The moment when you truly understand white privilege and the difference in confidence it allows you to have without even thinking about.
As I sat at my computer working at a Starbucks, a group of middle school students from across the street started streaming in full of giggles and bumping backpacks. It reminded me of my teaching days as students would enter the classroom and my heart would feel full. I thought to myself that I might have to come to sit here every afternoon to grab a moment of nostalgia. Only a couple of weeks into the school year, my first year of a 26-year career in public education without students, the joy of a group of happy students streaming through the door with their youthful energy and silliness tugged at my heartstrings.
They don’t know me. They don’t call out my name and they don’t run up to give me hugs. My heart felt a very strong tug.
Every student who entered the coffee shop was brown. They came in with confidence, but as a group, their body language started to change as they placed their orders. Each of them dropped their eyes as they told the barista what they wanted. They dug through backpacks and pant pockets for money.
As they sat down, their confidence increased again until one young lady spilled her frappuccino. The liquid contents rapidly spread across the tile. She and her friend quickly grabbed napkins to clean up the mess and tried to not draw attention to themselves. The mess was too big and their table was toward the middle of the shop so there was no hiding this mishap. The young ladies friend softly said, “I’ll buy you another one.” She responded, “Another one. You only have $20.00 for the whole week.”
I asked if I could help and they looked both grateful and mortified at the same time. “No, it’s okay. I can clean it.” “They have cleaning materials here. Let the woman behind the counter know that you’re drink spilled.” The young lady’s cheeks filled with color as she said, “It’s okay, I can clean it.” I’m able to respond with, “Let’s walk-up together and just say, “My drink spilled. Can someone help me?”
She came with me, looked at me with eyes that prompted me to take the lead, and just as I’ve done with countless students over the years, I commented, “You’ve got this.” She asked for help after which I said, “It’s okay to ask for a fresh drink. Your drink spilling was an accident.” I felt the eyes of every young person on me. The trepidation of the whole group was palpable as she once again said, “No, it’s okay.” This was clearly beyond the bounds of this moment in which she had already stepped out of her comfort zone to ask for help. I asked the barista, “Is it okay for her to get a fresh drink?”
“Of course,” came the response as the barista asked her what her order had been and for her name. The young lady sat down with her friend and just in earshot I could hear her say, “I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to pay for that drink and I don’t have any money.”
My heart was breaking as I observed a sampling of another generation of young women scared to ask for help, trying their best to blend in and make their way through an awkward public social moment without drawing any attention. The girls’ had each others’ back but their afternoon had taken a turn in which they were both clearly uncomfortable.
While I remember clearly what it felt like to grow up poor and to not have the money to comfortably go out with a group of friends, I don’t remember ever feeling that if I spilled my food or drink, I couldn’t ask for help or ask for a fresh order due to the mishap. Thoughts about the culture that has long put limitations on women and people of color rapidly started to form in my mind. “How can I help to try to break part of this cycle at this moment?”
I asked the girls if I could have a “mama moment” with them. Their bodies and facial expressions immediately relaxed as they both said, “Yes.” We shared a short, but impactful on me, moment talking about their day at school, how to ask for help with confidence, when to serve others and when to let others serve us. We talked about when you’re in a store you’re paying for both the product and the service and that’s why Starbucks is expensive. We talked about enjoying the afternoon with girlfriends after a full day of learning at school.
The moment of gift came as they left the coffee shop, stopped by my table, and with confidence smiled, and said, “Thank you.”