Questions Of Race In Coffee With Phyllis Johnson Of BD Imports

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Do a simple Google search of “coffee & race” and the first two pages of hits will be devoted to whether or not you should drink coffee before running a marathon. A search engine might not be the greatest indicator of what we as a culture are or aren’t talking about, but it’s a starting point. Today, there is a growing amount of discussion related to gender equality and the coffee industry, but race has yet to enter our common dialogue in the same way. Yet race is inextricably woven into the entire coffee supply chain, having historically given shape to the coffee trade as we know it, and continues to impact how it grows and evolves.
Race is difficult to talk about, and it is difficult to write about. It is so difficult that I debated whether it was something that I even wanted to take on, the task of writing about race seemingly too great, my white privilege perhaps preventing me from asking the right questions, or even worse, asking the wrong ones. But I believe that coffee can be a lens for looking at larger issues and that if we let that discomfort silence us, let it prevent us from asking questions, we keep ourselves from the discussions and actions that are essential to creating a cultural shift.
I wanted to start with my own questions to Phyllis Johnson, founder and president of BD Imports and an outspoken advocate for diversity in the coffee industry and beyond. Our conversation on race and coffee spurred a lot of new questions in my head, ones to continue to ask, not because they necessarily have answers, but because the act of asking them is a part of advocating for change.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Race and coffee is not a common topic in the coffee community. Why do you think that is?
Racism and inequality are the most difficult topics to discuss. They are hot buttons in our political language. It’s not uncommon that it’s not a topic for us, in the coffee industry or in any industry. For me, as an African-American I grew up talking about race. Being a minority you feel the effects of racism. So it’s not a subject that’s foreign to me, but it is foreign in the mainstream society. Not so much foreign as uncomfortable really. I think sometimes when we talk about it, we get labeled as racist. We really need to move beyond that to be able to have honest conversations about how race impacts so much of what we do.
I have perhaps experienced a bit of this in talking about women’s rights, when instead of just being seen as someone asking questions, you’re criticized for criticizing the system.
You’re kind of ostracized. This is a horrible analogy that I often use, but talking about racism in social settings can be like placing a turd in the punch bowl. Everyone sees it, it’s disgusting, and no one really wants to call it out. But I think that people need to bring up things that aren’t so comfortable for everyone; we have to get comfortable discussing difficult subjects.
When you talk about racism, oftentimes people see someone spouting horrible things about people of a certain race. That one crazy uncle comes to mind. But that’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about participating in environments where people are all the same, where there is no one that’s different than you and the team especially in high-level decision-making roles. You can argue the point that diversity is bringing a difference of perspective and I would agree with that. I also believe that a Latino, Black, Asian, whomever, will have experienced a different walk in life. The environment, earth, life, oppression–the wind has hit them from a different angle, and they are going to come in the room with a different perspective. Agree or not, it’s our physicality that causes the world to treat us differently, and we in turn have a different perspective. That is what we need to appreciate.
Race is an issue that impacts coffee across the supply chain. Let’s first talk about the coffee production. How is race an issue that impacts coffee from a producer perspective?
Coming into the industry in 1999, it was obvious to me that there were not many African Americans working in coffee. I felt like I really didn’t belong, and it may sound strange, but people really do need to see themselves in certain spaces to feel comfortable. You walk in, you look around, you say, “It’s OK for me to be here.” Even if you don’t know the person who aligns with you in the room, you at least know that the barriers have not been so great that people like you can’t get there. So you go in, you do a check and you say, “OK, it’s cool.” Well, for me, I went in, I did a check, it wasn’t cool; so I had to begin to search for where I might become connected to the industry.
My connections to coffee came from learning its history. Which, you know, isn’t a pretty story. But unfortunately, that was my connection. Once I understood that history, I said, “I belong. Not only do I just belong, but my presence here can be incredibly valuable.”
In 2006, I was traveling in Latin America, I had this epiphany when I was sitting in a truck, driving around looking at coffee farms. All of a sudden, I noticed something. I said to the guy in the truck, “Hey, the people picking the coffee, they don’t really look like you.” It was an uncomfortable question, but being a black woman who had grown up chopping cotton on a farm in Arkansas, to me this was a question that I needed to know the answer to. He said, “Well, they’re more Mayan, and I’m more Spanish.”
