Last month, Starbucks Corp. CEO Howard Schultz pulled the plug on his company’s in-store initiative that encouraged baristas to write “Race Together” on cups and talk about race relations with their customers.
This initiative was part of the largest international coffee company’s diversity and racial inequality campaign, which has been met with widespread criticism from social media and television pundits alike since its inception. The phase-out of the cup message writing and barista participation was not in response to the public’s reaction, but a pre-scheduled catalyst for a larger conversation, according to a company memo from Schultz.
Schultz has a reputation for being a capitalist with a conscience due to his public stance of supporting veterans, same-sex marriage and asking customers not to bring firearms into his company’s stores.
But while it’s noble for Schultz, or anyone, to want to make the world a more harmonious place, urging complete strangers to discuss a charged subject during a simple business transaction is counterproductive. Also, the effects of Starbucks productivity and wait times for customers no doubt collectively irritated people of all races. Frustration and inconvenience are not two great starting points for a thoughtful discussion on any subject, let alone race relations.
But people are publicly talking about race in America thanks to this poorly executed campaign. Perhaps that was the idea all along: just get people talking.
Here’s the problem with that idea.
Aside from the one-on-one conversations I’ve had with friends of a different ethnicity, and some real, unfiltered dialogues with current and former foster youth, I have never been involved in or seen a productive conversation about race.
Whenever race is discussed openly, the narrative is always the same: how white people are bad racists and should all atone for their ancestor’s actions (if they were even in this country during slavery). Also, you’ll never see a discussion on how before the Civil War, there were thousands of black slave owners in this country. Instead, this singular narrative in the media is what I’ve seen played out in child welfare meetings when I was part of the California Disproportionality Project, an initiative that examined the system’s role in the disproportionate numbers of black and latino children in care.
Part of the reason why those personal discussions were invaluable and generative is because everyone felt safe enough to really let loose. There were dialogues, not monologues. You can’t force that kind of connection in a Starbucks line or in a meeting where roles are clearly established and fear of political fallout is imminent.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been part of those meetings. I have nothing to gain here by admitting that while the leadership in those disproportionality meetings were genuine and passionate about creating an open forum for discussions on race, the resulting message was generally the same as what we’ve seen in the media so far: white is bad, everyone else is good and to suggest or highlight otherwise would be racist.
Back then, when I brought up the fact that race is not the sole factor in child welfare entries, but that low-income levels was also a common denominator and child welfare is a repository of the prison system, my points were not addressed. It was as if I never spoke.
I also got a lot of pushback when I noted that the room’s reaction was different during an exercise where we all had to recall derogatory names for each ethnic group we’ve heard used. When the negative, stereotypical names were used on whites, there was a lightness in tone and laughter in the room. When names were used for every other group, the room was silent, solemn and no one dared laugh.
There were so many moments like those that contradicted the openly stated mission of having a real conversation on race. Needless to say, I didn’t speak out more when I noted other inconsistencies in other people’s logic about disproportionate representation in foster care. I became part of the problem when I felt I couldn’t be part of the solution unless I toed the politically correct line.
The issue of racism is important and should continue to be talked about, but those pushing to have those conversations need to be aware and truly open to hearing perspectives that don’t mirror their own.
When I start seeing the media and child welfare meetings have the type of conversations that I’ve had one-on-one, then and only then will true progress be made. I hope to see that kind of movement happen in my lifetime.
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