Howard Schultz, the CEO of globally dominant coffee chain Starbucks, wants to talk to you about race in the strangest way possible: By having baristas write “Race Together” on cups and pushing conversations about the “racially-charged tragedies unfold[ing] in communities across the country.” Schultz’s heart may be in the right place, but I still think this is a terrible idea.
Before I write the idea off entirely, I think it’s important to note that based on a short video Starbucks posed on their news site, the idea seems to have come from Starbucks employees, many of whom used the open forums Starbucks organized to speak honestly about how racism affects their daily lives. Baristas put up with an unimaginable heap of bullshit throughout the day in the form of wink-wink-nudge-nudge racist jokes and unwanted sexual advances simply because they’re a captive audience; I pulled coffee for a long time, and it’s not surprising to me that people who spend all day talking to customers would want that conversation to be a bit more meaningful. It’s hard to put your life on hold when your personality and ability to be friendly is directly tied to the tips you earn. It’s hard to engage with people superficially about seasonal spiced blends when you’re screaming inside for someone to look in their own backyard and notice the ongoing genocide of an entire race of people.
I commend Starbucks employees for wanting a forum to talk about their feelings, and their CEO for giving them one. But I take a hard turn at thinking it’s possible to bring that level of care to a national conversation by writing “Race Together” on a cup without acknowledging that our historical inability to even acknowledge racial issues is what brought us to this apex of racial tension in the first place.
It’s the height of liberal American idealism and a staggering act of hubris to think we can solve our systemic addiction to racism over a Frappucino.
As you can imagine, Twitter clamped down on this news like a pair of vise grips.
That last tweet is particularly damning, considering the Starbucks Leadership Team is whiter than a snow-covered wedding dress. I just moved back to New York after living in Seattle for two years (where Starbucks started and still has its headquarters), and can confirm for you that I have never lived in a whiter city, where white people comprise just under 70% of the population. This seems like a clear case of the bourgeoisie pushing the proletariat to do the heavy lifting while their own lives carry on unchanged. And isn’t that always the way? Perhaps this conversation about race should start in Schultz’s own backyard.