Ralph Gaston, of Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee and Isla Custom Coffees, on Presenting Himself as a Nonthreatening Black Man
The coffee farmer talks about the culture in Pāhala, Big Island, versus in cafés in Mainland cities.
This is part of a series on perspectives from Black food-business owners in Hawai‘i.
Photo: Joan Obra
HONOLULU Magazine: How did you get into the coffee industry?
Ralph Gaston: Joan (his wife) and I met at UC Berkeley in 1999 as grad students. That was right when her parents (Rusty and Lorie Obra) were retiring and moving out to Hawai‘i and got into coffee farms. Then, in August 2006, Papa Rusty passed away. Mama Lorie kept the farm going because it was her connection to Papa Rusty and a way to honor him. She started working with Whole Foods, got her first big award for coffee and received 95 points from Coffee Review—things were growing for her. And we realized that she could use help. We were already kind of looking at our careers in journalism at the time and thinking we might need to find something new to do—on the heels of the Great Recession, journalism crashed heavily; there were a lot of closing newsrooms. I was a sportscaster on TV and half the staff was gone. By the Ka‘ū Coffee Festival in 2009, we had a sense that this would be something we’d want to try.
I was not a specialty coffee drinker at all. It was more about Mama Lorie needing help and about the challenge of being independent and running my own business. My business aspirations had grown as I became a young adult and began working as a journalist. I spent years in a few companies owned by bigger investment and corporate structures and really wanted to try to do something more independently.
Being my own boss was always appealing to me, and when we moved out to Hawai‘i to work on coffee full time in 2011, I thought it would be the best opportunity I’d have to challenge myself.
Once I got out here, I started to enjoy learning about roasting and cupping, helping on the farm a bit. Just getting used to being out and about—Hawai‘i is such a wonderful place to be outside and enjoy the nature and the beauty that it brings.
HM: Where are you from originally?
RG: Mostly I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I was born in Syracuse. We lived there for a few years, then we lived in New Orleans, which is where my dad’s side of the family’s from, for a few years, and moved to Baltimore when I was about 8.
HM: What is your ethnicity?
RG: I’m Black, African American.
HM: Do you prefer one or the other?
RG: Um, it’s hard to keep up with the trends. I think when I was younger, the African American thing was a little—less so now—but yeah. Either one’s fine.
HM: Have you experienced racism in the coffee industry?
RG: I can’t say I’ve felt as much racism in the industry itself, since I’ve been in coffee, and I think that has to do with being out here on our own in the farming world in Pāhala.
I experienced racism of course growing up—like a lot of other younger Black men of my age I would be pulled over when driving a car, typically my mother’s car at the time, because she had a new Toyota. Being in New Orleans when I was a kid, 5years old, I got called the N word by a friend of mine and didn’t even know what it meant.
The coffee industry in general I know is dealing with a lot of racism, particularly in the café scenes in the cities, but I haven't experienced that much here. I will say that coffee as a crop is similar to sugar cane in that it’s a commodity crop and that always brings some issues for folks in Hawai‘i, with its history here as well as other places in the world. So the effects of colonialism and commodity crops and taking, etc., I definitely see and understand, but I can’t say personally I’ve had any racism in the industry.
The one thing that I would mention, a story I told my friends on Facebook, was something that happened in 2017. Every year we have the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference. All the people from the U.S. and internationally come to showcase their coffee. And I have been helping to run the Hawai‘i Coffee Association booth for several years. So in 2017, the show was in Seattle. What happened was, there was a shooting in downtown Seattle, so there was an active shooter hunt. The suspect had a general description of Black male with a beanie cap and a black jacket, 6feet tall. And this is maybe two and a half to three blocks from where I am, and they called the Seattle SWAT team out. So I’m in the area getting ready to go to FedEx to print flyers for the Hawai‘i Coffee Association booth and all the businesses start locking their doors. So I’m like, what’s going on, and they put a sign up in the door: “Active shooter, please get off the streets.” So in my mind, there’s two things I have to think about instead of just one: One, I have to get off the street, and two, I need to make sure that no one sees me as a suspect. Because I know that even though I’m taller—I’m 6-foot-4—and that my jacket was black and gray, it’s kind of too close for comfort, and I don’t want to be in a situation where I get mistaken and shot—that case I’ve seen and heard happen before.
So my thought process is: I’m going to go away from this. I’m going to take off my coat, take off my hat. I’m going to walk into a coffee shop two blocks away. Walk in, remain calm. Buy something, you know, maybe tell a joke, just to make sure everyone else is calm in my presence as well. You understand what I mean? So that no one’s looking at me like, where did he come from? Is he part of this or that?
As a Black man in America, one of the small things but very important things that’s seared in your mind is: I have to try to present myself in a nonthreatening way so that no one calls the police on me, as Amy Cooper did on the birdwatcher Christian Cooper. It’s that level of hyper vigilance that you always need.
HM: How does that feel?
RG: If you grew up your whole life with someone pressing on your chest and you’re used to it, that’s what it is. And it’s only when someone takes the pressure off and you’re like, oh wow, that’s what it’s like. Being out here, in a rural area of Hawai‘i, I don’t have to live with it as much. But I would never want to speak to other people’s experiences in Hawai‘i. I just know that here on the Big Island—as opposed to everything that I felt and how I perceived things on the Mainland where I grew up—is a lot different for me.
HM: Did you expect that when you moved to Hawai‘i?
RG: Honestly, I never thought about it. It’s assumed there are things you’re gonna have to deal with as a Black man—you learn a little bit from your parents, you learn from life experiences, that you’re going to be perceived a certain way and certain things are going to be tougher for you, and you just have to factor that in, keep going. So I didn’t think about how that aspect of it would be different. But as I’m living out here in the country—I’d never thought I’d be farming in my life—as I got comfortable and got to know people, I was like, Wow, I don’t have the same worries.
HM: What kind of changes would you want to see in the coffee industry?
RG: I think the representation does need some changing. We’re seeing a lot of stories come out of the specialty coffee industry right now that are exposing some of the ownership related issues. But there are also some really good companies full of enterprising young Black men and women, starting their own independent cafés and getting their own marketing message. I think that definitely on the upper level of importers, it’s still very corporate, and maybe not as inviting. We’re seeing folks who’ve had some bad experiences with companies that they went to and felt that they were dealing with some overt instances of racism in terms of commentary or perhaps job promotion.
In the Hawai‘i coffee community, it’s always been pretty diverse, pretty open—it’s a lot of former sugar cane workers as the base of the coffee industry. I think land ownership and small farm ownership is an issue here, but I think that goes across the board.
Reading about the cafés and racism on the Mainland is like, Wow, that’s a problem. The specialty coffee industry is, especially the past 10 years, it’s very weird. It’s kind of hipsterish. I think we need more different cultures and people of different ethnicities and races to get their own foothold and put their own imprint on the industry. It was interesting to see when we first got into it, coming out of local newsrooms for 10 years and then you’re all of a sudden dealing with the hipster culture.
HM: How so? What was it like?
RG: This is 2010, 2011, and all of a sudden, it’s suspenders and beards and glasses and all the craft beers and all that kind of stuff. Before, I wasn’t in the specialty coffee shops—the most I would do is go to Starbucks, maybe, for the wi-fi. So it was a totally different culture that I’m stepping into. It was interesting to observe while at the same time learning about the coffee itself. There’s a big difference between the culture of the baristas and importers and the producing countries and the processes and the labor there. There’s a split in that sense of who’s growing and picking the coffee and who’s roasting and serving. But I would say that’s beyond the issue of the American racial divide per se.
HM: Being in rural Pāhala on the Big Island, then, do you feel removed from the Black Lives Matter movement?
RG: I would say that we definitely feel like we’re still in the midst of it—just in a different way. We are having a lot of open talks with friends who maybe didn’t talk about this subject before, which is good, because we can explain, beyond the very visceral and easy to see on a video camera version of police brutality, which is obviously terrible, there are also different aspects of systemic racism. The history of redlining, for instance, or talking about how maybe it’s a little harder to get a home loan or things like that.
I had a story about my education when I was younger that surprised friends that I grew up with, about how much my mother had to fight to keep me in the honors classes. We had moved from New Orleans to Baltimore and the testing, I think, should have put me in the honors track but the school preferred to put me in the standard track. It’s just a fight that my other friend, who was in the same classes as me, never had to have.
So now we’ve been able to talk and have those kinds of conversations with people because they can see or feel that something’s not right. We explain to people the subtle systemic racism—it’s not a Jim Crow law that’s in black and white. It’s a bias that sometimes you can find in a system or in people in a system that you have to be vigilant about because you may have to fight against it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.