Starbucks is in hot water after launching a campaign that encourages baristas to talk about race relations with customers.
Critics have been lashing out at the company on social media, saying Starbucks is trying to capitalize on racial tension in the US.
Following the backlash, Starbucks’ senior vice president of communications, Corey duBrowa, deleted his Twitter account, which only added to critics’ outrage.
[L]ast night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create. To be clear, Race Together isn’t about me, it’s about we: and having heard first-hand the number of stories our partners (at Starbucks we call our employees “partners”) shared with us in the open forums of the past few months, I have thought long and hard about the passion, concerns and painful experiences our people across the country have endured, and wanting to make sure they felt supported by their company.
So no matter how ugly the discussion has been since I shut my account down, I’m reaffirming my belief in the power of meaningful, civil, thoughtful, respectful open conversation — on Twitter and everywhere else. I believe in it personally, and Starbucks believes in it at the core of our company’s values. It’s this belief that led us to host a series of open forums with our partners in some of the communities most affected by the recent flareups of racial tension across the country. In those meetings, we heard loud and clear that we, as a company, have an opportunity to engage on this topic, no matter how difficult.
As a barista, I worked first in the inner city in Raleigh, NC, and now at a licensed store at my school in the mountains, Western Carolina University. I haven’t been a victim of racial tensions, but I see how many of my customers are. We have many exchange students from Saudi Arabia. When I ask for their name to write on the cup they tell me to write ‘M’ because they have given up trying to tell people how to spell Mohammed. Probably the most eye opening experience I had was with a gentleman named Hussain. I know his name, because after months of simply writing “M” I encouraged him to open up to me. He said that even though he can tell I am kind, he cannot stand the looks people give him when we call Hussain at the end of the bar. I was ashamed of my fellow students for how judgmental they are being. People are being scared out of their own names because of the racism that blatantly poisons our country.
I hope all the partners know that the kindness that we practice every day at work makes an impact on our customers – especially those who are impacted by racism. I am proud to work for a company that is an equal opportunity employer, who does not discriminate based on race, religion, or sexual preference. We set a new standard for other companies to follow and we should be proud. I know I am.
The smart, cocky cynicism in response to Starbucks’ effort is one big reason it is so hard to get to the good part of a real, informative conversation on any topic, including race relations. It is not only that whites might fear being called racist and tapping into guilty feelings while blacks fear being told they have a chip on their shoulders and play the victim/race card. It is also Hispanics, Asians and recent immigrants biting their tongues about the racial stereotypes they face as they are forced to listen as blacks and whites dominate their limited, two-way, jousting about slavery, its legacy and even “micro-aggressions” of “white privilege.”
No one knows when they might hear an eye-opening insight; hear a compelling thought or an inspiring story. But the cynical pose closes the door to those moments…
[E]ven in this new age of a far more diverse America racial progress can only happen when we become more honest, less embarrassed, less content to stay in our comfort zone and snicker at our cynical thoughts…
So here is a tip of the coffee cup to a big American corporation, Starbucks, and its wealthy CEO, Howard Schultz, for using their platform to advance the kind of honest conversation that in the tradition of American patriots produces real change and revolution.
The problem with Howard Schultz’s Race Together program is that he’s picked the wrong venue with the wrong audience using the wrong spokespersons. Most of the customers at Starbucks probably don’t want to have their political awareness challenged by the person foaming their coffee. Minds are more likely to be changed by someone with some form of expertise in the subject, which baristas generally don’t have. Those who do wish to engage in a conversation about something as volatile as race are not open to change, they are either already the choir of believers in equality or are racists looking for an audience. Either way, no change will result from the exchange. In fact, I worry that such conversations could quickly escalate to violence…
[But] Schultz is right in understanding that we can’t depend on our leaders to eradicate racism. Schultz sees ending racism as a grass roots campaign that starts with the people and swells until it forces politicians to act like leaders. To achieve this, we need to educate the target audience of those who are open-minded enough to be persuaded by facts. Then we need to keep presenting those facts over and over until awareness is finally achieved. That’s when there will be progress.
Even though Howard Schultz’s idea may be flawed, he’s acting out of the desire to help realize the vision of America — to save it from its own worst impulses. He’s like the highly moral character of Starbuck in Moby Dick trying to stop the blasphemous actions of Ahab. As another character warns, “You’re in dangerous waters, Mr. Starbuck! Come on over; come about.”
