By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard about Starbucks’ Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz wanting to start a discussion about race in America. He started by holding forums over the past three months in which more than 2,000 Starbucks partners (their term for employees) discussed racial issues in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York and Chicago.
They wanted to broaden the discussion to include their customers, so partners in those same cities began voluntarily writing “Race Together” on Starbucks cups. On March 13, the company reported that partners in all Starbucks stores in the U.S. joined the “movement.”
While Schultz acknowledged that Race Together was not a solution, “it is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathic and inclusive society—one conversation at a time,” he said.
In a story in Rolling Stone, a reporter hung out at a Starbucks to see how the short-lived program was working. Jeb Lund talked with customers who summarized that “for any employee, it’s another level of accountability they put on people…it’s to make the corporate offices feel better, but I don’t see the advantage other than more stressors…it’s too busy, there’s too much traffic. I don’t see the opportunity to have any meaningful dialogue.”
Just yesterday, Sunday, March 22, Schultz circulated a memo saying that baristas will no longer write Race Together on cups after the effort was met with backlash from the general public.
For the record, I am a big fan of the Starbucks culture. I’m also a fan of the spirit behind this effort. At the same time, improving race relations isn’t going to happen solely because Starbucks employees write “Race together” on cups. One reason is that, while intended to open a conversation, venue matters. Have you ever been to a crowded Starbucks? Their coffee lines are the dictionary definition of efficiency…which might not make them the best place for starting such an important dialogue. So if it opened anything, it was probably only passing comments.
Another reason why this effort may not, on it’s own, make much of a dent is that, generally speaking, people hate to be “fixed.” So it’s easy to understand how being engaged in a conversation about unconscious bias by a stranger could be off-putting to some. It forces us to admit that we’re broken somehow. And even if we are, looking into that mirror when we just wanted a cup of coffee might be a bit much for some of us.
All this said, I applaud the sentiment and the effort! Does something need to be done to improve race relations in the U.S.? Yes. And while that takes both soul-searching and earnest conversations to explore and understand others’ viewpoints and their experiences, maybe Starbucks’ efforts will prod us to be a bit more curious about the “what if?”. What if we COULD get on the same page? What if my tiny efforts COULD make a meaningful impact, if only for a few people?
“Curiosity (vs. suspicion) about differences is like a bolt of lightning because it is the catalyst for meaningful engagement.”
This crucial shift in mindset and heart-set then sets the stage for something more powerful. Respect. Respect and appreciation for each others’ backgrounds leads to empathy and the gradual diminishing of the biases that alienate us from one another. But there can be no respect without curiosity followed up with non-defensive dialogue. That takes open minds…and it takes time.
Maybe Starbucks’ fleeting effort will start that conversation outside of busy coffee shops and it really will shed much-needed light on unconscious biases and the need to take the time to understand and appreciate all people. Because, as Schultz said, “I think this is really important, not so much for the company, but for the country.” So do I.