Starbucks’ Scribblings Can’t Induce Public to ‘Race Together’

Larenda Myres holds an iced coffee drink with a "Race Together" sticker on it at a Starbucks store in Seattle on Wednesday, March 18.

Those of us who make our living by talking about race in America know that it’s a risky business, not one for the weak-kneed or thin-skinned. The scratchy subject of race relations—so fraught with peril—is often described as a third-rail issue, best ignored or left overlooked to avoid public detonation.

My guess—borne of decades of personal experiences in trying to bridge yawning racial chasms in places as exposed as newspaper columns and public forums—is that Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard D. Schultz might wish he had thought more deeply before suggesting that his legions of baristas engage in dangerous dialogue. Last week, the coffee chief executive directed the company’s servers to scribble the phrase “Race Together” on customers’ cups. The idea was to spark conversations about racial issues over steaming mugs of java.

Anyone who has labored in the multiculturalism field could have told the Starbucks crowd that the morning rush for a cup o’ joe is not the optimal time for an extended dialogue on race. Predictably, the idea backfired, sparking flaming ridicule in social media circles. The hostilities blazed so hot that one Starbucks executive, Senior Vice President for Global Communications Corey duBrowa, temporarily deleted his Twitter account, citing “a cascade of negativity.”

Schultz called off the experiment Sunday in a letter to employees, telling baristas to stop writing the phrase—and, perhaps, to resume misspelling their customers’ names—on cups. “While there has been criticism of the initiative—and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you—let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” Schultz wrote.

I could have warned Schultz or duBrowa or the thousands of green-and-white cup offering baristas that someone was bound to get their feelings hurt or face splashed for trying to engage the reluctant public with racial chitchat. Without the callouses of practice to inform company policy—let alone a trained facilitator guiding debates from behind the cash register at every shop—very few of the company’s employees could tolerate the withering reaction from customers that inevitably followed efforts at candid and public racial conversation in your nearest java joint.

There are many obstacles impeding effective conversations about race, and Starbucks’ effort succumbed to the usual pitfalls. Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, points to what she calls “white fragility” as one reason why race talk is so problematic. In her 2011 article for The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, she argues, “white people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.” Conversations that emphasize racial disparity evoke great discomfort. DiAngelo writes that this phenomenon often derails efforts to look critically at race in America:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

In other words, we can’t have honest racial talk in this nation because white people just won’t allow it.

If DiAngelo’s research is accurate, it makes Starbucks’ “Race Together” initiative admirable and revolutionary. To be sure, this nation needs more racial conversations and I’m convinced that white, male corporate titans are ideal personalities to lead it. Some, such as Schultz, are bold and daring enough to try out of genuine concern and business self-interest.

As Simon Mainwaring wrote for Forbes, the Starbucks effort was a part of a nascent trend by some high-profile and socially responsible companies to do good in the world as they pocket great profits:

Howard Schultz, like many visionary leaders, has built an enormously successful business on the strength of core values that are close to his heart. Those same values beg an opportunity to transcend their products, services, and category to lead conversations that shape culture. We see this approach being used by other brands, where it be Unilever with ‘Sustainable Living,’ Chipotle’s commitment to sustainable agriculture, or Chobani’s ‘How matters.’ Such conversations are not an accident. … The reality is that brands now operate in a marketplace defined by new business drivers. These include a consumer market in which customers vote for brands with their dollars, being fully aware of social crises that society and our planet faces such as climate change loss of biodiversity, and disparity of wealth.

But good intentions aren’t enough. For all its grand ideas, Starbucks’ attempt to spark meaningful conversations about race was still sidelined by the same obstacles that have stalled the debate for decades. Sometimes trying to do or to say the right thing leads to misunderstanding or, worse, outright enmity. Social scientists have a word for it: microaggression, the brief yet common verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights that communicate negative attitudes, typically toward people of color.

Speaking last week at an environmental conference and job fair, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a leading scholar on multicultural issues and author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, explained the concept to a luncheon audience of young people of color seeking careers in the green economy. “When someone says to me, an Asian man who was born in Portland, Oregon, ‘You speak perfect English’ they think they’ve paid me a compliment,” he said. “But the meta meaning of that microaggression is they’re saying I’m not like them, I’m different, I’m a stranger in my own land.”

Just as white fragility shuts down meaningful conversations, microaggressions deepen the divides their perpetrators are clumsily trying to bridge. In a sense, the tragedy of the Starbucks “Race Together” initiative was that it came across as a microaggression, scaled up to corporate proportions. The effort to encourage customers to talk about race might have been well intentioned, but it struck too many people as an attempt to mass-produce unwanted and uncomfortable conversation.

It was too much for a go-along-to-get-along society that wants to avoid racial discussions. This is what Attorney General Eric Holder meant when he accused the U.S. of being “a nation of cowards” for our unwillingness to talk about race.

So how might Schultz have prepared his employees and customers for a productive racial conversation? Perhaps it would have been wiser for Starbucks to keep the proposal in house, experimenting with employee-only focus groups before venturing into deep waters with the public. Maybe the company could have posted store signage or broadcast corporate-image advertising to foreshadow a dialogue with coffee drinkers. Or the company could have set aside an hour or two and invited concerned customers into selected stores for a coffee klatch with race relations as the topic. Bottom line: It’s never a good idea to spring a racial surprise on anyone.

The shame of “Race Together” wasn’t its poorly conceived and executed effort or the snarky jokes that brought Starbucks ridicule. Rather, the real pity is that the company’s brave initiative didn’t lay the necessary groundwork to prepare bleary-eyed coffee drinkers for the will and rigor needed to confront a racially divided country.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.