Last Thursday a Sydney coffee chain apologised for firing Ayokunle Oluwalana after the manager told him “the locals are a bit racist.” Ayo tells HuffPost Australia, in his own words, exactly what happened that day and why the incident can be used as a learning curve to spur significant societal change when it comes to anti-racism.
In the past month, the Black Lives Matter movement has been a focal point of the world’s attention. Continuous global protests have called out not just police brutality but systemic racism leading to a revolution that I’m sure a lot of Black people, and non-Black people, recognise as monumental. It has shown that through a collective effort, we are able to influence change.
Black people are tired of being treated differently for just being Black.
I grew up in the multicultural metropolis of London and I am thankful for that. The experience of having a diverse patchwork of languages, faiths, races and colours as my backdrop gave me the chance to experience different cultures and practices. It was an opportunity for me to constantly learn about other people.
However, discrimination and being looked at differently still wasn’t a rare experience for me in England. During a 2011 school trip to Devon, as my geography class walked through the seaside town’s centre, a girl walked passed and shouted “Kunta Kinte” at us. Kunta Kinte was a fictional African slave taken to 18th-century America in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots, it was also later a mini-series. It was a Black majority class and her words left a lasting impact on me. We could have reacted and caused a scene but we decided the potential repercussions may not be worth it.
Fast forward to November 2018, and I moved to Sydney on a working holiday visa. I’ve always had a soft spot for Australia. Maybe it was the constant “Home & Away” and “Neighbours” I used to watch?
I had not experienced any overt racism in Australia until the incident on Thursday June 18, 2020.
“A person will go “Where are you from, mate?” I will say London but that isn’t good enough for some. Instead, they will then ask again, “Where are you ‘REALLY’ from?” They wouldn’t ask that question if I was white.”
The type of racism I have experienced since working Down Under is what people call “microaggressions.” For me, it’s the constant comments related to where I’m from or something related to my body (I’m a 6’5 Black guy). Usually, a person will go “Where are you from, mate?” I will say London but that isn’t good enough for some. Instead, they will then ask again, “Where are you ‘REALLY’ from?” - in reference to my heritage. I am not ashamed to ever say where my family is from but I know they wouldn’t ask that question if I was white. I would love to react in an angry manner, reinforcing the stereotype of the “angry Black guy” but instead, I answer and try to move on. These are the things I have learned to let slide and I’m sure that is a sentiment shared by many across the world.
On that Thursday at XS Espresso Bondi, it was much the same. I worked my shift until 2pm and afterwards I was pulled aside by the manager of the cafe. He started the conversation by saying he “really liked” me but “we’ve had complaints” about my coffee.
I thought this was surprising, considering I have been complimented by numerous regulars for the coffees I made during my time there. But I am not afraid of constructive criticism and would always like to know what I can do to improve. As I questioned more, he went on to say “you know how Bondi locals are, they’re a bit racist.”
I was surprised at this revelation but as he continued, he explained that they “like their coffee” served by another barista, who is white. There was another barista who also worked at the store and that’s who he was referring to.
He paid me, I left and I came to the realisation that I was fired because people didn’t like the colour of my skin. I returned home and made a series of Instagram Stories detailing what had happened. My Instagram Stories were not angry but calm and collected. For me, that was the best way to deal with it.
The overwhelmingly positive response from the community is down to the power of social media. Due to amazing friends and supportive strangers, what happened to me has exploded into something I never could have imagined and I have had countless messages of support.
More than anything, I am proud. Change can’t happen unless people know that these racist views will not be tolerated by society. Speaking up and challenging this behaviour is difficult, tiring and uncomfortable but it’s imperative to stamping out racism and there is proof speaking up works.
The nonstop BLM protests have already given rise to policy changes in cities and companies around the globe. Locally, after Australian cities rallied against the high incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians, the NSW Parliament has taken its first step to address the unacceptably high level of First Nations people in custody by launching a cross party parliamentary inquiry into how deaths in custody are investigated in NSW.
These demands for justice arising from the Black Lives Matter movement show that through struggle comes change. And it gives me hope.
Maybe I am foolish but I don’t believe the manager/owner of XS Espresso Bondi is racist - why would he hire me in the first place? However, I do believe his morals were misplaced. I believe the decision was money motivated and he didn’t want to lose his clientele, but if that is your clientele, then they’re not people you should continue welcoming. Your staff should be able to trust you to have their backs. There should never be a time when you side with racists over your employees. That goes for all hospitality managers.
I’ve had phone conversations with the founder of the XS Espresso chain and we have met face to face over the weekend. There has been shock and sadness throughout the business at what happened to me and I appreciate that. I don’t believe XS Espresso is a racist company, the people I worked with treated me with respect and I never felt uncomfortable while at work. I do believe progress and change is something that can come out of this for the company and how they deal with these issues if they arise again. However, it is a shame how it ended.
“To the customers who complained, I don’t know who you are but if you are reading this, I hope you can see that racial bias has no place in today’s society.”
The outpouring of support from people has been unbelievable. I haven’t been able to charge my phone properly since Thursday due to the constant messages. It has been surreal seeing my face on Google. I never thought I’d search ‘Black Barista’ and see me. However, if change in the workplace improves and Black people are treated fairly going forward, then I can’t complain if my name is attached to that.
I have faith in Australia and the world, that we can hopefully eradicate racism and that we should all be treated equally. It’s a basic human right. Do I believe this could happen again? Yes. But hopefully, due to the outrage and support, the reaction from companies will be one of protection, not punishment.
To the customers who complained, I don’t know who you are but if you are reading this, and you have seen the response to what happened, I hope you can see that racial bias has no place in today’s society. I hope you can see that your views are outdated and people won’t stand by idly anymore. There have been protests across the world for these exact reasons and I hope my story can help amplify why these protests are necessary.
As I said in my statement, thank you all for the support, it is very humbling to know so many people care. In a weird way, I am pleased it happened, because if Black or POC staff feel they have been treated unfairly due to their colour, I hope by me speaking out, now you can see that there are people ready to fight for you. You are not alone.
Ayo is a British-Nigerian Journalism graduate who has a passion for all things sport and travelling. Through a constant need to continually improve and try new things, he now finds himself in Sydney, Australia.