• author
    • Kelvin Wade

    • March 19, 2015 in Columnists

    Starbucks’ race talk is a venti-sized blunder

    I swear I thought it was the satirical website, The Onion, when I read that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz urged his employees to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and engage customers in a conversation about race. Awkward. Forget Kim Kardashian’s ass. The Starbucks race conversation has broken the Internet.

    Lines are long enough in the mornings at Starbucks without people conversing on contentious topics like race. Most of us just want to get our order and get on with our day.

    This reminds me of an incident a few weeks ago. I was at CVS trying to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. This little old lady in front of me gets her prescription and is shocked when she doesn’t have to pay $10 as usual for it. When the pharmacist tells her it’s because of the Affordable Care Act, the woman lost it, going on and on about how Obamacare and Obama were ruining the country. She finally turned, saw me, looked like she’d seen a ghost and left.

    Lady, I know it probably startled you to see a big black man behind you while you were blasting Obama, but I couldn’t care less about that. I just wanted you to shut up and get out of the way so I could get my meds.

    That’s how I feel about this new Starbucks race conversation idea. I don’t want Becky the barista to have a new reason to take forever to make my iced venti Americano with an extra shot, sugar-free hazelnut, no room, one Equal coffee. Say hello, ask me what you can get started for me and once I tell you, I’ll pay and wait for my order. I’ll be polite. We can mention the weather or other small talk while we’re doing those things but a conversation about race? Really? Have you ever had a one-minute conversation about race? Is that even possible? The shortest conversation I’ve ever had on race was the time I was sitting in my car in a store parking lot and a little 6 year old white girl (don’t ask me why she was alone) sitting in the car next to me looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re a black n—– butthole!” True story.

    Schultz has some brass ones to do this, but he’s not the first businessman to wade into controversial waters. John Roscoe, who owned and ran the Food & Liquor convenience store chain in Northern California, used to print his libertarian views on the stores’ bags. He even compiled a book full of them called Bagatorials (still available on Amazon for 9 cents and it’s worth every penny). In ‘N’ Out Burger prints bible verses on its burger wrappers and bottom of their cups. And I won’t even mention that chicken chain.

    This is a “new Coke” level misstep. In light of the blowback, I can imagine other CEOs quickly sending memos to their employees saying, “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT BRING UP THE SUBJECT OF RACE WITH CUSTOMERS!”

    If Schultz is determined to help facilitate a conversation on racial issues he could take a page out of John Roscoe’s book and print things on the cups. It may stimulate people to talk with their friends. Some people would hate it, but at least it doesn’t involve the baristas engaging in heavy conversations that no one wants to have in the morning, let alone with a stranger. Hell, Starbucks’ Senior Vice President of Global Communications, Corey duBrowa, temporarily deleted his Twitter account when asked questions about race and the store’s new focus. If the guy whose job it is to globally communicate can’t handle questions on race, then how is the dude making my coffee supposed to?

    Starbucks makes billions and Schultz makes $21 million a year and Forbes says he’s worth $2.5 billion. There are a lot of ways Schultz and Starbucks can use their money and clout to help try to better race relations that don’t involve contrived conversations with customers. Why not use that money to do some PSAs, expand Starbucks into underserved urban minority areas and bring jobs to people or change their current convoluted college tuition reimbursement program to helping employees attend community college.

    Schultz’s heart is in the right place. We’re laughing and bashing Starbucks, but the fact remains that there are racial issues that need addressing and understanding. Shortly after 2040, America will be “majority minority.” Who knows what changes that will bring in the country? And those laughing today might be wishing they’d had some kind of conversation (albeit not with a barista).

    It’s been my experience that nothing opens minds more than having friends of different races and backgrounds. I believe the progress gays have made have come largely in part because more people realize they have gay friends and acquaintances or LGBT relatives. When you have varied friendships, there’s an opportunity for those conversations that will proceed organically rather than implemented via a corporate policy.

    In the meantime, Starbucks, just do what you do best – serve coffee. Because if I go to Starbucks and a barista writes “Race Together” on my cup and mentions race, the only conversation I want at that point is the directions to the nearest Dutch Bros.

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