The Five-Year Fallout of the Viral 'Starbucks Racism' Video
Photo: Asael Peña / Unsplash

The Five-Year Fallout of the Viral 'Starbucks Racism' Video

The wild story of a Black woman and a white woman who went viral, co-founded a nonprofit, then realized they couldn't get along

Five years ago, Starbucks suffered a social-media-fueled, racism-related backlash so bad they closed all their stores for racial-bias training. One of the reasons for that was a viral video captured by two women who were visiting a Philadelphia store. That clip showed two Black businessmen being arrested after a white barista called the police. Their supposed crime? Asking to use the bathroom.

Remember that? Wild, right? What's even wilder is what happened over the next half decade, as detailed in a lengthy, incredibly juicy story in the Los Angeles Times. The two women who posted the video, which went viral, met by chance at that Starbucks. They got to talking and as the video that one of them, a white woman named Melissa DePino, posted to social media gained millions of views, the two of them decided to promote awareness about racism.

The other person, a Black woman named Michelle Saahene, partnered with DePino to start a nonprofit that would eventually provide training and talks to companies about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The nonprofit, From Privilege to Progress, started as a social-media account and ended up offering "racism interrupter" guides for bystanders, T-shirts that said "#ShowUp," and professional talks to companies willing to pay for guidance. Eventually, the two ended up on MSNBC and Red Table Talk, but things really took off in 2020, when protests erupted around the country due to the murder of George Floyd.

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But just as quickly, the LA Times reports, the Trump presidency, social-media fatigue, and corporate cutbacks to DEI initiatives began to dry up opportunities for the two women. Internally, Saahene was growing dissatisfied by being tokenized by the nonprofit she helped start. Division of profits from the company became an issue; to hear them tell it now, there were racial and age divisions that became untenable between the two. They began deleting each other's posts on social media and DePino eventually got targeted online as a racist Karen by former followers.

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As Saahene said in a stinging quote in the LA Times story, "This is what happens when white women insert themselves into what should be Black-led organizations. White supremacy and emotional abuse get masked under kindness.”

For her part, DePino seems surprised by the criticism and unaware of what she did wrong. Will the article bring the two former friends together? Let's just say we're not holding our breath.