Tears came to my eyes, at that moment I actually had to go silent. I then realized that I was no longer the little black girl in the field chopping cotton, I had elevated to riding in the truck with the white owner and to me that was very sad, because my heart was there on the ground, but I was happy from my elevated point of view. That was one of my first glimpses of global racism in our industry.
Coffee, as you mentioned, has an ugly history of oppression and colonialism. When we think about those producers on the ground, do you find that the way we talk about them in the specialty coffee world reinforces racial and socioeconomic hierarchies?
We’re doing it for our own personal gain. We feel good about what we’re doing. Or that we tell people, “We’re doing this and you should purchase my product because you feel good about helping these poor people.” I think that when promoting farmers, we need to consider, it’s about empowerment and self-sufficiency. Do you seriously think that these farmers picking coffee beans have been sitting there and waiting for you to come along to save them? They are incredibly resilient and have often lived through travesties I shudder to even think of. The thought that what you’re doing, your small intervention, is completely saving their lives, is a disservice to them and to you.
We have to stop presenting black women and children as the poster child for poverty. I think that is a disservice to us because there are really hurting people who don’t fit that profile who are just as bad off, and they are hidden because global society doesn’t view them as being the poster child.
On the consumer side, there are so many ways that race impacts the industry, but one thing that comes to mind is the topic of class and race. With its high price tag, do you think that specialty coffee has come to represent a certain social status? Does this in turn push certain communities out from enjoying it, even if they can afford it, because they don’t identify with it?
I do. Because of the lack of diversity in ownership of cafes and working in cafes. Gentrification as well doesn’t help bring black and brown people into cafes. In gentrification you have folks coming in, doing things differently in a way that can often antagonize existing communities. If I have lived there for years and years and all of a sudden I am being pushed out, I’m not going to say, “Hey, let’s go up to this new cafe!” because my mindset is, “That cafe is really for them, it wasn’t here before they got here, they’ve created the cafes for them.”
You know, most black people are conversational. If you say coffee shops are really for interactions, meeting up with friends, networking, working on your laptop, enjoying great coffee, etc. I don’t know what people on earth who don’t like doing that stuff. Black and Hispanic people like getting out of the house too.
We can hide behind “the price is too high” but it’s also the environment. Environments have to be nurturing, environments have to feel good on you, and that’s not happening. Should we leave it to white people to figure out how to create cafes that are comfortable for people other than themselves? Maybe not, maybe that’s asking too much. That in itself is the reason why you need diversity, at the retail level.
That’s interesting, because even if you’re in specialty coffee, usually we come to coffee because we all have some story or emotional attachment to a moment in time and space with people that involved coffee. If you don’t have any physical or emotional connection to that thing, why would you have any interest in consuming it?
Exactly. I enjoy drinking my coffee every morning not just because it tastes good, but because I know who grew the coffee. I think about Pauline in Burundi organizing the farmers in the rural communities, training them to select the cherries, and Isabelle tasting the coffees and providing feedback on ways to improve the production. I also think about my friends at Bunn when I use the brewer. When I drink it, I’m inspired. I am thinking about our shared interest in life, hope, ambition, and change and all of these things floating around in your head that give good energy; it’s so much more than just a cup of coffee.
So it’s not that the coffee in and of itself is bad, it’s that the coffee represents a bad system and coffee becomes the thing that embodies all of that, which then makes that cup of coffee a very loaded thing.
Coffee has been and, unfortunately in some ways, still is a vehicle for racism and unbalanced and inequitable relationships throughout the supply chain. We can’t glamorize altitude, varietals, and all the new inventions without addressing the history and its present effects of this product. To look at the heaviness of it and try to untangle some of that, that’s where the real work is and the real value is.
I admire the way that the barista community is starting to dig deeper. I didn’t think it would be them to say, “something’s got to change.”
Why didn’t you think that it would be them?
I was not connected to them. I’m always fighting the fight from where I am in the supply chain, working with farmers, fighting for gender equity. I have truly been enlightened that baristas are also in a vice that makes them speak out and they are living at a time where they have the right tools to have a voice.
The only thing that I would advise is that for those who are oppressed or feel the weight of oppression: systems have been in place for a long time, our entire structure is built on racism and oppression. It’s so ingrained, you have to work hard to see it, but when you start seeing it, you can see it and you can start to think differently. But you can’t take a system that is so old and so stabilized and tear it down quickly; you have to commit yourself to be a participant of change, knowing that it’s going to take a while.
