San Luis Obispo’s extensive coffee scene is a playground for hardcore coffee drinkers. The shops are the places where students purchase the only thing that’s going to get them through finals week and are the communal areas where people can gather to share stories of how great their quiet little town is.
The only problem is: many of those coffee drinkers, students and community members alike don’t feel comfortable in these so-called “safe places.”
Growing up in San Francisco, I was surrounded by coffee shops and a diverse community that tended to reside in said establishments for what felt like days. I was so used to seeing people from all different backgrounds inhabit the shops I called home – whether they were behind the bar pouring cute hearts on vanilla lattes or simply taking your order.
This all changed when I moved to San Luis Obispo. The so-called “happiest town” taught me that to get a job at one of SLO’s fine coffee shops, you did not need to know much about coffee. Instead, if you are white, the job is practically yours.
When I moved to SLO, I was ecstatic to hopefully start a job at one of the town’s many coffee places. I began my journey by applying to two of the more popular coffee shops in town, and while momentum was high, I went into the third shop I would’ve loved to work at. However, when I walked in there was something that caused me to walk right out.
There was no one like me working there. Everyone was white and weirdly too brainwashed to notice.
Of course, I knew that Cal Poly’s demographic is primarily white, so I questioned if this was the norm and if I just never noticed?
I used to tell myself that maybe it was only that one shop and maybe all the other shops in SLO would have a more diverse staff. To my surprise I was correct. Many of the staff at other shops were more diverse – the only problem, was that the people of color working there were “diversity hires” which is slang for when a business hires one or two people of color to spruce up the place.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at one of the other coffee shops across town and was surprised to see more diverse individuals dining there too. I have called this shop my second home for the last three years and it has been a part of many of my cherished memories I’ve made here while living in the area.
About six months of work, some friends of mine finally made the trip down to see what SLO life is like, so instead of being bored and taking them to some party, I took them to the coffee shop. They were all gasping at the eclectic interior of the shop and how populated it was by not only students.
They looked at me all at once, believing that they had lost another “brown brother” to “white culture.” They mocked me about how I was the only brown person working there and called me a “chocolate covered marshmallow” meaning that I was brown on the outside, but white on the inside.
Soon after my friends revealed the ugly truth to me, I began to question if I was another “diversity hire” or if it was because the owner actually liked me. I tried to defend the shop I loved so much, but when I argued that I wasn’t the only person of color working in the shop, my friends pointed out that the other people of color were the cooks – who are never seen by customers.
So a month later, I approached my boss and had a heart-to-heart with him about my issue. He was quick to reassure me that I wasn’t hired based on the color of my skin, but on my personality. Despite my relief, I was still uneasy about the diversity within SLO’s coffee shop makeup.
About two weeks after I had spoken to my boss, I was working my usual weekend shift when one of the workers of another coffee shop in town came in to talk to me. He had noticed that I was the only brown person working and was curious if I felt the same tension as he did in his shop.
“Have you ever noticed how people look at you when you’re working? It’s like there’s just a big brown blob in the middle of the shop in a crowd of white people and, sometimes, I notice [that] not only the old people or yoga moms looking at me funny, but the students too,” he said.
I was flabbergasted when I heard this from him and couldn’t feel anything, but sorrow for my “brown brother.” I was curious about where he worked and I wanted to see this for myself. His shop was sadly where I expected.
The next couple of days I walked over to the shop to see if my new friend was working and so I could see the subtle discrimination with my own eyes. After three straight days of uncomfortably walking into the shop, I luckily caught him going on his break.
He was surprised that after our conversation I came to witness what he described with my own eyes. He told me to sit tight until he went back onto the floor.
I waited for what felt like an hour, but when he finally went back the first customer he helped out was a Hispanic couple who seemed to only speak Spanish. Sadly, it only took this one interaction to see the subtle discrimination within the other staff members and the customers they served.
When he began to speak Spanish, I was filled with warmth since I grew up surrounded by the dialect and reminded me of home. However, when I saw the reactions of others in the shop all the warmth left my body. All I could do was hold myself back from screaming and squeeze my paper cup until the coffee inside began to spill out.
