It’s Been a Year Since Starbucks and I Can Finally Write

Michelle Saahene
May 21 · 5 min read

I was the first woman who spoke up in April 2018 when a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police because two black men were waiting to meet a business associate (before buying anything).

“Starbucks” happened over a year ago. This is the first time I’m writing publicly about more than just the details of the incident and how I felt that day. I’ve been suffering from serious perfectionism and impostor syndrome — who was I to be writing about racism? I don’t have a PhD in this stuff. I haven’t even been formally trained (besides a certification course through Cornell Univ on Diversity & Inclusion). When I would read the work race experts, it was founded on a lot of research over several years and sometimes decades of experience, and so I immediately told myself “You’re not good enough, yet.”

The first time I tried to write was fall of last year. Every time I would speak at an event or on TV, someone would tell me that I needed to write a book. The confidence I got from people telling me that repeatedly took me to the computer. But about five pages in, the tears started flowing. Why? Because I was writing my personal story, my history. When I looked at it on paper, I realized there was a lot of pain I hadn’t dealt with (I guess that year in therapy wasn’t quite long enough). I had more healing to do, and I wasn’t ready to share that part of myself for everyone to see. Each new memory I typed down was followed by the thought, “Damn that was actually pretty f%#&ing racist .” I realized that being the only black girl in my grade and sometimes my school for 98% of those 12 years deeply affected my self-esteem. Here I was for the very first time at 31 years old, writing about those experiences and having this really uncomfortable but ah-ha moments. Clearly, I had been very successful at suppressing those feelings.

I grew up in Palmyra, PA just outside of Hershey, aka chocolate town. But the only chocolate besides the candy was my family and just a few others. I fit in well enough, but never fully. My parents were from Ghana and I was living in a white town with it’s white washed history. I didn’t really understand where racism came from. I didn’t know what black culture was besides what I saw on TV. I didn’t feel “black enough” to reach out for friendships with other black kids in nearby towns. I definitely didn’t feel totally comfortable in all white spaces, almost never. So I took solace in separating myself as “Ghanaian-American”. It was the closest thing I had to an identity, even though I wouldn’t visit the country until I was 19. Plus, that seemed to make white people much more tolerant of me. It’s the sad truth. I’ve been told I’m not really “black”. I was an Oreo. I spoke like white people. Then you add the African part, and suddenly white people were intrigued. I could feel their entire demeanor towards me change, positively. I would feel, “Ahh, yes, this is comfortable and right where I want to be.”

Of course, that comfort wasn’t completely real. I still dealt with racism and microaggressions often. I still didn’t feel pretty enough being around mostly white girls who looked like the perfect standard of beauty. I wanted so badly to be accepted by the black community. But I felt when they looked at me that it was with confusion and sometimes even disdain for being with white people. Talking about racism, the few times I did, was met with denial or very little support or understanding from the people around me. So, I learned to stay quiet about it.

When you have something bubbling inside of you, boiling, it’s only a matter of time until the lid blows off. I had been dealing with white people dishing out their microaggressions and turning a blind eye to racism for my entire life. I had dealt with being one of the only people of color in every job I had. I was tired of being the token. I was also tired of feeling silenced in my every day life.

When I came back from my second visit to Ghana in 2017, everything had changed about the perception of myself and the black community. I went to a slave castle. I stood where my people stood shackled, starved, tortured, raped, and murdered. I had walked through “The Door of No Return” and I remember looking over the ocean and imagining my people stacked in a ship, destined for enslavement for the rest of their lives, still fighting until this day. When I came back, it was impossible for me to look at a black person and not think they could be my family or neighbor or friend in Ghana. Instantly, they were all my family. So when Starbucks happened, it was an immediate, “Oh HELL no. These are my brothers and I need to do something.’

Almost overnight, I was talking to white people about racism, microaggressions, privilege, and systemic oppression every day. Now I had a platform. Because it happened so quickly, it was easy for impostor syndrome to set in. I even lost friendships over my speaking up, one of the very things I was scared to lose by talking about it growing up. I didn’t let that stop me, because for the few friendships that fizzled due to their fragility, I gained new friends because of who I was now, and an entire online community of people from every race wanting to converse, and white people asking me what they could do for social justice. The experience hurdled me over my resistance to talk about racism and my experiences. The more I talk about it, the easier it gets. And the easier it gets, the more other people want to talk to me about it.

I looked back over the year and thought about everything that’s happened. Starbucks closed 8,000 stores because I spoke up. I’ve spoken to a crowd of 600+ people. I’ve been invited into Jada-Pinkett Smith’s home to talk at the Red Table. I’m an expert on my own experiences. I’m now confident my experiences are powerful. I know I can use my experiences to inspire other people to be vulnerable and have real, honest conversations with other people about racism. My life has prepared me for exactly this.

I found my voice, and I will never lose it again.

Michelle Saahene

Written by

Speaker, Cofounder, Activist, Global Citizen

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