Coffee Rhetoric: Dark Roast, Flat White … Race 101? Why Starbucks’ #RaceTogether Campaign Lacks Steam

March 17, 2015

Dark Roast, Flat White … Race 101? Why Starbucks’ #RaceTogether Campaign Lacks Steam

If there’s anything I love swilling more than red wine and vodka, it’s coffee. A delicious, highly-caffeinated, bold, dark, unflavored and unsweetened with just a splash of creamer cup of coffee. Frequently, I’ll amble into the nearest Starbucks… a place I have an ‘it’s aight, I guess’/ hate relationship with, to get my fix.

But now that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has rolled out a new campaign called #RaceTogether—an initiative that’s meant to encourage dialogue about race between baristas and customers—I can now tack on ‘thoroughly amused yet perplexed’ to my feelings about the coffee chain.

While I recognize that Shultz shamelessly and openly expresses progressive ideas about equality, appreciate his willingness to 'go there' with shareholders and consideration for employees, understand the sentiment behind ‘Race Together,’ and get that employees’ personal stories, anti-racism and anti-police violence protests are what prompted this effort, Starbucks would be doing the national discourse on race and inequality an even bigger solid if they examined whether they, themselves, pass muster when it comes to diversity and race among their corporate staff, as opposed to launching a public, jingle-filled campaign their busy baristas are expected to broach in-between making frappuccinos and soy lattes. Particularly since Starbucks serves as something of an emblem for gentrification and high real estate prices.  

It’s, apparently, easy for Howard Schulz to pat himself on the back, use platitudes as some kind of hip branding strategy and say that he can’t leave the task of tackling race to others, while conveniently forgetting that Black people, and other communities of color, actively initiate these conversations; most notably via hashtag discussions and national movements like #BlackLivesMatter.

Starbucks’ senior vice president of communications Corey duBrowa certainly didn't do the #RaceTogether campaign any favors when he went on a blocking spree before deleting his Twitter account, because he was incapable of handling inquiries and commentary about … well … race; demonstrating the way many white people tone-police and then shut down completely when they can’t steer the dialogue, and Black people and non-Black people of color are the one initiating the conversation and asking the crucial questions.


Also, what kind of emotional impact would ‘Race Together’ have on Starbucks’ baristas, since they’re the ones being placed in the line of fire?

Listen, I have no qualms about there being open and honest discussions about race, but they’re rarely ever straightforward during instances like this and turns out to an exercise in futility.  

I also have a difficult enough time standing in a long line behind obnoxious executives in ill-fitting dress shirts, who spit their orders at baristas (as if they’re less than) as it is. But I really can’t fathom using what limited time I have, to engage some superficial attempt to pick my brain about race; not in a corporate coffee chain where micro-aggressions occasionally unfold in the coffee line.

There are a myriad of genuine ways corporations can encourage employees involvement with social justice issues and national discussions on race. This isn't one of them, though and, in addition to putting the onus on baristas, Starbucks may be biting off more than they can chew.

It just  sounds as blundering as one of those mandatory Diversity Training staff meetings (role playing included) one has to attend with their annoying co-workers, over stale bagels and small cartons of Tropicana orange juice. And using employees’ lived experiences with racism doesn't really make for a constructive marketing gimmick.