Starbucks is weighing in on the race issue in America, encouraging its baristas and customers to have frank conversations with each other about race. Because that’s why you go to Starbucks right? I know I visit them for the riveting and in-depth conversations I can get into with baristas on hot social issues:
Earlier this week, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asked the employees at the 7,300 company-operated Starbucks stores in the U.S. to voluntarily write #RaceTogether on those iconic paper cups. This would be the first step toward initiating conversation with the consumer on race relations.
But the campaign has been quickly mocked, with many calling it “tone-deaf” and “insensitive.”
Is it a naive attempt to get America talking about diversity, one Caramel Macchiato at a time? A cynical ploy to foster goodwill and sell more coffee? Or, as a hopeful few appear to believe, any start to create a meaningful dialogue is a good start?
Hmmm. Perhaps Starbucks is reducing the caffeine content in its coffee, and it wants to use inflammatory conversations to get its customers going in the morning? Who knows. But this is probably a bad idea. For lots of reasons. One, Starbucks is about the whitest company you know. As some have pointed out, the press photos for this campaign have only white hands in them.
Second, how can these conversations even happen? Are baristas supposed to stop working to talk? About what?
Barista: I see you want room for cream. Is that because you don’t like black people?
Customer: No. I just don’t like black coffee. There is a difference.
Barista: Oh, but is there?
Many people have complained that this move is another white paternalistic attempt to control the dialogue about race. And one of the main faults here is that dialogue about race rarely ever occurs, even in ideal forums. People who are not racist and people who are have largely made up their minds already. Consequently, any conversation about race quickly devolves into either meaningless agreement or violent antagonism. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted:
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.
Indeed. But there’s at least one great thing about this new campaign: if you don’t like the race conversation going on at one Starbucks, you can always go to the other Starbucks across the street.