Spoils of War
I didn’t have anything to make coffee at home, so I went to the charming café I found around the corner. They only speak German, but I managed to order a latte and a croissant. The cakes looked amazing, but I am not a person who likes sweet things in the morning.
The place is shaded, with old wood floors and lovingly mismatched wood tables and chairs. There are glass cases with abundant food. There is a wall of coffee beans in canisters you can buy. The place is clean and fresh, although it has an old or reclaimed feel. The ceiling fan is made of actual varnished woven fans as blades, the kind of fans you’d see in tropical cultures. There is also loose tea, many kinds.
It is warm and homey-feeling. It is comfortable. There is no wifi. I have brought my notebook to write. The latte is good and the croissant much better than expected, crisp layer on top and buttery smooth inside. The croissant tastes authentically French, not quasi-German.
I am happy here. Among the coffees and teas and wood. I look around at the coffees — El Salvador, Guatemala, Ethiopia. I think about the coffees. Where they are from. How they got here. I look around and there is tea. India, China. There is music playing. Jazz. Coltrane.
There are two white ladies talking at a table on the other side of the room. Another two white ladies serving, going back and forth. It is quiet this morning.
I glance up at the wall nearby and see an old tin sign for Sarotti –a chocolate company. There is a man, a caricature of one, the same image three times in a row. He can only be described as someone’s idea of a Moor. He has a red puffed hat and curled shoes. Harem pants. He is dark black. He carries a small tray as an offering. He is clearly subservient. It is from another century this sign, but it is a signpost for the present. The future.
I am surrounded by the work, labour, life, energy, souls and spirits of people of colour. This café, this place, does not exist without the collective history of all people of colour — and their suffering. This coffee, this tea, this music — none of it comes from white people. None of it. White people’s contribution to this scenario, across all fronts, is only a system of delivery. Nothing more. They bring the coffee, the tea from another country to your table. They bring the music from the imagination of artists into the radio.
Do we ask how they do it? Did our ancestors ask how they did it? It was not magic they employed. It was force. Coercion. And in far too many instances, violence. Over centuries, aggressors have consistently undervalued the contributions of people of colour. Trespassers have exploited the resources, gifts, talents, and sweat equity of those who originated these luxuries. Invaders have stripped the luxuries from one group of people to sell them to another group.
I am literally sitting inside of the history of cultural appropriation, exploitation, erasure and annihilation of people of colour.
It is really nice here. I am sitting and having a latte and a croissant, shaded from the sun, listening to good music, being served because I can spare 5 euro today. I am using my privilege to cheaply buy some sanctuary, the ingredients of which have all been extracted from other cultures against their will.
The white ladies at the other table are leaving. They are not thinking about the origin story of this place, as I am. They are chatting about their lives and perhaps, even, sparing a thought or two for the sadness and chaos we are living in. They like the order of this place, the nostalgia of it. I do, too. Yet, when I am sitting in here, I cannot undo the thoughts that I am sitting inside the workings of the most destructive machine that has ever been built. The intersection of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and inter-tribal hatred. I am complicit.
I want to cry now. Or leave. Cry and leave. I like it very much here. I never want to come inside again. I am sure the people who work here are very nice, and like me, struggling to get by. I imagine the people who own this place have worked hard to make it a wonderful destination and to provide delicious things in a beautiful environment. Perhaps the coffee is fair trade and perhaps the tea producers are building schools for children. Perhaps. But that is now and that is far from balancing the scales of centuries of warfare against people of colour.
You want to ask if it’s the responsibility of these people of those owners of the coffee importers or the tea growers of me to fix the history of violence and oppression. You want to say it’s not our fault; we didn’t do it. You want to invoke your privilege of not having been alive to perpetrate the original crimes, in order to protect your unfettered access to the spoils of war.
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