e-mail about the situation, which I share with permission. Slightly edited:

I’m reading these anti-Pinker pieces and feeling tired and sad and gutted, seeing the same old false dichotomy re-inscribed, of good not-racist anthropologists versus nasty racists like Pinker. But is this really the truth? Is it really so simple and clear cut?

Isn’t the truth closer to: Pinker is popular not simply because he reinforces what The Ignorant outside of anthropology believe, but because he taps into the racism that also produces anthropologists as racial subjects, a racism which makes anthropology “white public space” and allows for abuses against Black women precisely because of the ways too many anthropologists actually share Pinker’s repugnant hierarchical views even as they (publicly) repudiate them (to themselves)?

How useful–to truly meaningful and substantive anti-racist *outcomes*–is it to keep writing about people like Pinker as being in complete opposition to anthropology and everything it is supposed to stand for? Because is Pinker truly a discrete break from what anthropology is *as it is daily practiced* (versus its idealized image and PR)? Or is he, actually, representative of a continuum of racist hierarchical dominator logics that most (White) anthropologists believe and practice, even if he may be on the far end of the continuum in relation to the statistically-average (White) anthropologist?

Yeah, the rabbit hole internet comment threads where people insist that Black people like me are little more than stupid, criminal, subhuman animals are painful to read: but they are actually, fundamentally, painful to read because I know that these people are just expressing what so so so many people truly believe, including far too many anthropologists, even as they vehemently insist otherwise. But were this latter proposition true, I would have a very different life right now, on your side of the Atlantic.

I do certainly wish we had Discuss White Privilege as a PhD anthropologist. Would be super-helpful in the Pinker/Reich debates. Or as Agustin Fuentes put it:


Yes, let’s hear other voices. But how many other voices can anthropology offer? Or are we merely fighting over the white privileged space of enlightenment?

How useful--to truly meaningful and substantive anti-racist *outcomes*--is it to keep writing about people like Pinker as being in complete opposition to anthropology and everything it is supposed to stand for? --Discuss White PrivilegeClick To Tweet

Updates on Anthropology & Starbucks

  • 24 May 2018: See Starbucks, Racism, and the Anthropological Imagination by Luzilda Carrillo Arciniega in Anthropology News for an analysis of the current corporate retraining.
  • 12 May 2018: Should I stay or should I go? by Zoe Todd on anthro{dendum} encapsulates some of the issues discussed in this post with regard to anthropology. Particularly: “Over the last year, I have been interlocuting with a Black anthropologist who has dealt with egregious levels of antiblack racism in the discipline, and who has spent the better part of the last decade raising concerns about this through all the means available to them. And I have watched as anthropologists dismiss this individual as a ‘problem’. I have tried to figure out how I reconcile the work anthropologists claim to do to dismantle racism while I see it faithfully and viciously reproduced in every aspect of the discipline.”

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2018. “Starbucks Enlightenment: Is Anthropology better than Starbucks?” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/starbucks-enlightenment/. First posted 28 April 2018. Revised 13 May 2018.

Image credit: “Starbucks, Race and ‘Corporate’ Anthropology,” CFM Public Affairs Blog (March 2015).


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