Not so long ago Starbucks announced that it would be encouraging its baristas to write #RaceTogether on their Starbucks cups in order to spark conversations about race. There was a huge social media backlash and this past weekend Starbucks announced that it was pulling the initiative – but went on to say that this was always part of the plan and that inserts will still be included in a couple of American papers.
Part of me wants to applaud Starbucks and its CEO around this initiative, and part of me thinks that it was a marketing #fail. Kudos for want to get people talking, to spark a dialogue, to encourage people in their everyday lives to acknowledge what a difficult conversation this is to have and how deeply race affects lives in the States. However, asking your baristas to potentially spark a conversation about race by writing #racetogether on cups of patrons, and then have a deep and meaning conversation with said patrons?
My main question is whether or not Starbucks offered training to its staff so that they were equipped to discuss race relations? I’m not suggesting that your average barista doesn’t have opinions about race, I am suggesting that if you’re asking them to start a dialogue with customers about race that they should be better informed the regular passer-by.
Starbucks’ pulling the campaign doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I think it’s what many of us hoped would happen when the campaign was first announced.
What the article below points out that I appreciate is that there are quite possibly better places to discuss a difficult topic such as race. When I dash into a coffee shop, for example a Starbucks, I’m looking to grab my coffee or muffin, and continue on my way. I don’t necessarily have the time (or want to take the time) to discuss race with a barista. It’s an incredibly public setting and it’s entirely possible I don’t want to stop for five minutes and have my opinions aired for all the other customers (waiting for their coffee and muffin). It’s not that I’m worried about what anyone else would think. It’s more that I doubt if someone disagreed with me that I would be able to change anyone’s opinion. And if the staff aren’t trained to mediate a conversation that is potentially quite charged… I don’t see that ending happily for anyone.
First up in the realm of unfathomable embarrassment, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has rolled out an immediately self-parodic corporate initiative called “Race Together,” in which—according to Fortune—”Starbucks baristas will have the option as they serve customers to hand cups on which they’ve handwritten the words ‘Race Together’ and start a discussion about race.”
It sounds like a joke, but the sincere-looking and distinctively pale hands holding “Race Together” cups on the Starbucks press rollout seem very serious, and apparently this horrible idea pops off at 12,000 locations starting this week.
Here’s how the company explains the origin of Race Together:
As racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country, the chairman and ceo of Starbucks didn’t remain a silent bystander. Howard Schultz voiced his concerns with partners (employees) in the company’s Seattle headquarters and started a discussion about race in America.
Dang. That’s brave.
Despite raw emotion around racial unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, “we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” 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.”
Really, how might they imagine this going down? “Crazy about all that racism out there,” the barista will say to the customer. No matter what the customer replies, it’ll be fucking horrible.
First, ordering coffee from a chain store is an act that necessarily takes place under conditions—quick, perfunctory, corporately polite—that are exactly oppositional to the conditions necessary to talk about race. Second, if you’re gonna allude to Mike Brown and Eric Garner in the press release, it’s an interesting move to paint race in America as some sort of confusing, nebulous issue in which one must just wade in gently without pointing fingers. Ferguson, for one, is an American story with both blame and answers at the ready. What Schultz euphemistically calls “these issues in America” is the racial climate inevitable in a country that was founded on white supremacy, sustained by white supremacy, and is still dramatically marked by it today.
But just as race manages to continue disguising itself as an issue with “no easy answers,” self-righteousness will continue to look like discourse—and, of course, those baristas are making $10 an hour, which seems ample for being encouraged to essentially live inside the real-life equivalent of an internet comments section, i.e. “talk to complete strangers about race at Starbucks.” It’s actually not a bad idea! I personally feel extremely grateful to Howard Schultz for finally saying what no one is bold enough to—what’s up with all this race stuff lately, guys?
As a starting point to encourage all Jezebel readers to take part in racial dialogue at Starbucks, I’d like to suggest that we, as customers, bring it up first. Don’t wait for that scribbled little “Race Together” wink on your cup, or that USA Today supplement that’ll ask you whether or not you even have any black friends. Go ahead and signify to your barista that you’re “down,” but like, not in a way that suggests you are trying to appropriate African-American culture, just like, down to chat, down to say is it racist that I kinda want cornrows OR hey, I see your name is Priya, that means dot Indian instead of feather Indian, right, just kidding I am aping the language of the oppressor rather than replicating it; it’s subversive OR hi Beau, am I correct that the Confederacy is heritage and not discrimination OR it’s a shame that people who look like the two of us are concentrated in low-wage occupations OR damn so crazy about all those unarmed black people that keep getting killed!
My prayers are with all the Starbucks employees who are going to be united across their own racial rainbow with the extreme discomfort of dealing with this Race Together campaign. On that note, here are some ideas for how you can order your coffee now.
• “Room for cream, please. But there’s no room for ‘cream,’ so to speak, in my pussy. I am opposed to having intercourse with white men. Haven’t they benefited enough?”
• “Black is fine. For my tall drip coffee, at least. Black people in America have faced hundreds of years of social and legal barriers that have left lingering, painful wounds.”
• “Light roast with a little half-and-half. If you can’t tell, I’m ‘half-and-half’ myself, although both the one-drop rule and the popular imagination label me as black. It is what it is—although I can say the N-word and you probably can’t.”
• “I’ll have three quad espressos—one shot for each factor by which white household net worth in America outpaces black net worth. Sorry, is this awkward? I thought Carl would be working this morning. I actually don’t know the stats for Asians. But you look well-educated—those cultures really value hard work.”
• “Caramel macchiato. By the way, I’d never refer to your beautiful skin as ‘caramel,’ even though it does look good enough to eat. Racists are horrible, am I right?”
• “Flat white, like the general demographics in Scandinavia. You know that’s the only reason they’re able to sustain the economics of a social safety net, because they don’t have to deal with the complicating factors of diversity like we do in America. Diversity is good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s resulting in white people being the most hated group in America.”
• *writes Class Together on $5 bill* “It’s more class than race, anyway.”
Further suggestions welcome.
Image via Starbucks