On Friday, a Duke University vice president walked into a campus location of Joe Van Gogh, a local North Carolina coffee chain. While there, he heard a rap song playing that he found offensive, so he voiced his concern to the barista who was serving. She apologized and turned off the offensive song, but that wasn’t good enough. He reportedly later demanded that the company fire all the employees who were on duty in the shop when he was there.
According to Indy Week, Britni Brown—who is black—and Kevin Simmons—who is white—weren’t doing anything that baristas at Joe Van Gogh don’t normally do: They were playing music from a Spotify playlist in the shop.
When Larry Moneta—vice president for student affairs at Duke—came in for his regular hot tea and vegan muffin, the song “Get Paid” by Young Dolph was playing. In the song, Young Dolph repeatedly says, “Get paid, young nigga.”
When it was his turn at the register, Moneta—who is white—told Brown that the song was inappropriate. Brown told Indy Week that she apologized and immediately turned the song off. She offered him the vegan muffin for free, but Moneta insisted on paying for it.
Simmons, who was making drinks at the same time Brown was working the register, told Indy Week that it appeared Moneta was harassing Brown over the song.
“‘Harassing’ is definitely the word I would use,” Simmons said. “He was verbally harassing her.”
Less than 10 minutes after Moneta left the shop, Brown received a phone call from Joe Van Gogh owner Robbie Roberts informing her that Robert Coffey—director of dining services at Duke—had just called him. Coffey’s department oversees the Joe Van Gogh location on Duke’s campus.
Roberts asked Brown to tell him what happened, and she did, accepting full responsibility for the incident and apologizing again for it.
On Monday, Brown and Simmons were summoned to the Hillsborough office of Joe Van Gogh and asked to resign.
Amanda Wiley, a human resources representative for Joe Van Gogh, told the pair that they could no longer work for the company.
Indy Week obtained an audio recording of the conversation among Wiley, Brown and Simmons.
During the conversation, Wiley said: “We had gotten a call from Robert Coffey of Duke saying that the VP of the university had come into the shop and that there was vulgar music playing. Joe Van Gogh is contracted by Duke University, so we essentially work for them. And they can shut us down at any point.”
Wiley then cleared her throat and said, “Duke University has instructed us to terminate the employees that were working that day.”
Brown and Simmons were offered a severance package if they chose to resign, and were promised that managers for the company would serve as positive references for them in their future job searches.
Throughout the meeting, Wiley reportedly told Brown and Simmons that they had both been good employees. She also told them that the order to fire them had come directly from Duke University.
In an email to the Duke Chronicle on Tuesday, Moneta said that while he did voice his concerns over the music being played in the coffee shop, the decision to fire Brown and Simmons was made by Joe Van Gogh, not him.
“The employees who chose to play the song in a business establishment on the Duke campus made a poor decision which was conveyed to the JVG management,” Moneta wrote. “How they responded to the employees’ behavior was solely at their discretion.”
Moneta’s email explanation directly contradicts Joe Van Gogh’s description of the events leading up to the employee terminations.
And surely Moneta knew that there would be consequences when he called the black girl’s boss to tell on her. Surely he knew that flexing the muscles of his white privilege would result in someone getting in trouble.
All of this after she apologized and immediately turned the song off.
Brown expressed to Wiley her disappointment in the way things were handled.
“There are other options besides being terminated,” Brown said. “We could have just been moved to another shop. But Duke came in and took our livelihood.
“Duke Dining is clearly going above and beyond, but y’all are sitting here and allowing it,” she added.
Add “listen to trap music while you work” to the list of things you can’t do while being black.