Michelle Saahene may not be visible on the now-famous Starbucks video — viewed more than 11 million times on Twitter alone — but her voice is quite clear:
“They didn’t do anything,” the 31-year-old says as police lead Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson away in handcuffs at 18th and Spruce. “He asked to use the bathroom, and the woman said it was for paying customers only. They didn’t do anything.”
Melissa DePino, 50, the Philadelphia novelist who posted the video, saw how Saahene was the first person to speak up in Starbucks that day. She saw how the police didn’t pay attention to the black woman, but how, eventually, nobody could ignore a video posted by a white person. But the women had both been witness to something traumatic, so DePino asked a mutual acquaintance whether she could reach out to the brave woman.
A couple of days later, they met at a restaurant not far from Starbucks, and they talked about what they could do.
“It was a lot of emotions,” Saahene said. “One of the first things Melissa said to me was, ‘I feel like we are long-lost best friends.’ It was happy, sad, productive. That was the day we decided to continue to work together.”
Despite a 20-year age gap, what resulted was a friendship, but also a project called From Privilege to Progress to bridge segregated social-media networks. Its aim: to get white people to share the experiences of people of color.
On May 21 was the campaign’s first tweet: “From Privilege to Progress calls on white allies to #showup against racism and social injustice by understanding and using their privilege to speak out, share and amplify the voices of people of color.”
— From Privilege to PROGRESS (@privtoprog) May 22, 2018
Since the April 12 arrests, there were days of protests and calls for boycotts of the giant coffee chain. No charges were filed, and Nelson and Robinson reached settlements with both the city and Starbucks. And on Tuesday, Starbucks will shut down 8,000 shops in the country for an afternoon of antibias training for nearly 175,000 employees.
But as friends in Saahene and DePino’s networks talked about the case, there were stark differences. For Saahene, who grew up in Hershey, the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, her black friends recognized it as yet another daily example of racial discrimination. Said DePino, who runs a marketing and communications firm for nonprofit organizations: “So many people I talked to, white, liberal, progressive people who believe they are knowledgeable in this area, they have said, ‘I didn’t know this was happening until you shared it.'”
“Oh, my God,” DePino thought, “there’s so much wrong with that statement. Why aren’t you listening? Why aren’t you reading?”
“Black people follow black people and white people follow white people,” Saahene said. “They’re not being exposed to what’s going on in our community.”
Saahene and DePino say their own networks are diverse. DePino follows Black Twitter. She minored in African American studies in college because she knew she wanted to teach in urban schools, eventually spending five years teaching in Camden public schools. Saahene, who grew up in a predominantly white area, has worked as a project manager for a major corporation and is soon launching her business as a life coach.
But data show most networks are formed along racial, ethnic, gender, religious, and social status lines. So, From Privilege to Progress encourages white people to learn more about the everyday racism that people of color experience — whether it’s two Native American teens who were pulled off a campus tour at a Colorado university for looking suspicious, a former White House staffer getting questioned by police about a robbery after moving into his apartment in New York, or black people in Oakland getting reported for barbecuing in a park — and to share those stories on their own social-media networks.
“We want to bridge the communications gap in social media so more stories make it into mainstream media and cause more conversations in social media and in person,” DePino said.
The concept of “white privilege” was first proposed by Peggy McIntosh, a white women’s studies scholar at Wellesley who wrote about how men have an unearned privilege. McIntosh realized that as a white person, she, too, had an unearned privilege.
“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in every day,” McIntosh wrote in her original 1988 paper. Among those privileges, she wrote, were being able to go shopping without fear of being followed or harassed, or to turn on a television “and see people of my race widely represented.”
Saahene said she would encourage black people to tell their stories to their white friends, especially because she believes black people often tend to hold back out of a fear that others will think they’re overreacting.
“We can’t make change if people don’t know what’s going on,” Saahene said. “If you don’t know the truth, how can we progress?”
That day at Starbucks — where Saahene and DePino have yet to return — Saahene had been in the coffee shop working on her laptop and people-watching for about 45 minutes before Nelson’s and Robinson’s arrests.
Saahene saw a white woman, apparently in the middle of a jog, come in and use the restroom. She didn’t ask for the code and she didn’t purchase anything before running back out. Neither did the man Saahene sat next to, who had “nothing on his table but his laptop,” she said.
She thinks witnessing those circumstances probably empowered her to speak out, but doing so still felt scary.
Of course, Saahene has had her own experiences with racial profiling. She was 24 at a nightclub and a white officer questioned her after a man inaccurately pointed her out as someone who had done something wrong.
A female officer eventually pulled her aside and suggested she report him, “because she had seen him being racist to someone else.”
Like that day, “it was beneficial for these white people [in Starbucks] to see [racial profiling] in front of their face. It happens at a much higher rate than you think.”
The two women, who recently sat at DePino’s Center City home, call each other kindred spirits — they characterize each other as brave. In the room with the small statue of a Buddha and the framed poster of rapper-musician Kendrick Lamar, they continue to work toward bridging more gaps.
“We’re both connectors,” DePino said. “And now we’re friends.”