Privilege, With a Dollop of Cream Cheese

The slightly paunchy, middle-aged man in the quaint Cambridge coffee shop didn’t appreciate at all being called out. He just wanted more cream cheese on his bagel is all. What’s wrong with that? But on this day, a calling out could not be helped.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock.

Transparency. The poor man had no way of knowing I’d been part of an audience of educators (I’m not an educator) at the Harvard Graduate School of Law where prominent professors of ed were leading provocative conversations. Some of the conversations centered around racism, explicit and implicit bias, systematic subjugation, and privilege.

Ahhh. Privilege: Warm and cozy, enchanting, doting, protective privilege. Happy sigh.

One of the professors brought up the issue of redlining and the federal government-sanctioned system of racism in mortgage lending. I marvel at the lengths American men and women were willing to go (they’re still going) to deprive human beings of the simple conveniences of life they themselves enjoy. The heartlessness of it all often makes me cry.

But, I digress.

The conversations in Austin Hall were deep. They were informative. They were productive. And the speakers didn’t just recount old wrongs; they offered workable solutions to some of these pressing problems. One of the suggestions—a catchphrase that appears to have made its most effective debut in reference to national security and the goading of devoted and committed citizens to say something if they spot any suspicious activity but is now being used as a plea in more practical areas of American life ranging from domestic violence to discrimination—was See Something, Say Something.

It even has its own hashtag.

After listening in on these conversations, I was feeling a pretty intense mix of nausea, anger, sadness, inspiration, and a strong desire to act. Much of what was presented was not necessarily new. The reminders of the lingering and debilitating effects of a still churning diabolical system are what stirred me.

There were tears, you see.

No. The poor, paunchy man in the quaint Cambridge coffee shop absolutely had no way of knowing all of this was swirling around in my brain amid the more typical mental images of sunflowers and dark chocolates, and the melody of the mystical song that is Dirty Projectors’ “Little Bubble.”

My young, female colleague and I were standing at the counter. I was mid-sentence in the placing of my order for an iced coffee when the man walked in. He was wielding a previously purchased bagel with cream cheese.

“There isn’t enough cream cheese on this bagel,” he said to the woman behind the counter who was helping me. “Yeah, there’s just not very much cream cheese on here at all.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry about that,” said the woman, turning to him. “Here, let me have it.” She reached across the glass counter and took his bagel. There was a little modest flurry of motion as she, with the help of a whole other woman (Woman Number One was apparently being trained by Woman Number Two), carefully worked on cream cheese-ing the previously cream-cheesed bagel.

I looked at the man. He looked at me. He very quickly looked away. Woman Number One handed the now sufficiently cream cheesed bagel back to the man who thanked her kindly and walked out of the coffee shop. I watched as he took a big bite out of his bagel and sat down on a bench just outside the door.

The woman composed herself and looked back at me, smiling. I picked up where I’d left off, somewhere around “…and can I get half-and-half in it with simple syrup?”

“Sure,” she said. “You can help yourself to cream and sugar at that counter there!”

I paid for my coffee. I took my receipt. She handed me my drink. Now, my intention was to go directly to the self-service counter for all my coffee fixings, a lid, and a straw. But, my ire and my feet had other more sinister and dangerous ideas.

I walked outside and stepped around to the man who was reading the paper.

“Excuse me sir, do you have a moment? May I say something to you?”

“Um…” he said, opening and snapping his paper, looking up at me then quickly looking away and down to the name tag hanging around my neck. Charlotte Moore. Videographer, it read. “Hmph.” He looked back down at his paper. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

“You know, how, around the country there’s been a lot of talk about privilege and the people who enjoy it? Well, sir, you just exercised your privilege at the counter in there. I thought you should know that.”

“You have no right to talk to me,” he said.

“I was literally in the middle of placing my order,” I continued, “when you walked in, interrupted me, and asked for more cream cheese on your bagel. Do you realize how rude that was?”

“Oh, get away from me,” he said. “Who do you think you are? You think you can teach me something, lady? Go away. Get out of here with that.”

Fair.

“Wow,” I said. “I’m just trying to help you understand what you did. But okay.”

“You had three people helping you,” he said, loudly now. A couple of people had walked up and were making their way into the coffee shop. “You had three people helping you,” he said, loudly. “Because you’re black you get to monopolize all the people in the store? That’s BLACK privilege, is what THAT is! Get out of here.” He went back to reading his paper.

It was at about this moment I realized I was standing outside the coffee shop, iced, black coffee in hand, reproaching some strange bagel-eating Boston dude. I wasn’t afraid or anything. Just sort of … like, wait a minute … what am I doing? I think what coaxed me out of my See Something, Say Something reverie was the recognition that this man, on this day, would not be seeing the situation as I saw the situation. I thought I was being helped by one woman behind the counter when he barged in, cut me off, and demanded more cream cheese. He thought I was monopolizing three coffee clerks behind the counter and that he was just exercising his right to have the help of at least one of those people. That woke me up. All I could muster at that point, before shifting my heavy backpack on my shoulder and going back into the coffee shop, was “Listen, and you may learn something.”

Listen, and you may learn something. Weak.

You know, maybe he’s right. Who am I to approach some stranger guy and try to school him on the issue of privilege? Who am I to wonder what it must feel like to possess the audacity to command attention and service, no matter what is happening at the moment? Where do I get off trying to teach a middle-aged white man anything about the differences between his perspective and my own?

I went to the self-service counter. I put cream in my coffee. I put simple syrup in my coffee. I put the lid on the cup. I stuck the straw into the lid. My colleague and I walked out of the shop, around and past the man still sitting on the bench reading his paper and eating his bagel with cream cheese.

“I think you did the right thing, confronting that man,” she said.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I couldn’t not confront him.” In my heart, though, I felt a little ashamed I had caused the commotion. And all I could see in my mind at that moment was the little white dollop of cream cheese in the corner of the man’s mouth.

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