“This isn’t the forum to have these discussions.”
That’s the opinion of Jaime Prater, a barista at Starbucks, of the company’s new initiative asking its employees to start conversations about race with customers by writing things on coffee cups and using stickers. It’s not that Prater doesn’t agree with CEO Howard Schultz that race is an important topic in the country right now. But, he says, “It’s a very, very involved and in-depth conversation that needs a lot of time devoted to it. Having your baristas engaging in those conversations, it puts them in a very difficult position.”
Prater is himself half black and is also gay. “That’s something that I deal with in my life, it’s part of who I am,” he said. But the workplace is not somewhere he wants to be starting discussions — he said he worries that the initiative will invite uncomfortable remarks. That may also be a concern for the 40 percent of the company’s workforce that is of color.
Prater wants to have these discussions, just not at the workplace. “It’s a fascinating topic of conversation for me, I’m someone who enjoys deep conversation,” he said. And he says he’s had “some great conversations in Starbucks before, but nothing ever too deep.” He also thinks CEO Howard Schultz’s heart is in the right place. “He’s concerned about this country, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
Jamie, another Starbucks employee who asked not to use her last name, is white but also worries what kind of comments it invites. “Awesome idea, terrible implementation,” she said. “Yes it’s optional, but baristas are essentially being made to look like absolute idiots.” She noted that most people don’t think much of the those who serve them coffee. “People tend to think a bunch of idiots who couldn’t graduate college are working behind the bar,” she said. So they’re not necessarily open to having those baristas launch into a conversation about race.
Of course, Jamie and Prater’s views don’t represent the views of all of Starbucks’ employees, but it is a window into trying to implement such a complex initiative with individual employees.
They say there is still confusion among workers about how this will work. Prater and his coworkers spent the first day of the roll out wondering about the logistics. “My first reaction was, how do we go about this in the workplace? When I hand out a Frappuccino, I have 40 seconds to talk about race while I’m trying to make drinks,” he noted. “How long do you talk about this? What do you talk about?” He said not a single customer discussed race or the project with him or his coworkers. “This doesn’t seem like the venue for that kind of a thing,” he added.
He decided to write “I can’t breathe,” the words Eric Garner said while in a chokehold from police right before he died, on the side of a coffee cup instead. “Writing that on the cup was like, do I assert my opinion?” he noted. But he doubted it would work within the store. “That might offend someone.”
Jamie also pointed out that previously, the company has had an explicit policy that employees weren’t supposed to talk about politics on the job. “I remember when the Republican National Convention came through, just as an example, Starbucks sending something saying don’t engage in political conversations, when you’re wearing the green apron you’re representing the company,” she said. “But now we’re being told to do the exact opposite.”
Even so, she doesn’t think it will take in her store. “Not a single person in my store is probably going to do it,” she noted. She doesn’t plan to start conversations about race at work, even though she frequently talks about it in her personal life and has been part of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not our place to talk about it with customers,” she said.
She noted that many of the people her store serves are affluent and white and many not be receptive to the topic, or might even get angry. “The last thing I want is to have an irate customer and a long line of people behind them yelling at me,” she said. “That’s not at all the position I want to be in.” Yet, she pointed out, these are the very people who the conversations probably should be targeted at.
Prater doesn’t think the initiative, which he says “saddl[es] your store employees” with having these conversations, is the right way to go about it. “It’s not the environment to talk about this,” he said. “We have a lot going on and this is something that’s a very hot button issue in this country right now.”
Like Prater, Jamie agrees that Schultz does care about the issue. “I honestly think the guy’s got a heart for this,” she noted. But she also says it’s far too big a topic to bring into the workplace. “It’s as hot button an issue, for obviously very different reasons, as abortion or the death penalty,” she said. “These are things that people lose friends over because they don’t have the same thoughts on it.”