My Top 10 Reasons Why Starbucks’ “Race Together” Initiative Is A Doomed, Hot Mess

I'm not buying it.
Publish date:
March 17, 2015
race, activism, Starbucks, #racetogether

Starbucks has announced that through a program called Race Together, baristas at locations across the country are encouraged to discuss race relations with customers. This is gonna be a hard “no” from me. Here’s why:


Whether you say “Race Together,” I just don’t know what you mean. I get what Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz thinks it might mean. But it’s such a clunky mash-up of “race” and “come together” or “togetherness” or something that it telegraphs vagueness right out of the gate.

This is the name the guy in the meeting proposes when he’s hungover and ready to quit his job but he has to say something because the boss pointed to him; not the actual name that you go with. In my head, I keep hearing Jerry Stiller shout “RACE TOGETHER!” the way he shouted “Serenity Now!” as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld, circling his Festivus pole. Great comedy, which I take just about as seriously.

It’s Born of a False Premise.

Starbucks, led by Mr. Schultz, has absolutely made progressive choices for which he and the organization should be commended, but this smacks of an initiative for which he wants to be commended first while leaving pesky details like genuine progress to be figured out later on.

In December, Mr. Schultz convened a meeting of Starbucks “partners” (company code for all employees) to hold a conversation about race relations because, as he said in a letter distributed to all U.S. partners, “I have watched with a heavy heart as tragic events and unrest have unfolded across America, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, California.”

As detailed in the Starbucks website announcement about Race Together, that meeting at the “Starbucks Support Center,” and subsequent meetings held at locations across the country included partners sharing personal stories of experiences with racial bias and discrimination. That sounds moving, indeed.

So how do we go from voluntary meetings on an equal plane to this, from the Race Together statement:

“Given their willingness to discuss race relations, many partners wanted to begin conversations with their customers too. Partners in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland and Los Angeles have voluntarily begun writing “Race Together” on Starbucks cups. Partners in all Starbucks stores in the U.S. will join them today. Partners in Starbucks® stores may also engage customers in conversation through Race Together stickers available in select stores, and a special USA Today newspaper section arriving in stores later this week.”

That’s an awfully big reach and a helluva lot of branding. And the emphasis on “wanted to” and “voluntarily” makes me think Lady Starbucks doth protest too much. So you mean to tell me that a “partner” (or partners) working as baristas came up with that terrible moniker, contacted USA Today about co-marketing, drafted these press releases and statements, ordered stickers (?!)…I’m not buying it.

Are We All Qualified To Discuss Race In a Productive Fashion?

When I say I don’t think that the baristas themselves came up with this deeply branded corporate campaign, I’m speaking to the logistics of a corporate rollout and the whiff of false earnestness about the proceedings, not any perceived inability on the part of baristas.

To assume that anyone working as a Starbucks barista is not intelligent or couldn’t be articulate on the topic of race relations in America would be heinous. I’ve also seen stuffier criticism of Race Together that paints every Starbucks employee as a 19-year-old hipster with facial piercings and not a thought in their head, which I think is unfair.

However, while I don’t assume the worst of Starbucks baristas, I also don’t think it’s appropriate to expect anyone to be learned on the topic of race relations in a way that would make broaching the topic with strangers in this way even remotely effective. I would never presume anything of anyone working as a Starbucks barista that I don’t know to be true, and rather than underestimate someone, I would actually like to think that loads of baristas may have valuable insight to share on race relations. Even a 19-year-old, and even the heavily pierced! (gasp!)

But they shouldn’t have to do so in the course of their regular work.

This country’s next great civil rights leader could be pouring coffee in a Starbucks right now, and they could have crafted the perfect #RaceTogether statement to make in the time it takes to ring up that transaction. What if they deliver it to someone who, for any number of reasons, reacts poorly? Do they deserve a possible negative reaction from a stranger?

I hate to be a cynic, but bullshit like this brings it out in me. What if someone is prone to racially-charged violence and they’re suddenly being challenged on race relations by the barista making their latte? The very fact that we are witnessing so much racially charged bias and unrest, allegedly the reason for this initiative in the first place, speaks to the monstrous and unpredictable nature of it. Why put your employees in that position, even potentially? Change should be top down, not fall on the shoulders of those in the caffeinated trenches.

