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In praise of Starbucks’ #racetogether

There are a lot of things wrong with how Starbucks implemented its “Race Together” program for which it deserves the mockery it’s been getting. Whether it was intended to stimulate discussions with busy baristas (“So, you want that with nonfat milk and we shouldn’t fill it to the brim. Right? What’s it like being white? Did you say ‘Nicky’ or ‘Mickey’?”) or among customers who in my experience have never struck up a conversation with another customer that was not met by a cold stare or a faked incoming text, it was unlikely to achieve its intended result. (Schultz seems to indicate it was to be a barista-to-customer conversation; see 0:20 in the John Oliver clip linked to “mockery” above.) Likewise, the overwhelming male whiteness of the Starbuck’s leadership team was an embarrassment waiting to happen. The apparent use of only white hands holding cups in the marketing campaign was inconceivably stupid (and yet still better than this).

Yet there’s much that Starbucks deserves praise for more than just its recognition that racial issues permeate our American culture and yet are more often papered over than discussed frankly.

  • They trusted their on-the-line employees to speak for themselves, and inevitably for the corporation as well, rather than relying on a handful of tightly constrained and highly compensated mouthpieces.

  • They have held a series of open forums for their employees at corporate events, encouraging honest conversation.

  • They did not supply talking points for their employees to mouth. That’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, they seem also to have provided no preparation for their baristas, as if anyone can figure out how to open up a productive conversation about race in America. The made-up phrase “racetogether” really isn’t enough to get a conversation going and off to a good start. (Michelle Norris’ Race Card Project might have provided a better way of opening conversations.)

Starbucks got lots wrong. Too bad. But not only was it trying to do something right, it did so in some admirable ways. Starbucks deserves the sarcasm but not just sarcasm.

[Disclosure: No, Starbucks isn’t paying me to say any of this. Plus I hate their coffee. (The fact that I feel the need to put in this disclaimer is evidence of the systemic damage wrought by “native ads” and unscrupulous marketers.)]

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