First, I noticed that when the cashier noticed they were next in line and speaking Spanish, he proceeded to walk away and fill up his coffee cup, which he had done seconds before taking the customers he had just served. He waited until my friend’s register was open next and then he quickly walked back to his register.
Second, I noticed how, when he began to speak to them in a foreign dialect, the customers behind them rolled their eyes and became impatient. A woman who was ordering at the second register began to stare and asked them if they could “understand the menu.” Hearing such a subtle jab at the couples intelligence just because they spoke little to no English caused me to grit my teeth.
The third, and worst occurrence, was when the barista working asked my friend to make the drinks for the couple since they probably couldn’t understand him. He said that it would be better if someone who they were “more comfortable with” served them. After hearing this I couldn’t stand it more. I began to pack my things and left in a hurry because I didn’t want my new friend to see me cry.
When I finally returned home, all I wanted to do was tell my roommates and lash out against this shop as well as everyone who inhabited it. Unfortunately, they were preoccupied with the new Super Smash Bros., so I went to my room to scream into my pillow until my vocal cord gave out.
When the cloud of anger cleared from my mind, I called the first person who came to mind – my friend, Vianka. She was from home and had been facing subtle discrimination at her own coffee shop job in a more suburban area of the Bay Area. When I explained what had happened, she proceeded to tell me that it was just the culture in the town’s coffee shop, being that the primary demographic is white.
She could hear how heated I was and tried her best to calm me down before I did anything rash. She told me that all I could do was not support the shop anymore.
“There’s nothing you can do, Johnny. You have to just let these things be sometimes and just wait for change to come. You’re lucky that this doesn’t happen in your coffee shop, and now that you are more aware [to] try to advocate for more diversity in your workplace, ” she calmly explained.
After living in San Luis Obispo for three years, I still walked past the same shop with hopes of change. I even look in the window excited to see more people of color working behind the counter or even enjoying the great coffee they serve.
Sadly, I learned that having hope changes nothing.
A year later, I was surprised to see my friend working at another coffee shop. When he saw me, he was delighted to see a familiar face. As I walked up to order, we began to speak Spanish and I couldn’t help myself but smile to see him so comfortable in his new workplace.
Later that week we grabbed coffee to talk about what we called “being the shit stain, in the pristine toilet” of SLO’s coffee scene. We spoke about how there were more shops opening all over SLO and how the growth of diversity within them was a “starting point” for what we hoped would be the future of SLO’s coffee culture.
I was taken back when he told me that he still worked at the “other” shop on and off, as well as how he had wanted to quit, but knew he couldn’t because he needed the extra cash.
“I’ve grown numb to it all. If I don’t pay attention to it then I just become hyper aware of the subtle discrimination embedded in to the shop’s culture. If I were to lash out then I would get fired as well as tarnish my reputation,” he said.
I didn’t know how to respond and was careful to choose my next words knowing that they could either anger an already annoyed friend or make him feel worse for working at a place I despise.
He began to tell me of all the different subtle racist remarks that have plagued him since he had begun working at the establishment and how all he wanted to see was a change in their mindset.
I attempted to relate to him the best I could, even though I hadn’t experienced any occurrences such as the ones he was illustrating in my own work place. As we adjourned our ranting and began to steer the conversation towards other topics, all I could do was picture what he had experienced, as well as wonder if I would be as poised as he had been.
As a person of color, I do not speak for everyone. I, luckily, work in a place where I am seen for the person I am and not the color of my skin, but change is necessary.
Some shops may not notice the culture they are building when they are hiring their staff, but this problem is self-evident, not only to people of color, but to white people as well. Diversity of staff does not only bring in new workers and ways of thinking, but it tells everyone who passes through to get their fix of caffeine that the establishment welcomes everyone – no matter your skin color.
It should not be about fitting a certain aesthetic so that your shop fits into the mold of the “happiest town.” It should welcome everyone and illustrate to all who have the chance to enjoy a cup of joe in San Luis Obispo, why SLO is known as “happiest town.”