Let's talk about the firestorm surrounding Starbucks' new "Race Together" discussion
This week, if you drop by Starbucks to get a coffee, you may find yourself swept into a conversation about the state of race in America. And that’s not by coincidence, it’s by design. CEO Howard Schultz announced that this week, baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations are encouraged to start a conversation about race relations by scrawling “Race Together” on customers’ cups. The company also took out full-page ads about the campaign in both USA Today and The New York Times.
Schultz was inspired to launch “Race Together” after a forum with Starbucks employees in December. “We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” Schultz said in a press release.. “Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.”
That’s a noble goal, to be sure, and the idea of actively engaging in a conversation about race rather than sweeping it under the rug is commendable. But the execution of the idea — placing the burden of starting a contentious conversation on baristas — is something that Starbucks is coming under a lot of scrutiny for. Also, many are saying that Starbucks is trying to financially capitalize on racial tensions in the U.S. Not good.
The backlash was bad enough that Starbucks’ senior vice president of communications, Corey duBrowa, deleted his Twitter account because he felt “personally attacked.” That of course launched even more backlash.
At Entrepreneur, Kate Taylor argues that the campaign could be actively detrimental to Starbucks’ employees. “Currently, a customer trying to vocalize a complicated order can slow down the line and annoy others waiting,” Taylor wrote. “Can you imagine the holdup associated with attempting to have a nuanced and expansive discussion of racism in America?”
And furthermore, it could put employees in the position of fielding racial harassment at their jobs. “Putting this immense task on workers, even if it is voluntary, is taxing and unfair,” Taylor added.
Over at Fusion, Danielle Henderson also wonders how effective a campaign like this is. “I commend Starbucks employees for wanting a forum to talk about their feelings, and their CEO for giving them one,” she wrote. “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.”
The reaction on Twitter ranges from skeptical to scathing:
Talking about race in this country is incredibly important, and its an interesting and bold move to try to bring it to a place where Americans from all walks of life regularly interact. But it’s also one that puts an undue burden on service workers, on the people in the lower echelons of the company command structure, while letting the guys at the top continue on as they always have. And that’s not a real conversation, at least not one that has the potential to really change things.