Power Imbalance: Why Starbucks Is the Wrong Place to Talk About Race

One view on Starbucks’ new race initiative.
(Photo: 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, a Columbia professor assesses “Race Together.” (Here’s a counterpoint.)

By Patrick Wilson

Starbucks should be congratulated for boldly creating spaces in which its employees can share personal experiences with race. These discussions are not easy. But they’re important, especially in the workplace, where we spend so much of our lives. We often joke that people don’t want to talk about serious topics before we’ve had our morning coffee. That rings true. It’s also partly why Starbucks’ new “Race Together” initiative is so interesting.

But here’s the problematic question that comes to my mind when I think about the new initiative: Should Starbucks customers really be talking about race with baristas?

There’s such a power imbalance in most food service establishments, and Starbucks customers are a demanding group. They expect great customer service and coffee—or tea—prepared to exact specifications. They are quick to challenge a barista’s slightest error.

So a barista isn’t in a position to equitably engage a customer in a conversation about race. The barista, for instance, can’t truly challenge a customer’s views on the role race may have played in a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer’s fatal shooting of a black teenager last summer. Nor is the barista empowered to share his personal experience about being profiled, stopped, and arrested by police officers on the way to work—possibly, and simply, for being black. A barista isn’t positioned to talk honestly about her experience with racial discrimination in the workplace.

Asking baristas—many of whom are from historically disenfranchised groups—to own the responsibility of engaging and educating Starbucks’ relatively affluent customers is unfair. It’s an example of how privilege and entitlement still rule, even in movements that claim to be all about driving social progress.

Honest dialogue on charged issues like race need an experienced facilitator. Ideally, the facilitator would minimize power inequities within the group. The privileged must understand how their status frames their views. And people without power must be made to feel capable of honestly stating truths without negative consequences. This can’t happen in a 30-second exchange—especially in an industry in which the customer is always right.

Patrick Wilson is an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. Much of his work focuses on discrimination, trauma, and empowerment issues.