Community Hub: Why Starbucks Is a Great Place to Talk About Race

One view on Starbucks’ new race initiative.
(Photo: 'Los Angeles Times'/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This week Starbucks, the world’s largest chain of coffee shops, launched “Race Together,” a bold initiative that is already driving provocative conversations about race. Starbucks baristas are encouraged to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and, possibly, talk with customers about race. The initiative has raised a bunch of complicated questions. In the essay below, two Yale University professors assess “Race Together.” (Here’s a counterpoint.)

By Briallen Hopper and Vesla Weaver

Almost immediately after Starbucks announced its “Race Together” campaign to bring racial conversations into its U.S. coffee shops, the criticism began. Black Twitter got creative with the #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag, proposing that Starbucks start serving “Malcolm Xpresso” and “Tea Shall Overcome.”

More seriously, many commenters noted the campaign’s significant problems. There’s the dubiousness of promoting racial discussion for corporate gain, the sparse racial diversity within Starbucks’ executive ranks, and the burden being placed on the baristas who are expected to initiate and manage extraordinarily difficult conversations about race. Let’s be honest. It’s impractical to have meaningful interactions about such a complicated topic in a busy coffee line.

These are important criticisms. But before we totally dismiss “Race Together” as a misguided attempt at corporate social responsibility, we should reflect on the potential positives. It’s worth remembering that what Starbucks is proposing is radical. Like the “Black Brunch” actions—which disrupted majority-white leisure spaces with reminders of the experience of being black—Starbucks is asking us to deal with race in our daily lives. And the truth is, Starbucks could be a great place to have conversations about race.

Let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves: When and where do Americans from different racial backgrounds talk about race with one another? Race—and inequality—permeates our existence as Americans. Conversations about race happen all the time in various spaces. But the truth is, these are mostly intra-group conversations.

In general, we confine interracial discussions about race to a limited number of officially designated places: political speeches, Black History Month, civil rights movement anniversaries, or corporate diversity training. We may talk about race in crisis moments with obvious racial overtones—such as Ferguson. But there are so many reasons why we don’t have interracial conversations about race. For starters, many of us live in racially homogeneous neighborhoods, go to work and school in racially segregated places, and worship in churches where everyone looks like us. As recent research has found, our social networks—the social playgrounds of the 21st century—are incredibly un-diverse, especially among whites.

As a result, many white Americans do not have to regularly think about someone else’s racial experience. In segregated spaces, one’s own racial looking glass becomes normalized while another group’s recedes. Of course, integrated space alone does not lead to meaningful interaction.

Starbucks has smartly recognized that its stores are one of our society’s truly diverse places. Americans of every race and class can be found in Starbucks. Starbucks’ strategy basically says: Let’s tap into these unique spaces and drive interaction across racial lines. It’s explicitly turning the company’s space into a public good. It’s up to us—all Americans—to decide if we’re up to the challenge.

Doesn’t the integrated space of a coffee shop offer up the chance for interracial racial discourse to elicit broader consciousness? Why do we assume this racial exchange should be confined to times of crisis or celebration or contexts of segregated space?

“Race Together” may be problematic, but so is the status quo. Regardless of whether we choose to talk to our barista about race, we need to acknowledge the powerful role race plays in our everyday experiences. We need to be committed to being conscious of each other’s racial experience, even in situations where it would be easier not to be. Otherwise, we’ll be destined to have these conversations only in moments of crisis or staid celebrations.

How could this go wrong? Very easily. But this risk is part of what makes it valuable. The risk of awkwardness, the openness to rupture in the daily routine, the choice to see baristas or customers as human beings with racial thoughts and opinions: Regardless of what happens with “Race Together,” these are experiments that are worth making.

Briallen Hopper is a lecturer in English at Yale University with a focus on American and black literature and political protest. She has written for The Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a fellow at the Op-Ed Project, which brings diverse voices into public debate.

Vesla Weaver is an assistant professor of political science and African American Studies at Yale University. She is a fellow at the Op-Ed Project, which brings diverse voices into public debate.