Yes, we all have a role to play, and to accept that there’s an enormous problem at hand and ask ourselves how we each individually work on a daily basis to change that. We have to think—what are the things that we experience on a daily basis that may seem small and insignificant but are actually a part of that whole structure that keeps this system in place?
I think a perfect example is my friend Miriam Monteiro de Aguiar, estate owner and manager of Fazenda Cachoeira. She is a seventh generation coffee estate owner and is the first woman to be in charge of the farm. When I met her she said, “I’m from Brazil,” and I said, “Oh shoot… what about slavery in Brazilian coffee?” I just threw it out there. She said, “Phyllis, I’ve always wanted to engage Afro-Brazilians in coffee, that has been a dream of mine.”
She and I began a conversation three years ago that has taken us on an incredible journey.

Phyllis Johnson meeting with Miriam Monteiro de Aguiar, of Fazenda Cachoeira, Neide & her husband Roberto Paxoto and children at their farm house in Sitio Santo Antoni, Minas Gerais.
Her farm was known to have had slave labor and that was one of the first things she said to me. When I visited her recently, I slept in the room that her 90-year-old father was born in whom I had the pleasure to meet. I stayed up most of the night looking out the windows and wondering what life must have been like during the time of slavery.
Miriam said, “When I took over the farm, me, my husband, and children, we felt a heaviness, and before we could move on, we had to come to grips with our history. We needed to acknowledge what happened here, show respect for all those who labored here.” Her daughters are just amazing; they are saying things, they are doing things, to engage the Afro-Brazilian community. We were sitting in her kitchen and talking about racism as openly as one can imagine. Miriam shared the insights of her daughter, that maybe her ancestors were afraid of the greatness that existed in the laborers.
I had never talked about racism at such a deep level with anyone who wasn’t Black and just the opportunity to exchange at that level, I wish that everyone had that opportunity. I owe my good friend Josiane Cotrim Macieira, an incredible woman who has led gender equity programs in Brazil a lot of respect. She listened intently when I talked about racism in coffee outside of my home and community. She listened and acted. Together we have both grown tremendously. The door to gender equity in coffee allowed me to engage in the conversation of racism and coffee with a broader audience.
Do you think that Miriam is able to be that open because she has acknowledged the history and chosen to come to terms with it and move forward instead of masking over it?
Exactly. We went to visit Neide and her husband Roberto Paxoto, the only Afro-Brazilian farm owners in Miriam’s region. Miriam knew they lived not far away but had never visited the family. Neide showed us around her family farm, told us the story of how they became landowners through sharecropping; she knew of no other Afro-Brazilian families who owned land in the southern part of Minas Gerais region. Later in the year, Miriam invited her back to her farm for quality training, Neide ended up winning the quality competition locally after the training that Miriam helped her with. Neide and her family have never been able to sell their coffee into an export market, but that looks like a near future reality.
That’s the importance of asking questions and digging deeper about where we source our ingredients from. What if I had not asked Miriam about the presence of Afro-Brazilians in coffee today and the history of slavery? I’m just one person. Think of the outcomes if we had major players engaged in bringing to light previously unacknowledged disparities. We run away from talking about racism in coffee like the plague. It’s not good for marketing, “I had nothing to do with that.” There are plenty of reasons to ignore this history.

Phyllis Johnson (center, in grey) dancing with the International Women’s Coffee Alliance—Mantiqueira members, Mantiqueira Mountains, Sul de Minas.
So if we could more freely ask these questions that would allow us to move forward?
Yes, because I think something starts within yourself and others when you start asking questions. For me, it started at home and in my community and today I’m talking to you and your readers. That’s cool.
You don’t have the answers, I don’t have the answers. When you start asking questions, that opens the door for future exploration and eventually action to address the problems seen. It’s not to “call people out” but really to just to ask, “why”, “how”.
Everybody has a perspective and that’s the loss in not having everybody engaged in the supply chain. That’s a loss to everyone because you’re not hearing the multitude of perspectives and letting them learn from each other. We have to move beyond lip service to diversity. It’s an opportunity to grow for everyone involved.

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