Confronting Race with a Cup of Coffee

by Tiffany Puett

Starbucks has recently launched a campaign to create a
national dialogue on race. Feeling disturbed by racial tensions and unrest from Ferguson to Staten Island, CEO Howard Schultz was moved to begin a conversation among employees about race. This eventually led to the creation of the ‘Race Together’ campaign, where baristas will write ‘Race Together’ on customers’ cups and begin a discussion on race issues in America.

Starbucks’ press releases don’t offer much in terms of details, but it appears that these conversations will focus on sharing one’s feelings and becoming aware of personal biases. Many criticisms  of the campaign take aim at its implementation, arguing that expecting baristas to initiate dialogue on racism is the wrong approach. Asking the lowest paid, most racially diverse employees to do this difficult work is misguided, especially given Starbucks’ lack of diversity at the executive level, which this Colorlines piece illustrates.

Becoming aware of one’s own social location and individual biases is certainly a step toward confronting racism. But focusing this effort solely on individual attitudes, as the ‘Race Together’ campaign does, demonstrates a basic misconception of how racism works. An image on the Starbucks website shows a cup with the words “When it comes to race, we are all human.” This ‘color blind’ approach assumes that racism is the result of individual prejudice, a matter of personal attitudes, which can be remedied through conversation and better understanding. If individuals could just transcend their differences and their own personal biases, then racism could be eliminated.

But, fundamentally, this is not how racism operates. Racism is a structural feature of American society. Individual prejudices are but a symptom of this structure. Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant define race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies… despite its uncertainties and contradictions, the concept of race continues to play a fundamental role in structuring and representing the social world” (p. 55).  Historically, American society, including our economy, political system, and educational system, has been structured by unshared power, systems of domination, and systemic exclusion.

As an individual, you may believe that all people are inherently equal and personally reject racism, while continuing to benefit from unshared power and racist social structures. Talking about your personal disdain for racism won’t transform it. However, conversations about social structures of oppression, which then lead to actual policy and institutional changes, do have the potential to transform racism. In the meantime, the ‘color blind’ approach to racism just ignores the real roots of the issue.

Starbucks clearly states that their ‘Race Together’ campaign is only meant to be a start,  “an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time,” according to Schultz. But inclusive societies don’t get created through mere conversations. This requires actual structural changes. This start would be far more effective if Starbucks’ corporate leadership—especially those with the most privilege– went through a rigorous anti-racism training. This kind of training might help them see the critical response to ‘Race Together’ not as a personal affront, but as a call for real work on structural oppression. Taking the reaction to this initiative seriously means not deleting Twitter accounts to avoid it, but working toward their objective of inclusivity through affecting their own institutional change, addressing  wage gaps and other policies that reflect larger structural inequalities. This is a different kind of conversation– one that takes more than a single cup of coffee.

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