Let’s slow down this race, together: Starbucks and a bad hashtag

Careful: The beverage you are about to enjoy is an extremely hot topic.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had the well-intentioned but hazardously naive idea a few months ago to encourage discussion of race in America by having Starbucks baristas physically hashtag their customers’ drinks with #RaceTogether. Asking people what they think about race relations before they’ve had their coffee? What could possibly go wrong? The campaign rolled out this week and immediately fell flatter than a half-milk, half-espresso order.

While the hashtag sparked a scalding wave of rage and controversy, the thought that originated the campaign was commendable. As everyone’s favorite socially responsible CEO explained in an internal email, he felt that the moral weight that accompanied leading a business with 182,000 employees meant that he could not stand by and say nothing. He urged others to join him in a candid, respectful dialogue, rather than “continue to come to work every day aware of the difficult and painful experiences facing our nation, and not acknowledge them”

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The idea for promoting a grassroots discussion came from a cathartic internal meeting at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle back in December. In response to the Berkeley protests, he called an impromptu open forum — a safe space where internal team members were urged to speak and listen from the heart, resulting in an uncomfortable, yet enlightening, learning experience for all. For this, I applaud Schultz for facilitating a constructive and powerful moment of conversation.

However, one can imagine that the leadership, teambuilding and communication talents present at Starbucks HQ are not as concentrated in every staff of each #RaceTogether cafe location nationwide. Furthermore, although Starbucks may be a third space — there is nothing that makes it a “safe” space to be vulnerable and trusting with strangers who are driven by part-time employment, commuting and caffeine habits. Also, putting employees on the receiving end of possible backlash is irresponsible and poorly thought out.

The Internet has united in gleefully trashing the campaign.  Starbucks’s SVP of Communications deleted his Twitter, which fueled more gleeful hate, despite his fair explanation that he was taking a temporary Twitter break because he felt “personally attacked…and the tweets represented a distraction from the respectful conversation we are trying to start around Race Together.”

Many are rolling their eyes at the fact that a huge corporation dared to be anything more than a huge corporation. Others see it as an inappropriate marketing ploy.

I disagree. I believe big companies can, and should, make a difference where they are able, and that employees should feel supported in expressing opinions, even on the job. Schultz is correct when he writes that, “doing what is right for society and doing what is right for business cannot be mutually exclusive endeavors.”

This intersection of social good and business does come across as particularly Starbucksy. And by that I mean this: Walk into any Starbucks location, and you’ll probably be faced with beautiful, ethnographic photos of farmers in fields half a world away, or black and white snaps from around that particular cafe’s city. The bagged beans you pick up likely have an evocative story of their origin, making you feel just that much more mindful of your consumer decisions. Sense of place and localization has long been a cherished and very visible part of what makes Starbucks so successful and charismatic. By engaging with race relations in certain cities and in this country right now, Starbucks means to bring that same feeling of connectedness and awareness to a crisis that really does merit everyone’s brainpower in addressing and solving.

However, the scalability is completely off on this particular project. What was a positive experience for a room of people in Seattle might be an upsetting, destructive, even downright dangerous one for Starbucks employees in, say, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Starbucks’ leadership has rightly been criticized for providing little to no training in racial dialogue for its employees, who can opt in to scribbling on people’s drinks but in general aren’t sure what to say after that. Do you feel like sharing a personal experience with racism? Do you know about how our society perpetuates slavery? Do you want room in your cup for cream?


Different colors of coffee, via Azmega

Here in sunny SoCal, my Starbucks barista winced and gestured to a full roll of “RaceTogether” stickers, stuffed out of sight behind the register. “We had practically no training,” he told me. “It was just the managers, who sat in on a half-hour conference call.” Still, it’s been good for raising awareness, and responses have been fairly civil, if disinterested — “at least around here,” he says, pointedly nodding to the street outside featuring a Lululemon, a Tiffany’s and an Urban Outfitters. “But, west coast, it’s not as big a thing… I imagine you get more people who care as you go east.”

In a former job, I led high school study abroad programs to South Korea’s 38th parallel as part of a four-week training on non-violent communication, critical thinking and cross-cultural learning. My students considered grand themes like “peace” for the first time beyond the occasion of school assemblies and themed-history-month projects and, by the end of the program, were beginning to implement vocabulary and strategies for healthy, constructive debate.

While amazingly effective, this kind of education isn’t included in the Common Core. Most high school students, even college students, won’t find ready chances to practice the sort of communication that Schultz asks of us.

What struck home for me in Schultz’s letter was the mission he underlined in conclusion, sounding so much like the words I’ve told my students: “Today, we choose to act in a way that is authentic to us, by nurturing a sense of community and bringing people together through the lens of humanity. At this trying time, it is important for all of us to be open and to be present.”

Authentic. Community. Humanity. Open and present. Values that we all need to learn, but realistically, won’t come from our five-minute detour through the coffee line.

So the hashtag was embarrassing, and the campaign was a flop. There’s still no need to boycott the chain or dismiss it as a marketing fail. If we want our faceless corporations to remain faceless, then we should probably stop demanding a more human side from them. However, if we want our big companies to be aware of their impact and attempt some change, we should expect human mistakes along the way as well.

Ultimately, Schultz’s idea had a lot of merit. Instead of uniting in deriding it, we should take the invitation in its intended spirit. America might not have liked that Starbucks assigned them a discussion topic, but that doesn’t mean that the discussion is any less urgent or important to have.

Ariana Chomitz is a Kenyon College graduate with a B.A. in Anthropology. A specialist in international and experiential education, she has lived, studied and taught in urban Asia. She likes talking about culture, education and the environment.

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