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In the wake of police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz felt like the company should respond in some way. He started holding forums where employees could frankly and openly discuss their personal stories of the ways in which race and ethnicity have impacted their lives. The first such forum was in Seattle during the month of December 2014. Buoyed by the positive and poignant response, he went on to hold similar forums in Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and yes, even St. Louis. At each event he vowed that some larger action would take place as a result of these discussions. What Starbucks then attempted to do was spark a national conversation about race through a campaign called Race Together.
The Race Together campaign consisted of an 8-page document that went into 2 million copies of the USA Today newspaper on March 20, 2015, and was also available as a standalone newspaper at Starbucks locations everywhere (see a PDF version of the document here). It contains thought-provoking facts and questions about race. The point of Race Together is explained in the document as follows:
RACE TOGETHER is an initiative from Starbucks and USA TODAY to stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America. Over the next year we plan to do just that, using all of our strengths in publishing and in stores across America. Our companies share a philosophy: Elevating diversity is the right thing to do, but it is also a necessity. Our nation is only becoming more diverse. To ignore, dismiss or fail to productively engage our differences is to stifle our collective potential. Diversity of thought and skills lead to more creative ideas and higher performance. Bias, even unintentional slights, sap our potential for shared prosperity while denying our shared humanity
Shultz also encouraged Starbucks employees to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and engage in conversations about race with customers while serving them. The campaign sparked an immediate firestorm of intense criticism on social media outlets, so much so that the Starbucks senior vice president of global communications Corey duBrowa’s Twitter handle had to be temporarily deactivated. That made complainers feel like they weren’t even being listened to at all. Within a week, that part of the campaign was shut down, although Starbucks says that was always part of the plan.
Critics noted that the publicity photos of employees holding “Race Together” cups were composed entirely of white hands. Let’s face it – the Starbucks image is one of up-scale white people enjoying ridiculously over-priced coffee beverages. The sudden onset of a race campaign just feels strange. At its worse, it looks like the company is trying to cash in on race, which is a big no-no in the midst of highly charged racial events involving white police officers killing unarmed black men. In that context, the campaign could only appear to many as both opportunistic and inappropriate.
You also have to question whether or not asking employees to engage in conversations while preparing coffee beverages on a topic as sensitive as race is a good idea to begin with. Was any training offered for how to broach such a highly charged topic with complete strangers? I’m guessing the answer to that question is no.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the intentions behind the Starbucks Race Together campaign are completely noble. Whether or not it’s appropriate or effective to try and spark race conversations in coffee shops is another thing entirely. Most people are in a coffee shop to enjoy some coffee, chat with friends, and maybe read or study as well. I don’t think they’re looking to have serious conversations about race.
I do think that Starbucks can still make a decent campaign of Race Together – as long as it concentrates on print media rather than trying to force awkward conversations in its stores. It certainly has already sparked a lot of conversation, but mostly about Starbucks the company rather than about race.
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