Written by Alex Bloom
In response to an incident of racial profiling in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, in which two innocent black men were arrested without cause, thousands of the chain’s locations will be closed across the United States and Canada for “Racial Bias Education” on May 29 and June 11 respectively. While I appreciate Starbucks’ sentiment, and their intent to prevent further cases of racial profiling in their stores, Starbucks’ track record on dealing with race is not great. I’m not claiming that this new initiative will be just as much of a failure, but Starbucks’ previous “Race Together” campaign does not fill me with trust in the corporate coffee purveyor’s ability to address the issue of racism.
Let’s take a step back in time to 2015, when Starbucks launched “Race Together.” In a presumably well-intentioned attempt to start a larger dialogue about racism, all the corporation did was make their customers feel uncomfortable. The campaign was simple — and that was exactly the problem. Systemic racism is not a problem that can be fixed overnight, and there is a reason that no one has ever asked a coffee chain to tackle it.
Essentially, Starbucks told its baristas to write the words “race together” on each coffee cup before handing it to the customer, and encouraged them to start conversations about racism during transactions. While it is true that part of the what makes ending racism hard is the fact that no one wants to talk about it, that doesn’t mean talking to your barista about it during the morning coffee rush is the solution. If you are a person of colour who deals with discrimination on a daily basis, you probably don’t need your teenage white barista explaining what racism is to you.
While it is true that many Starbucks employees are not white college freshmen, and may have been more qualified to speak to the matter, the point remains the same: Starbucks — a business owned by a white billionaire — is not exactly an authority on racism. The “Race Together” campaign was built on several assumptions: that baristas would be comfortable with having conversations about race at work, that the customers would be OK with discussing race in the coffee line, that the baristas would all know enough about discrimination to start a conversation about it, that the customers know less than the baristas on the subject, and that buying a coffee takes enough time for anyone to have a valuable conversation about racism.
It is presumptuous for Starbucks to think that it can nonchalantly step in and solve a problem that humanity has been grappling with for thousands of years, in an afternoon. If it had been put together more thoughtfully, “Race Together” could have been a helpful — or at worst, innocuous — campaign. Instead, the campaign came off as clumsy, alienating, and out of touch.
If you still need convincing on why “Race Together” failed to contribute anything meaningful to the conversation on racism, here are some of the campaign’s “conversation starters” on race, as presented in USA Today: “In my Facebook stream, ___% are of a different race,” “In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times,” and “I have ___ friends of a different race.” Starbucks essentially asked baristas to pull the “I have a black friend” card to prove to the world how aware they are of racism.
Starbucks’ “racial bias education” seems to be a more tasteful response to a racist incident than their past attempts at being racially conscious. Yet, they also seem to think that one day of training is enough to cut through any racial bias their employees may have built up over a lifetime — a sentiment which does not give me faith that they have learned from their past.
The “Race Together” campaign had all the tact of a white guy who introduces himself to his black son-in-law by insisting that he isn’t racist because he voted for Obama. Perhaps closing their stores for one day of training on the subject is a step in the right direction, but I’d like to see a more comprehensive “racial bias education” worked into their core training before I believe Starbucks is truly invested in combating the issue.