Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ campaign stirs up controversy

Starbucks Annual Meeting
Courtesy of AP

Last week, Starbucks started a campaign called ‘Race Together’ to help propel progressive racial discussions between baristas and customers. The initiative aims to change people’s perspective, to look past individual race and see the collective human race.

Unfortunately, this well-intentioned campaign took a controversial turn. After it’s announcement, many people took to social media to ridicule Starbucks, decrying the inappropriate and opportunistic manner of the coffee chain to embed itself in a highly charged issue.

The coffee chain encouraged baristas to write ‘Race Together’ on cups in order to spread the message; but if customers wanted a plain cup, they would get one. I’m simply curious to see how one conversation would pan out.

“Hello welcome to Starbucks, what kind of coffee can I get for you?” “Straight black.” “Good choice. Speaking of black, what’s your opinion on Ferguson? How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?”

Baristas, I love ya’ll, but know that I came to Starbucks for coffee not a conversation.

But whether or not people believe Starbucks aimed to associate their coffee with a façade of embracing social issues, the company aspires to broaden dialogue on race relations and bring society closer to a wider acceptance of diversity.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Other companies mind their own business, but Starbucks took the initiative to comment on current issues, which is how change comes – through discussion.

Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz told employees in a videotaped meeting, “If we just keep going about our business and ringing the Starbucks register every day and ignoring this, then I think we are, in a sense, part of the problem.”

Many argued that ‘Race Together’ represents a naïve attempt to improve Starbucks’ revenue. They sell $5 coffee and the worst microwavable Panini’s, and nobody criticizes them for that. Yet Twitter users took to the tweets and berated the company for trying to tie the brand to big issues. So what if Starbucks is a large company, it’s no different that the average technician or Twitterer conveying their own voice and opinions.

Hate messages directed at Howard Schultz became so intense that an executive on Starbucks’ communication team, Corey DuBrowa, blocked people on Twitter before temporarily taking down its account. In a post on Medium, he later said that the deluge of negativity became overwhelming. Some people thought that taking the account down meant that Starbucks wanted to avoid the race issue conversation before it even started.

Nevertheless, Schultz said he hopes ‘Race Together’ will result in other companies to join in on the talks. Like many other people’s desires, he wanted Starbucks to have a voice in the national conversation, one that most white Americans don’t want to talk about. A Pew Research Center poll found that only 37 percent of whites agreed that race needed to be discussed.

As nice as it is to think we live in a society that ignores race, especially five decades after the Civil Rights Movement, we really live in one that emphasizes it even more. ‘Race Together’ symbolizes a noble movement to improve relations not between races, but between people.

We live in this visual world in which we immediately perceives people’s race before anything else. Look around and you’ll probably see a white person or a black person or a colored person, but it’s dehumanizing to place their characteristics first. Instead see people for who they are and not what they look like. See someone as a person who is white, or a person who is black, or a person who is colored because, the person should always come before their race.

Howard Schultz preached that the campaign’s core message was comprised of a promise, that the American Dream should be accessible to every person in this country, not only to a select few.

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