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!