C is for Coffee Conversations

Starbucks Race Together


Clueless. Condescending. Clumsy.

These are some of the kinder things that have been said of Starbucks’ attempt to start a conversation about race by having baristas write “Race Together” on coffee cups.

Not since healthcare.gov has there been a more disastrous rollout. At least this ill-fated campaign was a goldmine for comedy.

Starbucks has long been the object of derision. Years ago I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.”

I must confess a guilty secret: I rather like Starbucks. Although I get my daily latte at the kind of local café that might champion those bumper stickers, I don’t mind going into the belly of the beast. For one thing, I like my lattes milky. I never have to specify “extra hot,” since their baristas seem to know there is nothing worse than having to suck down a latte in one slurp before all the heat drains away.  Plus, Starbucks pays its employees a semi-decent wage, offers healthcare coverage to part-timers, and started an education initiative to help pay for college tuition. All of this is a drop in the bucket in redressing an economic system that is way out of whack, but still, it’s a start.

So even though I understand the enraged and mocking response to Race Together, I give CEO Howard Schultz credit for trying.

I’m actually a big fan of clumsy efforts to talk about race. As a poster child for white privilege, I have inadvertently made many mistakes and committed many microaggressions. It is tempting to remain silent to avoid chastisement or embarrassment for saying the wrong thing.  But I am trying to shed my cloak of oblivion and silence. So I appreciate pioneers of clumsiness.

A few months ago I wrote about the furor that erupted last fall when Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, made a racially insensitive “joke” at the National Book Awards.

In a recent interview on KQED’s Forum, Handler was asked about the incident, and replied that he didn’t mind being “the idiot . . . or the clumsy person in the room.” Handler continued, “The subject of race in America—that’s something you have to take on. I would rather make mistakes . . . than decide that I’ll just erase it entirely as race has just been erased entirely from so many conversations. . . . If I can be any kind of example that can lead to conversation and insight, . . . that’s more than worth making a fool out of myself.”

I appreciate this, just as I appreciate Howard Schultz. Maybe he’s a mix of cynical corporate capitalist, insensitive person of privilege, and well-intentioned fool. But he did start a conversation.

Besides, as one Facebook commenter put it: “Nothing unites people like a shared joke. In this, Race Together is a success.”


Join the conversation about Starbucks and conversations about race!

12 thoughts on “C is for Coffee Conversations

  1. I don’t drink coffee, nor do I go to Starbucks, but I’m relieved to know they’re not trying to make everyone RUN. That would just be going too far :)

    • When I first heard about “Race Together,” I assumed it was for some marathon Starbucks was sponsoring. I, too, was relieved to know it had nothing to do with athletics.

  2. It’s less cringeworthy than hearing people claim they ‘don’t see race’. And even being mocked gives them publicity – so they can call it a win as well.

    Starbucks also buys coffee from sources which pay their growers a living wage and supports composting. I like their policies much more than their coffees (so I go for the chai).

  3. Starbucks is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine as well, if only because there aren’t many months when we can afford to treat ourselves to $6 mochas and $7 sandwiches. I do like their social initiatives, and as you say, even a blundered attempt at addressing issues society would rather sweep under the rug is better than doing nothing, which is the neutral stand many companies take. I could do without the coffee, but the company itself is decent.


  4. Thanks for saying this about Starbucks. Personally I prefer Peet’s but at least at Starbucks you know what you are getting. While I love supporting the independent coffee shops few know how to make a double espresso with a long pull just right (my go to coffee drink). And i agree about their trying to move the conversation forward. What are the other corporations in this dialogue? Frankly he would have been much more successful at this if he had offered to make Starbucks shops available for ADL diversity training workshops (discloser: I used to be one of their trainers) for groups, other companies and/or the general public, but then again he is keeping the discussion going!

    • Yeah, I like Peet’s too–though because of my penchant for milkiness, I have to specify single shot. Which is why most of my friends who deign to go into either Starbucks or Peet’s prefer Peet’s. Would love to hear more about your ADL diversity training. Thanks for writing, Heidi.

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