Don’t stop trying, Mr. Starbuck.
When it’s my turn, I order a small coffee and glance at all the people on line behind me. It’s so many people—at least enough to fill a jury box. If the barista and I are to have an effective meditation on identity politics, all of these people are going to be made to wait. It’s the first time that the wild impracticality of this campaign, as I understand it, fully dawns on me. Could Schultz really expect people on line to patiently wait while the barista and I—and the rest of America, by extension—make inroads toward unity? Perhaps once I start the conversation, an assistant would come along and take me aside so that we may approach enlightenment more privately…
After visiting the next two neighboring Starbucks in quick succession, it’s become clear that nobody on either side of the counter wants to talk about race. They want to talk about coffee, and transacting around it as expeditiously as science allows. (What I’d rather talk about at this point is how many people pay for coffee with their phones now instead of their wallets. Did this just become a thing overnight? And if not, then where the hell have I been?) In both the second and third visit, I placed my coffee order and, upon receiving it, asked what happens if I want to talk about race. The baristas at both spots, both of whom are black, seem only vaguely familiar with the concept. They just know they’re supposed to write #RaceTogether on the sides of some coffee cups. One of their managers hears my question and explains that the promotion hasn’t actually begun…
No corporation can force people to have an honest conversation about America’s race problem. They’ll either have one or they won’t. Simply presenting them with the opportunity, though, doesn’t even raise awareness of the matter; it just raises awareness of Starbucks’s awareness. The more you pat yourself on the back for being conscious of an issue, the more it seems like exploitation. What kind of positive change could actually come from a large number of people knowing that Starbucks wants people to talk about race? I don’t know. Nothing.
The whole campaign reminded me so much of this story from 2004, when an American Airlines pilot got on the loudspeaker and asked passengers who were Christian to raise their hands. Then he suggested to the ones who raised their hands that they spend the remainder of the flight trying to convert those who hadn’t. The passengers were so confused by the request that they wondered if the pilot was a terrorist.
Listen, I love few things more than sharing the good news that Jesus has triumphed over sin, death and Satan with others and I hate racism. But there’s a reason why the American Airlines pilot and the Starbucks approaches freak people out! Yes, part of it is that there’s a time and place to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and discuss difficult social problems. But also, these things are highly ineffective when done outside of a personal relationship…
Simply flying a plane to the best of your ability and bringing hundreds of passengers safely from one point to another is a great way to serve your neighbor. You don’t need to hand out cross pins or get on the loudspeaker and introduce people to Jesus to make it a good work.
Likewise, making a latte to the best of your ability and cheerfully interacting with customers is a great way to serve your neighbor. You don’t need to write “race together” on the cup and begin a conversation about how many Asian friends you have to make it a good work.
If Starbucks wants us to talk about race, let’s start with why they don’t have Starbucks Coffee Houses in some of America’s cities that are mostly black, or have had a racially charged history?…
There is not a Starbucks in East St. Louis, Illinois, in which 98 percent of the population is African-American. Nor is there one in Gary, Indiana, whose population is 85 percent African-American.
The recent remembrance of the march on Selma, Alabama had the president walking down the street with many people who fought for civil rights, but once again, Selma doesn’t have a Starbucks. Neither does Ferguson, Missouri.
Here is the point, if Starbucks wants to have a conversation about race, perhaps they should explain why they are not accessible to most of those they claim to advocate for and champion. If being of a different race than white is higher on their list of desirables, why isn’t Starbucks putting their money where their mouth is?
— Hellix Marcelius (@hellixmarcelius) March 20, 2015
— John Groves (@jfgroves) March 20, 2015
It’s time to have a national conversation about one of the most sensitive, controversial issues in American culture, the stain on our national honor: Coffee. American coffee is now and always has been revolting, and it behooves us to look deep into our souls to understand why we overpay for muck at Starbucks…
Starbucks … burns low-grade coffee beans in order to persuade its customers that they are drinking something sophisticated and European. Because the flavor is unpleasant, Americans saturate it with milk.
It’s time to address this national disgrace. The next time you meet a Starbucks barista, start a serious conversation: does he or she have no shame in foisting this fraud upon the American public? How can we as a people maintain our self-esteem if we pay top dollar for the excrescence of incinerated low-grade coffee beans? Take the time to have this important conversation and to save our national soul.