Starbucks Got IT All Wrong: Why ‘Race Together’ Was Doomed for failure

March 30th, 2015 in News

A few weeks ago everyone was in a frenzy over a very “bold” statement that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz created to stir up conversation around the topic of race in its coffee stores. The criticism was swift as loyal customers proclaimed they had no interest in discussing race relations over their morning cup of joe.

 

Then most recently Schultz announced that the largest coffee store chain in the world would “stop putting the words ‘Race Together’ on their cups.

 

Have you ever seen a conversation around race between people who were backed into it? Well, I have, and I have also seen the look on people’s faces as they scan the room for the closest exit.

 

Have you ever seen someone speak on race that had absolutely no clue about the racial climate in their city, not to mention their country? I’m sure if you have, you were standing there either biting your tongue, or wanting to pull your hair out.

From Fortune 500 companies, to small businesses, to colleges and universities, I have spoken to various groups about diversity and inclusion. These talks have allowed people to come together around an extremely important issue within our society. I have witnessed as individuals shared their deepest thoughts regarding the topic. At times, those conversations grew into shouting matches or confusion and intolerance, but most times they revealed a deeper level of understanding and created an “eye opening” experience for many in the room.

 

I can’t imagine trying to wrap all of those emotions up into a 2-minute conversation, from the time I order my cup of coffee, to the time I receive it from the barista at the end of the counter. Logistically, this does not make sense to most people.

Asking baristas to start a conversation around race, without the proper tools or training, was flawed from the beginning.

 

In small cities, more conservative cities, the subject of race is whispered by many in an attempt to avoid making people uncomfortable, and shouted from the mountaintops by others, to reveal injustices as it relates to race. These conversations, the meaningful ones anyway, are not easy.

 

I want to believe (and I do) that the intentions of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to start up a healthy dialogue around race, is actually a great idea. Yet, I wonder about the actual thought and planning that went into such a decision?

 

Who was on the planning team? How would they handle situations where conversations went really, really bad?

 

Unfortunately, I do not believe that Starbucks thought this one through to the end. It was more likely a hastily devised plan to capitalize on a hot topic. A poor idea masterminded by those who sit in their ivory towers looking down on the rest of us singing “what a wonderful world it would be”.

 

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t live in ivory towers and they have to deal with the repercussions that racial insensitivity and blatant racial discrimination bring to our “front door” on a daily basis. We understand, that although a conversation is a starting point, there is a bigger issue at hand.

 

Yet, it’s hard not to visualize some poor 19–year-old white kid in a Starbucks, totally ill-prepared to talk about race relations, struggling to have that conversation with a 50+ year old black man. If that isn’t enough, Starbucks is also assuming that each of their employees share their same feelings and intent.

 

Nice try Starbucks, but let’s try a little harder next time.

 

Sevetri owns a strategic communications firm in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She often speaks on topics related to diversity, inclusion and innovation. You can reach her at @sevetriwilson via her social media outlets.


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