Why Starbucks’ efforts to spike race conversation has been a steaming topic

If you’re one of the millions of people that visit Starbucks regularly, you may have noticed that your cup was scribbled with more than just your complicated drink order. Last week, rather than promoting a new flavor, Starbucks promoted conversation – and not just small talk. In its “Race Together” campaign, Starbucks encouraged its baristas to stimulate conversation and debate about race and racial issues in America.

Such hot button involvement is not unusual for the coffee company who is no stranger to tipping its cup into “social responsibility.” Earlier this year, Forbes ranked Starbucks fifth in its annual ranking of the world’s most admired companies. Its newest social awareness campaign, “Race Together” formed in light of the recent nationwide tragedies involving race relations in places such as Ferguson, Missouri and New York.

“Race Together is not a solution”, said CEO Howard Schultz, “but it is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time.”


As part of the campaign, Schultz has attempted to initiate such conversation via coffee cup, open forums, and newspaper. Partnering with publisher and president, Larry Kramer, a newspaper supplement co-authored by Starbucks and USA Today will appear in USA Today print editions and will also be distributed at Starbucks stores.

Yet despite the ambition, pushback has halted some of the effort. After just a week of doing so, baristas will no longer write #RaceTogether on patron’s cups. Its aim to cause conversation unfortunately unfolded into mostly criticism.

Rigoberto Hernandez collected quotes about the Race Together campaign in his article “Here’s What People Are Saying About Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ Campaign”. Jessica Goldstein from Think Progress states,

“It is never too surprising when #brands try to seem human, but these transparent efforts only make corporations sound even less like people. … The branding of places like Starbucks are particularly obnoxious: the operation requires you to adopt a nonsensical lexicon that elevates the ordinary (calling a cashier a barista is the equivalent of calling an Apple employee, a.k.a., a glorified RadioShack worker, a “genius”). Even a small is “tall” at Starbucks. A place that manipulates language in this way should not be responsible for “starting a conversation” about anything, least of all an issue as fraught, complex and sensitive as race”.

The announcement of the Race Together campaign was confusing for most. Why would anyone want to engage in a superficial conversation about a heated and important social issue with a coffee barista they have never met before?

In college we were required to read Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks by Bryant Simon. For those of you who haven’t read it, the book explores the Starbucks brand from its origins to its blooming success, how the brand and our lifestyles interact, and most importantly the danger of “pursuing solutions to highly complex social problems through buying and buying alone.” This last idea is extremely important and helps clarify the issues with the current Race Together campaign.

Starbucks thinks their company and products can help solve problems. Their thought process is buying a cup of Starbucks coffee with #Racetogether brings awareness to race issues in America and will maybe inspire people to talk, which will help constitute change.

But why now? In Everything but the Coffee, Simon talks about corporate responsibility, specifically citing Starbucks and the environment. A survey concluded that Americans cared about the environment and wanted the companies they do business with to do the same. With distaste of politics, consumers turned to invest their money in companies that supported what they believed in. Racial tensions have replaced environmental activism as the hot topic, and Starbucks wants to show consumers they also believe in racial equality.

However noble Schultz’s actions are, I find it hard to believe he is doing it purely to foster conversation about race relations. One story in Simon’s work specifically stuck out in my mind. Aaron Roberts, a black Seattle man was shot and killed in 2011 during an attempted pull over for reckless driving. Reverend Robert Jeffery, a social activist, promised to pursue Robert’s killing and the claim that police shoot first and asked questions later. After failed attempts to gain the attention of city leaders, he called for a boycott of Starbucks. His reasoning, “since our votes are not getting us what we need, we need to see if we can get it where we spend our money”. (Insinuating corporations are responsible for such repressive police actions and have the power to reach politicians that individual citizens do not have.) Simon states there is no indication that Starbucks company representatives ever met with Jeffery; still no articles about a meeting pop up in today’s Google search.

Jeffery was right about one thing— corporations have power! Today Starbucks has 21,000 retail stores in over 66 countries. Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz even comments on the companies omnipotence, “ Our objective from the very start of this effort — dating back to our first open forum in Seattle last December — was to stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another, and then to broaden that dialogue beyond just our Starbucks family to the greater American public by using our scale for good.”

Yet how much good Race Together has actually done is left to be questioned. Did the campaign succeed in generating conversation about race? Many say no, and that rather than race, the conversation that was actually started was about Starbucks itself.

While Schultz’s CEO activism is to be generally applauded, was the coffee cup campaign really the right outlet for this discussion? Do baristas even have the time to generate conversation? At any given time, Starbuck’s baristas act like an oiled machine to efficiently take, checkout, and produce hundreds of drink orders. Attempting to pull aside an employee for a discussion, even just for a minute or two, has major implications for logistical operations. From that standpoint alone, the campaign was doomed says Business Insider.

Furthermore, while race relation in America is a conversation Schultz is ready to have, is it one that the baristas and customers are ready for? Entrepreneur says the campaign is unfair to the people who have to dish it out. Putting this immense task on workers, even if it is voluntary, is taxing and unfair. Customers sue restaurants and attack employees over problems as inconsequential as order mix-ups. With hundreds of customers served at a single Starbucks every day, it’s easy to imagine employees suddenly dealing with a slew of ignorant, racist or violent reactions — or individual baristas making ignorant or racist comments themselves.


The question remains, do the majority of customers care about exploring racial issues or do they just care about getting their morning cup of joe? Did you visit a Starbucks last week? Did you baristas prompt you to discuss the campaign? Would you have felt comfortable doing so? Did you even hear anyone in the store discussing race relations? Let us know in a comment below what you think about the campaign.

– Caroline Robinson and Savannah Valade


One thought on “Why Starbucks’ efforts to spike race conversation has been a steaming topic

  1. Pingback: Brands take a stand | Communication Minded

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