More than idiotic; not simply cute, but ineffective. It’s flat evil. It’s Corporate Social Responsibility: taking advantage of a social construction, from which you are wildly benefiting, to pretend you are doing something about it, while at the same time cashing your CSR for a couple more zillions.
Starbucks announced on Sunday a new initiative aimed at fostering communication about race relations in the US. Branded #RaceTogether, employees – who often can’t even spell my mother’s name (Susan) correctly – could write “race together” on a customer’s cup to spur a conversation on race.
Is this the worst idea? Or the worst idea ever?
Let’s break down the first practical issue: who is going to be making my coffee while the baristas are talking about race? The line is already pretty long and my break is only 15 minutes. And baristas already have enough on their plates pretending that a Pumpkin Spice LatteTM is a legitimate coffee drink – just imagine having to add “white savior” to their coffee service repertoire now (or perhaps that’s already been covered with Pumpkin Spice). Is there a corporate guideline for how many times customers will have to hear a woman in Lululemon pants say, “I don’t see color” in between sips of her Oprah Chai Tea LatteTM before racism is cured?
Nobody really wants to talk about racism with people who haven’t gotten their morning joe yet. But if a white barista really hands a black person like me a latte and expects her to talk about race, she’d better not have to pay for the coffee. And the first time a customer says “you people” to a group of black baristas, there had better be guidelines for whether they still have to serve the damn coffee, or if the customer has to pay twice – and it’s definitely not togetherness if the customer gets to come back the following week and act like nothing happened.
Snark aside, #RaceTogether isn’t just a bad idea – it’s a harmful one. Starbucks is a very diverse company, and reports that 40% of their employees as minorities – a commendable number. But when a company has a high percentage of low-wage minority employees serving people privileged enough to spend $5 a day on their coffee, it is not in any way appropriate to even suggest that those employees engage in racial public relations on your behalf. Unless Starbucks is planning on only having their white employees starting these conversations – which is not an effective way to have a dialogue about race – there is no way that asking a barista of color to bring the racial oppression that they live with everyday into the workplace is worth $9 an hour.
The race and class dynamics that put a comfortable white person in the same room with person of color whose employment relies on serving that white person fancy beverages makes these conversations inherently exploitative. You can’t have an honest conversation about race when it’s a conversation imposed or strongly encouraged by a wealthy white man who happens to be your boss. You can’t have an honest conversation about race with people whom you also have to make happy in order to pay your rent. And if you are a barista of color, and you choose to opt out of these conversations, you still have to continue to work in a place in which your experiences as a person of color are being discussed and debated.
#RaceTogether is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s the exploitation of Starbucks’ minority workforce and their minority customers, and it’s an appropriation of the work that those of us in the social justice movement have been doing for years to foster real, constructive conversations on race. It is a top-down effort from rich executives with white savior complexes who want to get credit for saving the world but make others do the work.
Right now, there are already Starbucks employees using their lived experiences as people of color to foster real positive change in their communities. They aren’t doing it for the PR and they aren’t doing it out of an inflated sense of self-importance. They are out there, on the front lines, fighting for survival and for acknowledgment of their humanity. If you want to know how to have productive conversations about race, ask them (and make sure you compensate them for their contribution) – but don’t expect them to serve it up with a flat white.