Circumstances surrounding racial bias and instances of police brutality have become a topic of conversation almost overnight. This discussion has even managed to reach a popular coffeehouse: Starbucks. The company decided to join in by creating a campaign that was shut down abruptly once it found itself on the receiving end of heavy criticism.
“I want to hear more conversation about systematic, structural, institutionalized racism,” Professor of Sociology Queen Meccasia Zabriskie said. “I want to hear more of that and not just the kind of individualistic understandings of racism and racial bias that we often hear and that people are more comfortable talking about.”
The campaign, called Race Together, involved customers receiving their drinks with the phrase scribbled on by a barista in the hopes that the customer would engage in a conversation with the barista about the topic of race in America. The campaign was also accompanied by open forum discussions, held in major cities such as Chicago and New York City. Starbucks also paid for full-page ads in the New York Times and USA Today to promote the Race Together campaign.
“I think the CEO Howard Schultz had good intentions in starting the Race Together campaign, and a national dialogue on race and ethnicity is surely needed,” first-year and So Color club member, Ijeoma Uzoukwu, said. “But the fact that he thought this project could be successful in the first place reflects a lack of understanding of race relations in the United States, in addition to Starbucks’ own role in unintentionally perpetuating a racist system. A place where people are rushing to get their coffee and go is not an appropriate place to have a discussion about centuries of oppression. A company in which most of the management consists of white people, even though 40 percent of lower-level employees are people of color, does not have the authority to be discussing racism.”
Starbucks described these forums on their website as having “…partners [who] demonstrated vulnerability and courage as they shared personal stories. It was clear to those who attended, the gatherings highlighted the mission and values of Starbucks, and the partners’ desire to do more.”
“We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz said in a statement. “Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.”
The campaign, however, ended as soon as the company received overwhelming negative feedback on the Internet. The senior vice president for global communications at Starbucks temporarily deleted his Twitter account. He described feeling “personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” according to an article in Medium.
Some of the criticism came from those questioning the position of a largely popular business starting a conversation concerning race.
“If Starbucks puts #RaceTogether on your cup, take their tip jar and ask if they want to discuss redistribution of wealth,” comedian and host of the Kuhner Report, Jeff Kuhner, tweeted.
While others took issue with an honest discussion on race held by the overwhelmingly white, male employees behind the brand.
“Starbucks: Nothing says #RaceTogether like only hiring three people of color out of 19 executives,” publicist James Parkley also tweeted.
Yet, others found that the brand was not the right atmosphere to encourage a discussion on such an important and complex topic.
“I just wonder about this particular tactic of trying to get a discussion going between barista and consumer when at least half the consumers are trying to get out of there quickly,” business consultant Jim Stengel told the New York Times.
Starbucks claimed that the hasty shutdown of the campaign was due to their interest in creating a bigger conversation. This left many questioning what will follow.
“Dialogue is great because it produces understanding,” Zabriskie added. “It’s an important step but they could definitely go further than this.”
Information for this article was taken from nytimes.com and news.starbucks.com.