Tag Archives: Culture

Black Stars in a White Galaxy: Philly Starbucks

Starbucks Arrest

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson

 

A Philadelphia Starbucks became a flashpoint for white racial hostility last month when two black men were arrested for allegedly trespassing. The men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, real estate investors in their 20s, were waiting for a business associate when a Starbucks manager called local police and accused them of trespassing. The manager’s complaint hinged on the fact that the men were occupying the space without purchasing one of the various sugar-laden drinks on offer. Video footage shows the men being arrested without incident as white patrons—including their associate, look on and protest that the men are innocent.

After being held for several hours the men were released without charge and received a personal apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. The viral video of their arrest sparked protests at the location and panic at Starbucks HQ. In a shallow PR move, the coffee chain has announced plans to shutter roughly 8 thousand stores on May 29thto provide “Unconscious Bias training” to employees.

Philadelphia is roughly 43% black. However, Rittenhouse Square, the tony neighborhood where the incident occurred is blindingly white. It’s safe to assume that such a level of segregation serves as a velvet socioeconomic rope. Gently buffering those that don’t qualify for the leisure class. These white Philadelphians are free to move about their community without often experiencing the abrupt atmospheric shift wrought by the presence of a black body. What Starbucks, and thousands of untold encounters illustrate is that when we step into a space, we are not anonymous citizens. We are a curiosity, an energy, a dread.

I can almost imagine the increased heart rate and sharpened vision of the white manager as her mind raced through the reasons, all of them criminal, to explain why two young black men would deign to take Starbucks up on its offer to be neutral third-place. The comfort and relative safety of bland anonymity is rarely afforded black Americans. Our existence must be immediately justified in order to preempt the white fear that can quite literally lead to our deaths. One of the most insidious effects of white supremacy is the feeling that we must continuously carry a compelling affirmation of our humanity like a yellowed business card in our back pocket—worn from use. Our humanity and right to simply exist in this world is not a foregone conclusion. Black lives are always up for debate, and control, and oftentimes extermination.

Exactly 2 minutes after Mr. Nelson and Mr. Robinson dared to take up space in a Philly Starbucks, the police were on the scene to arrest them, remove them, and return the shop to a scene of upper class, placid repose.

2 Minutes

Such an insignificant amount of time. Yet that was all it took for a racist’s hysteria to force a collision between two innocent black men and the criminal justice system.

A common thread of black life is being the target of harassment and violence at the hands of sociopathic officers dispatched by white people donning the carcinogenic mask of concerned citizens. Local police function as an extension of white supremacist domination. Officers are summoned to attenuate the fear of unbound black bodies in public spaces. The most mundane tableaus of daily life are contorted into scenes of chaos and violence when white Americans are free to make unilateral, wholly arbitrary decisions about what constitutes criminal behavior. That level of control over a stranger’s life must be intoxicating.

 

So it was that a petty, bigoted Starbucks manager called in the cavalry to erase the stain of black energy from her climate controlled petty kingdom.

 

 

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HOLY NICKI, MOTHER OF SEX

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Paper Magazine has broken the Internet yet again with Nicki Minaj as its cover star in a bold display of self-love and sexual liberation. Three Nickis—Harajuku Barbie, Nicki the Ninja, and Nicki the Boss—are captured in the nascent stages of a ménage a trois against a saccharine rose backdrop.

 

The cover is a paean to black self-love and a rejection of the politics of phallocentric sex. It’s of Nicki, by Nicki, and for Nicki. But, it’s also for women. Paper’s concept of a triumvirate of bad bitches reminds readers that Nicki, like all women, contains multitudes. The abiding ideal of a corporatized, interview-ready pop star with only 2 inches of depth feels stale in this cultural moment. Social media has democratized pop culture. The grass roots’ ability to influence, and oftentimes dictate culture, has forced many in the establishment media to reject the obvious.

 

Nicki, a multifaceted artist that continuously subverts gender norms—you can hear the testosterone oozing through her pores when she raps as Roman—is anything but basic. From referring to her female would-be usurpers as her sons, to donning the accouterments of a king, Nicki has thrown a gauntlet. The cover is a tactile extension of her music. From the outset, she rejected the well-trod path of many women in hip-hop. She refuses to play the role of anonymous sexual prop for male rappers. She is subject, not object.

 

Thus, Paper’s art direction is fresh in this age of women gathering in digital spaces to reclaim the cunt from the suffocating male gaze. The selection of Ellen von Unwerth to photograph the spread further promotes the ascendancy of pussy dominated media spaces. For decades von Unwerth has used her photography to fête female eroticism. First, through fashion photography, then music videos, and now through the ubiquitous squares of Instagram. Nicki and von Unwerth are a powerhouse collab. Nevertheless, criticism has bubbled up from certain corners of the industry.

 

Rapper turned talk show host Eve was among the first to throw shade at the cover. She couched her criticism in bland mentions of the responsibilities of a female role model. Her concerns were stale and smacked of hypocrisy. At the apex of her rap career, Eve pimped her sexuality to sell Ruff Rider albums. The overarching implication is that a woman should preserve her sexuality for a man. Her body and desires should be cossetted and denied until a worthy guy comes along to instruct her in unpacking who she is as a sexual creature.

 

It’s a patriarchal throwback that rejects the legitimacy of female sexual agency. Providing young girls and women empowering content that can enrich their sexual imagination is a public service that Paper has deftly provided.

 

The cover also stands apart for offering an unapologetic celebration of the black female body. The black body in the American imagination has always been at once hypnotic and transgressive. Since our nation’s bloody inception, the black woman’s body has been publicly derided as hypersexual, and thus sinful and unfit for public consumption. Full lips, ample asses and round hips were the hallmarks of a Jezebel.

 

Subjectivity, and thus sexuality, was long denied women of color. With the exception of the Black is Beautiful movement of the 60’s and the current #BlackGirlMagic narrative, the American public has been conditioned to reject the notion that blacks have any aesthetic value. Paper’s cover subverts that narrative and forces the reader to acknowledge, and stand in awe of black beauty.

 

 

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