Does Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have a white savior complex?

Your morning flat white just got a whole lot more interesting.
Your morning flat white just got a whole lot more interesting.
Image: Reuters/David Ryder
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Coming soon to a Starbucks near you: I’ll take a flat white and a conversation about intersectionality to go, please!

I’m talking about the ubiquitous coffee chain’s “Race Together” initiative, of course, the well-meaning but generally confusing new program CEO Howard Schultz hopes will help improve race relations in America. But here’s the thing: Who actually wants to talk about misogynoir (anti-black misogyny) or systemic oppression over a tiramisu latte? Most Starbucks customers want to grab their orders and go to work. And those who stay behind still seem far too busy to engage in conversation, much less lift their heads from their various screens. Watching the last few days unfold, I can’t help wonder if perhaps Mr. Schultz doesn’t quite know what he’s gotten himself into.

“Race Together” does make some sense. For years, Starbucks has attempted to maintain a diverse hiring practice. In 2005, 31% of Starbucks corporate officers at the vice-president or higher level were women and 13% were people of color, above average for a Fortune 500 company. More recently, Fortune reports that around 40% of Starbuck’s 200,000 employees are minorities. Starbucks has also created partner networks like the Black Partner Network and Hora Del Café in order to further promote diversity and inclusion.

The Race Together campaign is not without precedent, even if it does also dovetail with the current—and highly problematic—trend of big corporations taking advantage of “in vogue” social issues. (Pride Whopper, anyone?) Plus there’s Schultz’s well-documented propensity for social responsibility campaigns that don’t exactly measure up to their billing.

We absolutely need more safe spaces to talk about race—confining those conversations to academic buildings, conference venues and even kitchen tables is not enough. But your local Starbucks may not actually be the place most effective for facilitating and prompting these badly needed conversations.

Putting aside more practical reservations about longer lines and slower service, as a woman of color, I know it’s not so easy to facilitate conversations about race between friends and acquaintances, let alone customers and employees. Not to mention how hard it is to talk about heavy topics against the uber-smooth backdrop of new age and jazz.

In the groove.
In the groove.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

White privilege expresses itself in many ways, including when it comes to safety. We discuss police brutality and other physical violent acts against minorities, but violence of a different kind occurs in discourse as well. Minorities on social media are harassed daily on social media, threatened with death and rape simply for speaking out about racial injustices. How can Starbucks ensure this cycle of intolerance and persecution won’t move offline and into your local coffee shop?

Meanwhile, Starbucks stores cater to a specific demographic: younger, wealthier, college-educated and yes, white. The stores are packed most densely in areas that are 70-75% Caucasian. White people need to be a part of these conversations, but we also have to be mindful of them dominating the discourse, intentionally or not. In order to foster truly transformative conversations, Starbucks executives would have to make sure they center on minority voices. After all, systemic erasure of minorities is one of the reasons why racism thrives today.

Who will be training Starbucks employees in the basics? Will they receive extra compensation for their time and effort? (Actually, that last suggestion isn’t so bad, considering baristas make an average of about $9 an hour.) Most people do not understand that racism and prejudice is not the same thing: racism is what happens when power and prejudice combine. And don’t get me started on the myth of reverse racism.

In order for Starbucks to really become a game changer, its employees would have to be extremely careful to not create false equivalences. (No, America’s ethnic majority does not suffer from anti-white racism.) A banal conversation is one thing, but what if poorly-trained employees actually ended up making the current situation worse? The whole program would be in ruins.

In a perfect world, these conversations should happen organically, but the fact that Starbucks executives are trying to motivate their customers to talk about important topics is an intriguing idea. If this initiative is to have any chance, however, Starbucks needs to take a hard look at the challenges awaiting it. When it comes to these types of conversations, wishy-washy simply won’t cut it. Start from within and work your way out. And please make sure you consult people of color first. A new batch of good intentions mixed with the same old micro-aggressions will destroy any chance for productive dialogue.

Mr. Schultz, I’m interested to see how this whole “Race Together” thing plays out. You make a pretty good cappuccino, but let’s see how that goes down with an infusion of anti-oppression dialogue. Keep both orders fresh and hot, please.