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American Privilege With An Extra Shot

Coffee culture, consumerism, and complacency

By Brynn A. Elliott

As soon as the smell of the chocolate-colored elixir hits my nose, I am mesmerized. It is a process that never ceases to draw me in, from the way the mystical brown dust gently settles into a cream filter to the excitement of the metal kettle filled with steaming water. Even the most mundane acts come to life in new and unusual ways: When the water is finally released onto the crushed beans, a visual of an elephant spewing water from his long nose comes to mind. But despite the flights of fancy of my imagination, the pour itself is always careful and calculated; it is vital that the water reaches the whole surface area of the filter, from the outer rim to the center of the coffee dust. The pour over, as connoisseurs fittingly call it, is a technical, intentional process, designed to provide the most balanced brew.

As an avid coffee lover, the desire to discover the absolute best coffee has shaped my experience on the road this summer. My first pursuit upon arrival in a new city is always to find the prized local coffee shop—I have no choice but to answer the siren call of a cold brew in the midst of a tiring summer heat.

I had a magical experience in the great city of San Francisco a few days ago with one such local gem. Because my set was scheduled later than normal, I had the morning free to explore the city that is a coffee lover’s mecca—the home to acclaimed third wave roasters such as Sightglass Coffee and Ritual Coffee Roasters. Good coffee was bound to fall into my hands at some point.

On that morning, I decided to go to Walgreens first because I needed make-up. After all, I am an artist and image is everything. I found the pharmacy on Market Street and the make-up aisle—seemingly filled with a million different kinds of mascara and eyeshadow brands—followed right behind. I didn’t know where they came from or what material they were made out of or how there could even exist so many different kinds; but I did know that they all promised me the same thing—to improve my outer image.

I found what I thought I needed. The journey continued as I walked out of the pharmacy down Market Street, which was booming with loud laughing buses and screeching humans hustling to work. I decided to just see where this street would take me. Within four minutes, I had nitro-brewed, black nectar of the gods sitting delicately in my hand, with a beet and kale salad to maintain my health.

But even as I moved on from the coffee shop, walking around San Francisco with its rolling streets and rich architecture, surrounded by the buzz and the sounds of the City by the Bay, I could not shake one particular song stuck in my head—a song that I had heard every night for almost a month from Allen Stone. His lyrics flew from my lips and heart:

“Everyday I, piss money away, I'm a material slave

Just tryna polish this ball and this chain

Cause I, I don't think twice, just keep it out of my sight, oh

Bitch don't kill my vibe, no, bitch don't kill my vibe

American privilege, keeps blurring my vision, inherited sickness”

As I mouthed these lyrics, I felt guilty. I felt like a consumer. Going from cosmetics aisle to coffee shop, all I had done in the last hour was consume, buy, spend money on things I did not truly need when so many people in the world barely have access to clean water or own any clean clothes. I was spending money on artisan coffee and concealer to hide the tiniest dark circles under my eyes. I just bought and walked away without a second thought. It was a carefree manifestation of American privilege— a mindset that takes for granted the luxury of the average American lifestyle.

Of course, it is neither morally wrong to enjoy an excellently prepared coffee nor is it wrong to care about self-presentation. But there is a fine line between enjoyment and a kind of consumerism that disregards the reality of the pain and suffering in the world. Recognizing and being grateful for the privilege to waltz into a shop and have the choice between between an iced latte with almond milk and a lavender latte with coconut milk, or between kale salads versus arugula salads, is of utmost importance.

I don’t want to take our American privilege as a given without the awareness of what lies outside it. Having spent all my life in the US, whether at home or visiting many American cities this summer, I realize I am so often unaware, so often presumptuous that whenever I need something it will be there for me.

I think this privilege could be better managed and more appreciated. I don’t mean to say that Americans are all selfish wealthy narcissists; in fact, this is the exact opposite of what I am saying. All I know is that as a country we have a lot in comparison to other countries and for this we should be mindful, grateful, and responsible.

Nurturing that attitude of gratitude has to start small, with the individual actions of individual people—with me, with small acts of kindness, small efforts to take my mind outside of the coffee shop and cosmetic section. How can I use my resources for the benefit of others? Maybe it’s simply inviting a friend who needs a listening ear to the coffee shop, or creating an organization that celebrates natural beauty instead of promoting make-up as a mask, or helping a non-profit that provides people with clean clothing who otherwise might not have it.

All is not lost for people like me who are entrenched in American consumerism and privilege. When privilege is a gateway to good stewardship of wealth, then maybe it can be like steaming water, finding the balance for a delicious pour over brew.

Brynn A. Elliott ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Currier House.

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