A new campaign from Starbucks blends all the greatest nightmares of the modern era: talking with strangers, overstepped boundaries, and brand engagement. Somehow, it's even worse in practice than it sounds.
"Shall we overcome?" was the question Starbucks posed on March 15th with a splashy full-page ad in The New York Times. This invitational inversion of a pivotal Civil Rights protest song suggests a nation divided, but on the verge of reconciling into post-racial Pangaea—if only some corporation had the courage to ask politely. The ad is part of a campaign that urges Starbucks baristas to speed up America's impending harmony by talking openly with customers about race. Now everyone who thirsts for a chai latte is eligible to become a captive audience for Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's invasive social consciousness. The biggest problem (among the numerous issues this campaign seems to raise), is the sheer number of people who will be made extremely uncomfortable by it: pretty much everybody involved besides Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (indeed, the first victim of the initiative seems to be Starbucks' own communications VP, who was so uncomfortable about the "conversation" the campaign was generating that he deactivated his Twitter account).
In order to get a sense of just how uncomfortable, I went to the four Starbucks closest to my office and asked the baristas about race. It is difficult to put into words the relief of never having to do so ever again.
Like most Americans, I had only a foggy, Cliff's Notes notion of this campaign at the outset. Starbucks was definitely asking baristas to speak to customers about Ferguson and other race-related issues, with all locations technically participating, but the finer details remained a mystery. Were the baristas, presumably already quite busy, receiving any training, or getting paid extra for this? Were there boundaries in place, or at least prescribed talking points or verbal no-fly zones? I decided, for the sake of the experiment, to pick up on those details as many of the frappe-crazed masses would—on the spot. So I set out for the nearest coffee shop, information-gaps and all, to have a deeply personal and political conversation with an apron-clad stranger.
It was only within the autumn-toned belly of a Starbucks that I realized I should probably have something on deck for when the over-the-counter summit began. I considered asking for thoughts about Empire, the hot ratings-juggernaut that famously features no white central characters. If it's not racist for me, a white male, to use Empire as a springboard into skin-color, though, it's at least patronizing. For the next minute, I chastise myself about almost doing that. Finally, I land on the recent SAE fraternity scandal, where a busload of future-senators were filmed chanting in favor of segregation. Later, I chastise myself further for arriving at a topic that seems so designed to distinguish myself, a white male, as "one of the good guys."
When it's my turn, I order a small coffee and glance at all the people on line behind me. It's so many people—at least enough to fill a jury box. If the barista and I are to have an effective meditation on identity politics, all of these people are going to be made to wait. It's the first time that the wild impracticality of this campaign, as I understand it, fully dawns on me. Could Schultz really expect people on line to patiently wait while the barista and I—and the rest of America, by extension—make inroads toward unity? Perhaps once I start the conversation, an assistant would come along and take me aside so that we may approach enlightenment more privately.
When the barista, a young wavy-haired Latino, brought my change, I spoke my truth. "This is a little embarrassing," I began, "but I was wondering what happens if I want to talk about race."
His eyebrows narrow as though I've just asked him whether he has a minute to talk about green energy. After I mention having heard about a promotion, though, he understands. He gets a fresh cup for my small coffee and, while scribbling on it with a Sharpie, he explains more about the campaign. It's called #RaceTogether, and baristas like him are being urged to write this hashtag on coffee cups in hopes of sparking meaningful conversation and spreading awareness of
Starbucks racial issues.
"Thanks for reminding me," he continues. "I was writing it more yesterday, but a lot of the customers were not super into it." He makes air-quotes during the last three words, leading me to believe those other customers were so not into it as to be far away, observing the inside of "it" through binoculars while shaking their heads emphatically.
The explanation ends without any conversational drawbridges lowered to bring us to the topic of Eric Garner or Michael Brown. We are not talking about race, we are talking about talking about race, and that is it. Even doing just that took long enough, though, to make both the barista and the already antsy customers visibly antsier. As I leave, I can hear him ask the next poor guy if he's heard of #RaceTogether, and I feel a little queasy about the domino effect of this visit.
Now that I've experienced this campaign in action, I realize why it's familiar. Although the trend seems to have tapered off recently, Trader Joe's must have at one point urged its cashiers to always have a friendly chat with customers. How else to account for the consistent conversations I've had about what kind of party I must be throwing with so much Speculoo's Cookie Butter? (Um, the best damn party of your whole life.) Of course, the mandatory nature of these conversations sometimes made them veer beyond the amusingly banal into the realm of debasement. Those people were being forced in some way to make the smallest possible small talk with me, even though they were perhaps not "super into it."
The other customer service moment this campaign reminds me of is when certain pharmacy cashiers are made to ask customers to donate in support of breast cancer awareness, or something similar. In a technical sense, the pharmacy's heart, such as it exists, is in the right place, supporting a worthy cause. In a more accurate sense, though, this pharmacy might be forcing me to tell a human being that I'm too much of a self-centered cheapskate to support a worthy cause. Starbucks seekers will soon be put in a similar position when forced to decline helping to heal our nation's deepest wound in favor of not being slightly late for Trapfit class.
After visiting the next two neighboring Starbucks in quick succession, it's become clear that nobody on either side of the counter wants to talk about race. They want to talk about coffee, and transacting around it as expeditiously as science allows. (What I'd rather talk about at this point is how many people pay for coffee with their phones now instead of their wallets. Did this just become a thing overnight? And if not, then where the hell have I been?) In both the second and third visit, I placed my coffee order and, upon receiving it, asked what happens if I want to talk about race. The baristas at both spots, both of whom are black, seem only vaguely familiar with the concept. They just know they're supposed to write #RaceTogether on the sides of some coffee cups. One of their managers hears my question and explains that the promotion hasn't actually begun.
"I think it's starting next week," he says. "We're gonna write #ComeTogether on all the cups that we hand out, and stickers. I think, the whole Trayvon Martin, trying to just, I would say, merge between the community and the police department."
Who could blame him for putting this off? I wouldn't want to write #RaceTogether on coffee cups and have to humor media people and the terminally curious with all their guinea-pig fascination. At this moment, #RaceTogether still has enough mystery to be viewed abstractly as this ridiculous idea that hasn't quite happened yet—like if we'd all heard tell of the selfie stick two or three years ago. It's the reason half of the baristas I ordered from giggled in a sheepish way while explaining the campaign. As of March 17, just after 6 p.m., they have yet to experience the reality of having to inquire what Starbucks customers claim to think about how institutionalized racism kills unarmed black people.
Perhaps they never will, though.
When I make my final coffee order, from another barista who is black, I have the following exchange:
Me: This is a little embarrassing, but I was wondering if you wanted to talk about race.
Him: What to say about it?
Me: I don't know, I just saw there was that promotion going on.
Him: Oh yeah.
Me: Yeah. Like, what happens if someone wants to talk about it?
Him: I don't know. Nothing.
No corporation can force people to have an honest conversation about America's race problem. They'll either have one or they won't. Simply presenting them with the opportunity, though, doesn't even raise awareness of the matter; it just raises awareness of Starbucks's awareness. The more you pat yourself on the back for being conscious of an issue, the more it seems like exploitation. What kind of positive change could actually come from a large number of people knowing that Starbucks wants people to talk about race? I don't know. Nothing.
Watch the video below to see our favorite #racetogether tweets: