You may have about a week ago about Starbucks amazing new plan to deal with race problems in America. It’s called “Race Together” and involves a barista writing those words on your coffee cup to start a conversation with you about race. Nothing could ever go wrong with asking a low paid employee to try to have a deep and difficult conversation with someone who is buying a $5 cup of coffee and just wants to caffeinate and GTFO.
You may also have heard a couple of days ago about how Starbucks decided to nix their absolutely brilliant plan (although not the whole campaign. They’re definitely still committed to talking about race, and this is in no way a reaction to all the people who told them what a stupid idea it was). So what happened? What’s wrong with asking your workers to engage in a discussion that is totally irrelevant to their job? Let’s take a moment to dive in to some of the reactions and reasons that this was the actual worst way to approach race in America.
Let’s start with the serious problems this creates for the poor barista. These people are not paid nearly enough to deal with the highly touchy and nuanced subject of race, nor are they provided with any training about how to start these conversations. Also somehow they have to balance “the customer is always right” with “that was an incredibly racist thing to say, you asshole”. It’s all too easy to imagine this initiative backfiring on the baristas who have far less money and power than the folks who decided the whole thing was a good idea.
There’s also the problem that setting up conversations about race is something that takes a lot of practice and work. Some people spend their whole lives facilitating these types of conversations, and they have to set up some serious ground rules to keep things civil and useful. Usually conversations about race require a lot of basic education about concepts like structural racism and privilege. Usually there’s also some sort of moderator to keep things from getting out of hand, cruel, or straight out offensively racist. There is literally no way for any of these helpful ground rules to be set in a two minute interaction while a line of people are growing impatient for their morning espresso. A useful conversation about race cannot be had in 20 seconds.
It’s also worth noting the language that Starbucks used to introduce the campaign: “we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” CEO Howard Schultz said. “Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.” They refer to a race problem. Nowhere do they mention “racism”. America’s problem is less about the ability to talk about race and more about the ability to talk about racism, but Starbucks doesn’t feel the need to bring up that little issue. They appear to be taking no stand on things like police brutality, or the killing of people of color. That’s worrisome at best.
As the cherry on top of this “we have no idea how to actually contribute” cake, the news releases refer to Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but there is no Starbucks to be found in the entirety of Ferguson or in the neighborhood where Garner lived. As Twitter user @duanecia pointed out
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”><p>The arrival of Starbucks is typically a key indicator of gentrification in low-income communities. But, <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/RaceTogether?src=hash”>#RaceTogether</a></p>— dae (@Duanecia) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Duanecia/status/577819636038787072″>March 17, 2015</a></blockquote>
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While it’s entirely possible that this was all a misguided but well-intentioned attempt at discussing race, it’s not a big surprise that it ended so prematurely. It might be time for Starbucks bigwigs to spend some time in a conversation about race with people who actually study it.