We Went to Starbucks to Talk to Baristas About Race

Sipping iced tea and testing a billion-dollar corporation's "Race Together" initiative

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is asking baristas to write "Race Together" on customers' cups to stimulate a week of national dialogue about race. Credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

If you want to take a noble ambition and turn it into a bad idea, give it to a brand. It doesn't matter how good that ambition actually is in purest form; we know that attaching a corporate logo to it corrupts its sentiments and subordinates them to market leverage and praise of the corporate status quo. If the Sermon on the Mount had originally been delivered by Nike, we'd all be wearing Jordans and still speaking Latin and getting our horoscopes through pig entrails.

You didn't need divination to predict activists' reaction to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's idea to have baristas write "Race Together" on customers' coffee cups to stimulate a week of national dialogue about race. One: get bent, Howie. Two: this isn't going to work. America is full up on "dialogue" already, and this is probably no more helpful than doing nothing at all — unless the point is seeing Starbucks as a good corporation. To see it in action, you can just walk into a Starbucks.

I did. While Starbucks trumpets counting minorities as 40 percent of its employees, that's a nationwide figure. Large cities are probably over-represented in terms of having a barista of color to buttonhole you about a frank discussion of the hurdles they must leap to overcome the white privilege to which you are blind. What a white barista with a predominantly white customer base is supposed to say is anyone's guess. "Hey, so the last half a millennium of un-self-reflective global hegemony? Not the best look, right? And what's your name? Oh, Bobby Lee? Is that spelled with an IE or just a Y?" In the suburban Starbucks I visited, there were neither minority employees nor customers. I drank an iced tea and waited. 

It took about 20 minutes for a couple of minority customers to show up, and mercifully none of the three white baristas opted to engage them in a racial dialogue. The couple spoke animatedly to each other in Spanish and only curtly in English to order. When I approached them and launched into a patiently enunciated question, the man waved me off and gave me a "no hablo Inglés," which was probably bullshit, but which is exactly what I would say to an invitation to join a dialogue on race, and that's the full extent of my Spanish beyond the sex words.

It took nearly 45 minutes to see the next person of color arrive, a tall black woman in her early 50s, wearing a comfortable black dress and shoes and carrying a practical messenger-type bag. Only after she'd gotten her coffee and been able to sit down and take a breath — after, presumably, the baristas had had a chance to rap with her about the African-American experience — did I feel like I could barge in on her leisure time. Her name was Anita, and she was new to the area, working as a concierge consultant for wealthy homeowners who travel. Despite reading the newspaper and going to Starbucks up to five times a week, she had no idea "Race Together" was happening. That didn't keep her from instantly echoing some of the most common points of criticism that had already appeared in the media.

"It's too busy, and there's too much traffic. I don't see the opportunity to have any meaningful dialogue," she said, looking over at the never-disappearing line. "For any employee, it's another level of accountability they put on people who clearly make above minimum wage. It's to make the corporate offices feel better, but I don't see the advantage to the employees other than more stressors."

Anita had inadvertently described my experience a few minutes before in talking to Mike, one of the baristas, a stocky twentysomething white guy with a beard and earrings who looked like everyone's thoughtful gamer buddy. Just pulling Mike aside for two minutes was enough to see the number of waiting customers double. He never stopped looking over his shoulder and attempting to perform a make-work task to obscure the fact that he was chatting. Like all multitasking, it left him doing more than one thing fairly badly — moving a towel around haphazardly while trailing off and having difficulty engaging questions. He also looked about as comfortable as a housecat walking through wet grass when asked to speak for his billion-dollar employer about race.

Mike hadn't broached the subject of race relations with Anita, and she didn't think it would have gone well. "'Where's the camera? Am I being punked?' I would probably be defensive until he explained that this was some corporate initiative, and even then this is neither the time nor the place. I just came for a cup of coffee," she said. "Even if I were to sit down with anyone here and have a conversation about race, Number One, they would be uncomfortable, and Number Two, we'd go our separate ways and not really make any difference."

Even getting to the point of being unproductive seemed especially difficult from an employee standpoint. "There are certain things we can't talk about amongst ourselves, ever, because I'm worried I might offend somebody. Usually religion," Mike said. "I don't want to point out a person of color and say, hey, what do you think about this. That just seems a little too inflammatory." Mike grasped the inherent discomfort of provocative conversations in which one or both participants are hostages to a process. It's something Starbucks VP of Communications Corey duBrowa seemed only to learn the hard way: After facing a negative backlash, he temporarily deleted his Twitter.

Mike and his co-baristas' solution seemed to be to ignore the project altogether. Over the course of an hour, they engaged no one in conversation about "Race Together," and #RaceTogether didn't noticeably appear on any coffee cups. When asked why he thought the program existed, he allowed, "I'm sure Howard [Schultz] had good intentions trying to put it together. . ." then let the statement hang in the air.