On the most basic level, don’t baristas already have loads of directly-job-related things to do? With the amount of beverage combinations, CD sales, merch to organize, pastries to lay out, savory sandwiches to cook, etc. etc. etc., I just don’t think Starbucks baristas need the state of race relations in America heaped onto their shoulders as well. Speaking of having things to do…

Who Has Time For This; I Want My Coffee!

The hypothetical civil rights leader of tomorrow that I just referenced would have had to work very hard to say something significant in the time from order to payment. I know there are some lovely baristas who get to know their regular customers and make chit-chat, but even so, they can only linger to chat when both parties have that luxury of time and are willing, which is a rarity in Starbucks.

What is far more common is a long line and baristas busting their asses to accommodate everyone as quickly as possible. So are we now going to wax rhapsodic about Dr. King’s dream in a pointless super-fast fashion or are we going to hold up the line? Are you going to take off your apron and have a deep talk about black lives lost to police violence or maybe write the name of one of the deceased on my coffee cup for further discussion when I come in for my cappuccino tomorrow morning? And where is this happening, exactly? Are we leaning over the counter or are you shouting over the register? Which brings me to…

Location, Location, Location.

I don’t want to have a conversation about something that I take seriously while standing in a coffee line or by the coffee pickup area or at any point in between, separated by a barrier from the person I’m talking to, possibly shouting over the sound of those high-powered Frappucino blenders. I just don’t.

But Who Even Gets To Have These Conversations?

Any way you slice it, this is pretty much going to involve some form of racial profiling. From the employee(s) doing the chatting to the recipients of the chat, how is this to be determined? I’m picturing a shift manager looking at baristas and maybe making more eye contact with those who are racial minorities when discussing this. Or, heaven forbid anyone think it’s the responsibility of white staffers, in some cockamamie expression of White Guilt?

And whoever is doing the talking, are they going to look for people who just give off an air of willingness to discuss race when they order their beverage? People who only order black coffee? People who look extra race-y?

Uninformed Conversation On Serious Topics Is ill-Advised.

Going back to the benefit of the doubt, even an informed person would require some form of sensitivity training to initiate conversations about a topic as fraught as race with strangers, and I don’t see that being solved by a leaflet from USA Today or a sticker. Lisa Frank brings endless joy, but I’m not sure about stickers ending racism.

Conversation without context can be deadly, no matter how well-intentioned it may have been. Also, as ThinkProgress pointed out, Starbucks already exists in its own quasi-fantasyland of branding and nonsense where “tall”= small and “partner”= barista. Am I to trust this company to handle a nuanced and serious topic? I say mochacciNO!

Starbucks Itself Is a Symbol of Gentrification.

There’s a saying that you know a neighborhood is “moving up” when they get a Starbucks. They bring their shockingly overpriced beverages to every plot of land they can buy up and dot the country with little green gentrification markers. If your name is polysyllabic and/or non-Anglicized, they will get it wrong. And you want to talk to me about equality?

It Makes Those of Us Criticizing It Look Like Assholes.

I don’t mean to call anyone else an asshole, so I’ll speak for myself here. I get incredibly frustrated when someone’s “good intentions” fall terribly short because I absolutely want racial progress in America and I feel like a beast sometimes deeming efforts subpar. At the same time, this issue is just too important to fuck around on such a grand scale.

My frustration aside, social media has been giving the #RaceTogether hashtag the business, and #NewStarbucksDrinks is a glittering example of the retaliatory comedy with which Twitter responds to wack social (in)justice.

In fact, Starbucks’ Senior Vice President of Communications, Corey duBrowa, was completely unable to take the heat and got out of the social media kitchen, deleting his Twitter account today.

Having invited people to talk with Starbucks about race, he was apparently appalled that people responded by posing real questions about race, and bowed out entirely. That, as well as the fact that all of the hands in the press photos appear to be white, shows that #RaceTogether is off to a great start.

Listen; maybe they’ll prove us all wrong. I highly doubt it, but if this mess could somehow foster genuine racial progress in America, I’ll take that L. I’ll eat these words at Starbucks’ HQ. I just think that progress is going to take more than a catchphrase on a cup and forced interaction, and the potential pitfalls don’t even make this a great start.