Starbucks Can’t See Racism But They Can Feel It

Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN
Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee Company. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

Would you like a conversation about diversity with your morning coffee? Starbucks hopes you do: the chain just announced a new initiative designed to get employees and customers at its stores to talk about race.

CEO Howard Schultz — it should be noted, in the spirit of talking about race, that Schultz is a white man — is going to change all that with a campaign called “Race Together.” From the Starbucks announcement:

Despite raw emotion around racial unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, “we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” Schultz said. “Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.”

This blog post claims that, since the dawn of this new year, over 2,000 Starbucks “partners” (the post uses “partners” and “employees” interchangeably) “have discussed racial issues at open forums in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York and Chicago.” At these forums, employees were encouraged to write “Race together” on the sides of coffee cups. A reading packet, co-authored by Starbucks and USA Today, will be available at Starbucks stores and run in that newspaper starting this Friday. In this material you will find handy “conversation starters,” such as, “In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times.”


One partner is quoted as saying that “The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it.”

Hmm, beautiful sentiment, sounds familiar, where have I heard this before?

Lest one assume Starbucks is not taking this seriously, the corporation took out this very dramatic, full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times:

Fortune reports that 40 percent of Starbucks employees identify as a racial minority. It appears that 100 percent of the people in the press photos for the “race together” initiative are white.


Perhaps you think this is misguided. Maybe you don’t believe in Starbucks. Maybe you’re thinking, “Wow, there is no time or place I would like to start a ‘conversation about race relations’ less than before I have consumed my coffee, while I am attempting to order said coffee, at a Starbucks.” Or it could be that you have not forgotten the last time Starbucks made headlines, in the aftermath of a New York Times feature on how the chain’s automated scheduling software makes the lives of many baristas all but impossible. Though in the wake of that story, Starbucks quickly announced revisions to its scheduling policies, details on how exactly the scheduling software would be altered were not revealed. One barista expressed doubt that the changes would take effect in most outposts. Conditions reportedly vary “wildly” from one Starbucks to the next.

But you know what? Starbucks believes in Starbucks. Starbucks refuses to just be that place where you go when you’re having an informational job interview, when Dunkin is too far away and nothing else is open. Starbucks is not just our collective public restroom, America. Starbucks is more than a misheard lyric in “Blank Space.” When you think “Starbucks,” you shouldn’t just think “where basics get pumpkin spice lattes.” You should start thinking “where a complete stranger instigates a dialogue about whether or not justice was served in Ferguson.”

In a video message Schultz distributed to Starbucks partners last week, Schultz admitted that “some people said, ‘Howard, this is not a subject we should touch. This is not for you. This is not for a company.” Oh, okay, cool, sounds like everyone is on the same pa —

Nope, Schultz said: “I reject that completely.”

Is this more annoying than a McDonald’s cashier telling you to “pay with lovin’” instead of cash for that Big Mac? Is this even more insulting to the typical consumer than Dove’s tone-deaf “Real Beauty” campaign or Dove’s even-more-tone-deaf and invasive Twitter bot for #SpeakBeautiful? Is it more misplaced than Coke’s “Make it happy” marketing scheme?

It is never too surprising when #brands try to seem human, but these transparent efforts only make corporations sound even less like people. Brands are obnoxious by their very nature. The branding of places like Starbucks are particularly obnoxious: the operation requires you to adopt a nonsensical lexicon that elevates the ordinary (calling a cashier a barista is the equivalent of calling an Apple employee, a.k.a., a glorified RadioShack worker, a “genius”). Even a small is “tall” at Starbucks. A place that manipulates language in this way should not be responsible for “starting a conversation” about anything, least of all an issue as fraught, complex and sensitive as race.

Stay tuned for updates on the status of racism, Starbucks’ destruction thereof.