Starbucks and Race: At Least Schultz is Trying Something

Starbucks and Race: At Least Schultz is Trying Something

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Problems do not disappear simply because you are uncomfortable. To be honest, change rarely develops within our comfort zones. 

By Jonathan Shuffield, OUTSpoken

8428653770_158ed20f21_StarbucksAs I sit here in the privacy of my own home, continuing my weekly tradition of waiting until the final hour to write my blog, I am baffled. Not for my usual reasons; struggling to settle on a topic I can sink my teeth into, or worrying if I have anything worthy to say at all. I didn’t have to seek out my subject this time around. It found me, grabbed me and has refused to let go. It’s the issue itself that baffles me and continues to wrestle in my mind. Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me just tell you how it happened and maybe in the process I will feel more solid on the matter.

Picture it: I’m sitting in front of my laptop, deep in concentration when I am interrupted by a voice, “Did you hear about Starbucks and Race Together?” Now I take great pride in keeping up with newsworthy events, but now and then in my crazy schedule and hectic world I am floored by something that I would have to be blind to have missed. In honor of full disclosure, this was one of those times. As I turn around in my chair making some half mumbled guesses from marathons to sales gimmicks, my friend presents me with her Starbucks cup, scrawled along its side is the now infamous pairing, “Race Together.”

As if presenting Exhibit A in some courtroom drama, she begins to explain to me about the concept rolled out by Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz. Very recently, partners (Starbucks employees) were asked to write the words “Race Together” on cups in an effort to start conversations about race relations. Schultz impetus was directly related to current events as he stated in an open letter to all Starbucks employees on December 16, 2014:

“I have watched with a heavy heart as tragic events and unrest have unfolded across America, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, California. Personally, I am deeply saddened by what I have seen, and all too aware of the ripple effect.”

My friend’s words were singed with indignation; she was utterly offended that the suggestion of this conversation would even be brought up. She seemed to come from a view point that there is not a problem if you don’t want there to be a problem and that this conversation threatened to focus more on differences than needed. She wanted to know what I thought. Baffled.

Later that day I took myself down to my favorite Starbucks and while ordering my personalized concoction, I asked the employees about the concept of starting this conversation. The awkward uncomfortable atmosphere was instantaneous. Out of the five employees standing before me, two remained silent and seemed to just stare ahead as if hoping I would not notice them, two more seemed to dance around and him and ha desperately hoping for a task or customer to distract them, and then, there was the one who spoke. Even as she explained the concept, every word seemed to drip with apology. I was told that no employee was forced to do it, only if they were comfortable, that no one had to engage in the conversations. It was obvious that this crew would be happy to accept that out.

I left being more baffled and more confused than I had been at the beginning of the day. I was stunned that the simple act of a dialogue could inspire such uncomfortable trepidation. Everyone seemed to keep saying that we did not need to talk about this, this is not an issue, but the very response says that there is one. I think it was even more surprising to me because in my very community in the past couple of months there have been two major instances of racial tension. Recently the KKK canvassed a neighborhood in the middle of the night near my home with flyers stating that “….you can sleep because the KKK is awake.” Shortly after that incident the president of the local chapter of the NAACP received death threats. Remind me again why people in my own town would say we did not need this conversation?

To assume it is just in the area around me that the uncomfortable bubble resides would be naive.  Simply read any number of articles on this subject and you will begin to see a pattern. Accusations of “just another business gimmick” are thrown about, criticisms of the arrogance of Howard Schultz “believing he could effect change with just a message on a cup” are tossed and judgments on the delivery of the concept are flung. A whole lot of finger-pointing and criticism going on and still no one is talking about race.

Do I believe the suggested questions released in partnership with Starbucks through USA Today were well thought out?  No. Do I think you destroy a whole concept and purpose due to one part being flawed? Definitely not. The troublesome part is that in all of the critiques I have read and spoken with people about there is only a desire to stop this conversation and no suggestions on how we may approach it better. You need only to watch the news and to see what has been going on in our own communities and our nation to realize that an issue exists. To sit back and say we do not need to talk about it is not just naive, it is grotesquely irresponsible. Problems do not disappear simply because you are uncomfortable. To be honest, change rarely develops within our comfort zones.

Say what you will about CEO’s like Howard Schultz, but he is trying to do something. I would rather have a handful of people trying for change, than a million people wasting time telling me why it can’t happen. A conversation needs to happen, whether you are comfortable with that fact or not. No amount of denial or avoidance will change this. You only need to open your eyes and look at our country to grasp this reality. To stand willfully ignorant in the face of genuine fact is dangerous. To be so uncomfortable that you cannot even have a dialogue about an important issue is insanity. Until these two things are no longer so commonplace in our culture, I will remain baffled.

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