Lots of people talk things out over coffee; couples meet, reconcile or break up. Friends get together to catch up and discuss the latest news. Business meetings happen. But if Starbucks latest initiative goes as planned, your barista will be starting up a dialogue about race relations in our country with you.
That’s right. CEO Howard Schultz is encouraging baristas to mark cups with the hashtag #RaceTogether, so that when customers ask what the tag means, the barista can engage customers in a conversation about race in the United States. The initiative is intended to get people talking. Specifically, Schultz told the Starbucks partners (employees) this: “…try and engage in a discussion that we have problems in this country with regard to race and racial inequality, and we believe we’re better than this. And we believe the country is better than this. And if this makes you have a conversation with a customer about the need for compassion, the need for empathy, the need for love towards others, if you can do that with one customer, one day, then you are making a significant difference as we go forward.” And Schultz seems sincere in his efforts: over the last few months he has attended open forums with partners in five cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, to discuss racial issues and to learn about the problems that are faced by minorities. Many people are applauding the effort, saying that peaceful discussion is the first step.
However, the initiative seems to have gained far more detractors than supporters. Criticisms range from the absurdity of having this sort of conversation over the purchase of an expensive coffee with a line of people waiting behind you, to serious accusations against Starbucks regarding the percentage of minorities employed by the company in both lower level and management jobs. In general people appear to agree that conversations need to take place, but that Starbucks is not necessarily the place to have them.
If nothing else, you have to admit that Starbucks has gotten people talking. They may not be the conversations that Starbucks intended, but their name is getting a lot of exposure, and rarely is that bad for a company. And what about the conversations that start out with someone saying, “Did you hear about that stupid thing that Starbucks is doing?” and ends with two people have a sincere, heart-felt talk about race relations in this country.
What do you think? Is this really a good idea, or just an uncomfortable gimmick? If these conversations do occur, will they change anything? What would you do or say if your barista wrote #RaceTogether on your cup?