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!

No Joke

The Pain of the Watermelon JokeI’ve come to expect the blatant and dog-whistle racism routinely sounded by Fox News. But Lemony Snicket?! For it was none other than the beloved children’s author of A Series of Unfortunate Events–aka Daniel Handler—who recently made racially insensitive remarks while emceeing this year’s National Book Awards. Right after his friend Jacqueline Woodson won for Brown Girl Dreaming, Handler told an unfunny joke about watermelon. He drew deserved criticism for his racially insensitive words, and quickly apologized. Woodson wrote about the injury in an eloquent essay called, “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.”

In grappling with my very different reactions when prejudice comes out of the mouth of someone I like rather than someone I hate, I’m reminded of another unfortunate event involving poor word choice from my childhood.

I grew up in an all-white, affluent Boston suburb. My parents had moved from Tennessee because they did not want their children to grow up hearing black people called “Nigger.” Civil rights activists, they worked tirelessly to end racial discrimination in housing and schools.

Life was simple because we knew who to hate—bigots like South Boston politician Louise Day Hicks, a rabid opponent of court-ordered busing to end school desegregation. Buses may have burned in working-class Southie, but racism was far more genteel in our privileged enclave. Homes for sale would just suddenly disappear from the market should the prospective buyers turn out to have an abundance of melanin. My parents were outspoken critics of this northern variant of discrimination. Apparently racism knew no geographical bounds, as my mother was reminded every time she picked up the phone to hear the whispered hiss, “Nigger Lover.”

Undeterred, my parents spoke frequently at civic and church gatherings in favor of fair housing. At one such meeting, my mother rose from her seat next to her black friend Bernie and approached the podium. Particularly furious about the latest example of redlining that kept non-whites from living in our town, my mother shook her fist and proclaimed, “Let’s call a spade a spade!”

Realizing with horror the racial slur she had just uttered, my mother prayed for the earth to open up and swallow her whole. Meanwhile, her friend Bernie threw back his head and roared with laughter.

I wonder if their friendship could survive today in light of the furor surrounding this year’s National Book Awards. Much of the ensuing commentary fell into two polarized camps: what an unforgivable racist Handler was; or an attack on black people for seeing everything through a racial lens. One commenter wrote, “I cannot imagine that they are still friends.”

My fervent hope is that they are. I like to imagine the two friends sitting down together for a good, long, honest talk. Racism must be called out, but we must also know the difference between malevolence and ill-spoken ignorance.

I am saddened by the pain oblivion causes, whether it is Handler’s or my own. I want to do better, be better, even if I am clumsy in the process. There are plenty of times my fear of offending or of being upbraided for saying the wrong thing makes me say nothing. I do not want to remain adept at this kind of silence, where no one is the wiser, and no one learns a thing.

The National Book Awards created a stir, but also offer a way forward. In a recent Fresh Air interview, Woodson spoke further about Handler’s remarks: “I’m sad that so many are not connected to the deep history [of the African-American’s experience of racism]. Daniel didn’t know. He made the mistake of thinking we’re beyond that. Friendships are complicated. But he has a good heart. A lot of people who are ignorant have good hearts, and that’s what this kind of racial mistake looks like.”

So I’m guessing she and Lemony Snicket are OK, just as my mother and Bernie were, just as I hope to be with whomever I offend.  Such unfortunate events open up opportunities for understanding, if only we keep talking honestly with one another.