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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18 Responses to “Let’s slow down this race, together: Starbucks and a bad hashtag”

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  2. Katan Scott says:

    Starbucks: Let’s talk about race relations so we can rob you blind.

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  4. Brittney Miles says:

    You call Starbucks a third space, while the cited article
    refers to it as a third place. Please do not conflate the different relational
    politics of space and place. Place is ever-present and acted upon. Space is
    constructed and engaged with through participation. Place can rarely be “safe”, unless space is
    constructed within it, as only self-defined and constructed spaces can truly be safe. There is no inherent
    trust in place but there is in space. The difference between the two relies on
    understanding and acknowledging the power dynamics of belonging and
    participating – very relevant in race-based dialogue.

    Just to recognize; you do effectively use place later: “Sense of place and
    localization has long been a cherished…”.

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  6. gratuitous says:

    Agree and disagree. Agree that our society should be asking better citizenship from our corporate citizens. Agree that there should have been more intentionality behind the campaign, particularly in training the employees. Maybe some “table topics” coasters or cup sleeves with a statement or question designed to encourage a conversation?

    Disagree that this is a flop. No, it didn’t solve every racial problem in America in four days. But as a now-forgotten pastor I heard once sermonized: If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Yeah, Starbucks may or may not be the Chosen Vehicle to Achieve Racial Harmony, but who is, and what are they doing to spark a nationwide discussion? As the epistle says, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”

  7. Indigo says:

    I’ll miss his soft-core skin shots.

  8. Indigo says:

    Bitter coffee and artificial confrontationalism . . . smells like something Seattle.

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  12. BeccaM says:

    Bam. ^ This.

    It also has the distinct aroma of ‘pink-washing.’

  13. BeccaM says:

    That’s why I said the other day I think over the weekend or early this week, Schock’s recently hired ‘ethics advisers’ and attorneys probably sat him down and told him he had no choice but to resign, to contain the damage.

    From what I’ve been reading, the House ethics stuff would probably go nowhere and end up with nothing but a reprimand. Maybe, as in the case of the falsified mileage claims, requiring Schock reimburse the money.

    But the dude was also tapping his campaign funds for personal expenses — and then lying as to the reasons for them — and that’s where isn’t not that hard to run afoul of the law. Likewise, his many real estate and investment deals with campaign donors.

  14. 2karmanot says:

    Here today, thong tomorrow.

  15. Glen Thompson says:

    Damn, I’m not a male stripper so I guess I can’t claim my thongs as a business expense.

  16. nicho says:

    OT: We have the answer to the question that was on everyone’s lips — Why is Schock resigning?

    WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has launched a formal criminal investigation into the office and campaign expenses of resigning Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock, as well as his personal business dealings with political donors, a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press on Friday.
    The government was convening a federal grand jury in Springfield, Illinois, and the FBI has begun issuing subpoenas to compel people close to the Republican congressman to testify, the person said. The person spoke only on grounds of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the case. The grand jury was hearing testimony in early April, according to the subpoenas.

    Schock abruptly resigned on Tuesday, citing a “heavy heart,” following six weeks of revelations about his business deals and lavish spending on trips, mileage reimbursements and office decor in the style of “Downton Abbey.”

  17. 2karmanot says:

    This from Digby: “The ploy is to get the rich white people who buy their overpriced coffee
    — and the poor white people who serve them their overpriced coffee —
    to forget all about wealth inequality and the class war, and have an
    awkward concern-trolling conversation about black people instead.”
    Ouch! It just spoiled my half decaf, espresso, soy, a tad of vanilla, no foam, extra hot—–latte morning!

  18. pricknick says:

    Asking a corp like starbucks to start a national conversation is like going to starbucks for good coffee.
    Bad idea. Remember, this is the same bunch that came out against medical marijuana a few years ago.

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