Op-Ed

At Duke, a tempest in a coffee cup

Joe Van Gogh barista describes how she was fired

Britni Brown describes her interaction with Duke Vice President for Student Affairs, Larry Moneta and how she was later fired for playing “Get Paid” by Young Dolph, during an interview on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
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Britni Brown describes her interaction with Duke Vice President for Student Affairs, Larry Moneta and how she was later fired for playing “Get Paid” by Young Dolph, during an interview on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

The first sign that Larry Moneta was headed for trouble in the campus coffee shop was when he ordered a vegan muffin.

Duke’s vice president for student affairs is obviously sensitive to the content of what enters his body. And that includes what comes in through his ears. A rap song replete with the n-word and profanities that was playing while he ordered the muffin clearly did not pass his test.

So he complained to the barista at the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop, which has a contract to serve Duke’s campus. There was nothing wrong with his complaining. A lot of people don’t want to hear the raw lyrics of rapper Young Dolph’s “Get Paid” while they’re getting coffee, or in Moneta’s case, a tea and a vegan muffin. The barista, Britni Brown, did the right thing, too. She apologized for the song that popped up on a computer-generated playlist and offered Moneta his order for free. Moneta insisted on paying, told Brown to be attentive to what kind of music was playing and left.

“I just honestly assumed that would be the end of the situation,” Brown said.

It should have been. But, in a series of actions first reported by Indy Week, the incident snowballed into national news.

Moneta, who oversees services including housing and dining, complained to Duke’s director of dining services, who in turn complained to the owner of Joe Van Gogh, Robbie Roberts. Roberts called Brown and told her to be careful about the music playing at the shop, but on the Monday after the Friday incident, Brown and her co-worker, Kevin Simmons, were called to Joe Van Gogh’s Hillsborough headquarters and fired, an action the HR manager said Duke had requested.

This was wrong in about 19 different ways and protesters were quick to make all of them clear. Brown was flooded with support and protesters showed up at the Joe Van Gogh blasting “Get Paid” as payback.

Roberts said Friday that he was cutting ties with Duke “to preserve Joe Van Gogh’s brand independence without conditions.” He offered to rehire Brown and Simmons.

Roberts’ move came a two days after protesters marched to Moneta’s office carrying signs that read “fire Moneta” and chanting “stand up, fight back.” He gamely received them into his office and awkwardly tried to answer one protester’s question: “Do you think it’s OK that you are making six figures while these workers are making $10 an hour? What have you done to deserve that?”

What Moneta was likely thinking was, “What have I done to deserve this?”

What he did to deserve it is being a white senior manager scolding a black contract worker for a song a computer chose to play. It was OK to complain about the music. It was not OK to take the complaint up the line.

Duke President Vincent Price apologized Thursday, saying the rap song firings were the latest in a series of incidents, including some involving racial and anti-Semitic slurs, that have left many on campus feeling “angry, discouraged and disappointed.” He invited people to send thoughts on how to improve Duke’s climate for tolerance and understanding to dukepresident@duke.edu.

Here’s one one idea: Duke should hire Britni Brown to tell them how to keep the university out of the national news when a white senior administrator hears a rap song.

And what should she get paid? Six figures will do.

Barnett: 919-829-4512Barnett: 919-829-4512

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