His response sounded like the response of every retail employee I ever worked with. Even before social media and the need to brand-wash corporate identities with social affiliations, our zillionaire executive employers would regularly try to jam a disparate, diffident workforce into a new company-wide project meant to impart unscientific MBA paradigms to the rudiments of selling flat-front chinos to heavyset dudes. Vaporous social directives or obviously tested-and-branded management initiatives rained down from corporate — contests or sales schema or acronymic buzzwords so transparently stupid that you instantly wondered if maybe the CFO had written an undergrad thesis on behavioralism and was bored that week. The only employees who ever fully cooperated with the new regimes and saw sales increases were the ones without any shreds of a soul left to get in the way of 100 percent sincere script recitation. For everyone else, the only choice was to wait out the new bright idea until other company executives admitted that it was as doomed and shitheaded as all its predecessors and told worker bees that they could stop assessing and approaching customers like they were trying to recognize the F.A.S.T. signs of stroke.

While the rest of us are waiting for Howard Schultz's novelty week to end, we can watch a bunch of nothing happen, even if it aspirationally feels like more than nothing. In Anita's words, "You feel like you're doing something because we're having the conversation, but it doesn't really generate any true response."

America is so full of having conversations at this point that it sounds like someone Xeroxed a dozen Pinter plays onto the same pages and asked everyone to read whatever they could make out. We're already having the conversation about race. We're having the conversation about feminism. Even the expression having the conversation is so overused as to take something mostly meaningless to begin with and render it totally, clankingly insipid. Right now someone is having the conversation about whether WAR is too vague a baseball metric. Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? Well, bang your monkey, clones, we're having the conversation. ESPN's Bill Simmons is asking whether having the conversation about race and having the conversation about feminism are in the all-time pantheon of Hall of Fame Conversations, and while he doesn't think they've made The Leap yet, they're definitely in the conversation.

Over at Salon, you can read Elias Isquith talking to the University of Pennsylvania's Adolph Reed about the value of having the conversation, and they're both rightfully less than optimistic about it. Howard Schultz's motives might be wholly genuine, but if there's one thing that corporations and rich white dudes have figured out is that having the conversation tends to inhibit actual activism by making elites look party to a functional system of self-policing. There's no need to hit the streets and agitate and threaten property when elites are already your equal partners in achieving social justice. Meanwhile, in wealthy New York private schools, scions of billionaires and future Masters of the Universe take classes in privilege. The point isn't to correct for the fact that they're inheritors of vast wealth and influence they haven't earned; it's to use the language of intersectionality to demonstrate that they are aware of the problem. There's no need to pass regulatory or redistributive reforms to address their insane levels of privilege: they're already working on it. Awareness has been promoted. You didn't even ask, and they're already having the conversation.

Sincere or not, Starbucks and "Race Together" are part of broader corporate policy of telegenic issue acknowledgement that tries to ward off inconvenient bottom-line responsibility for improving the status quo or redressing injustice. It's not even new. If you were watching football games in the early 1990s, you could hear soft-voiceover narration over Chevron ads of beautiful scenes of unspoiled nature: "Do people still care about halting wetlands drilling operations to rescue four pelicans they found nearby? People do." Fuck off, no they don't. Every time those ads aired, the treads of a Chevron front-end loader were probably backing over a nest of sea turtle eggs while a guy in a hard-hat looked up from pouring ammonia directly into a well and said, "People do what now?" What the ads were saying was, "You don't need to environmentally regulate us. We're not like the Exxon Valdez people." Like the sixteen-year-old son of a Goldman Sachs executive intersectionally confronting his wealth, race, gender and orientation privilege: "I'm already correcting it! I'm looking in the mirror and hating myself so hard!"

And if that seems cynical to you, consider what a billion-dollar corporation like Starbucks didn't do with its tremendous resources to address race in this country. It didn't eat a tiny loss on profits and designate one employee per store to collect signatures for a petition to restore all provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It most certainly didn't task employees with engaging customers in conversation about the virtues of collective bargaining, labor rights and the tremendous power employers have to interfere in workers' lives and coerce behavior — all issues that would likely provide more direct material benefit to the lives of racial minorities and working class Americans of all colors than some airy bull-session about what it's even like to be different, man. 

Having the conversation and "racing together" is a great way to perpetually start the process of addressing social injustice while perpetually delaying the enactment of any means to do so. It makes the acknowledgment of a problem equivalent to its solution. Starbucks, an entity with vast abilities to generate, fund and defend social change wants you to get the ball rolling, after which it will do exactly nothing, in the hopes that you feel so good about what we all accomplished together that you don't notice the lack of a follow-up.

"It might make them feel better about themselves for having the conversation," Anita said, "but I don't see it generating any action." 

Neither will you.