If talking to your barista about race relations when you’re jonesing for a venti mocha latte sounds like a really bad idea, you’re not alone. Social media users and media pundits piled on Starbucks Corporation and its CEO, Howard Schultz, for the coffee chain's RaceTogether campaign, which encouraged -- but didn’t require -- baristas to initiate conversations about post-Ferguson race relations in the United States by writing “RaceTogether” on coffee cups. “If a customer asks you why this is,” Schultz announced, “try to engage in a discussion that we have problems in this country in regards to race.”
Aside from the inevitable Twitter fallout, with amateur comedians and punsters coming out in droves, and writers firing off think pieces -- including one from Entrepreneur magazine, which derided Starbucks for being "tone-deaf and self-aggrandizing," chastising it for releasing press photos for the event "that appear to feature only white employees" -- the question naturally arises: How do Starbucks baristas feel about being pressured by their top boss to initiate what could be uncomfortable conversations about a sensitive subject? Is anyone really writing "RaceTogether" on cups?
"I find the #RaceTogether campaign a little unsettling," one African-American Chicago-area Starbucks barista wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
That barista spoke with International Business Times about his experience and about the campaign that he and his coworkers learned about only on Saturday -- and were to begin implementing on Monday for one week. The 23-year-old journalism grad, who asked that his name not be used, has worked at Starbucks for eight months and said he considers it the "perfect" job until the right job comes along. We refer to him here as “J.”
“They called us back at the beginning or end of shift, and said, ‘Hey, take 10 to 15 minutes to glance over this three-to-four-page packet," J. said of the first time he heard of the RaceTogether campaign, on Saturday. Workers were encouraged to ask the manager any questions, he said, but "they didn’t give us guidelines about how to conduct such a discourse."
He added, "It’s unrealistic given that Starbucks is an in-and-out thing. We are encouraged to talk to our customers and give them the best service possible, but it’s a brief exchange.”
J. told IBTimes that if a barista wrote "RaceTogether" on a cup, tried to initiate a conversation with a customer, and the customer responded negatively or even abusively, it was suggested by the manager that baristas just "move along" and "don't take the conversation further." But in the three days he'd worked since the campaign started, he'd seen none of his fellow baristas write "RaceTogether" on cups or wear or use the "RaceTogether" stickers they were given.
"I applaud the idea in theory," he said. "Hey, let’s hash this out. This is serious. We care about the community. It’s just good in theory. It looks good on paper, but I don’t know if Starbucks headquarters had a think tank or bounced this off people."
In fact, Howard Schultz went to many cities around the country and had meetings with 2,000 baristas. "Starbucks claims," according to Entrepreneur, "that, in these forums, employees said they wanted to begin conversations with customers to encourage 'greater understanding, empathy and compassion toward one another.'"
Part Of A Larger Conversation
One problem with the campaign, as J. saw it, was that there aren't a lot of Starbucks shops in communities where such conversations might make the most sense. "Even my friends who don’t work there, who are people of color -- they don’t see Starbucks in their neighborhoods, or a neighborhood where their demographic is represented the most, or where race relations are probably the most relevant."
J. said his friends have asked him, "Why don’t you put a Starbucks where I live? Let’s start there."
When asked what he meant when he tweeted that the RaceTogether campaign was "unsettling," he prefaced his answer by saying he doesn't have a "beef" with Starbucks and that employees are treated well, citing the "great benefits."
"When I’m working at Starbucks and I’m making people their drinks for a brief two minutes, max," he said, "I’m engaging in a short relation with them over a cup of coffee."
"But when I write 'RaceTogether,' or wear a sticker, or put a sticker on something, personally being an African-American man, my point of view isn’t encapsulated in that nutshell," he said. "Too much has happened, and I feel too strongly about it."
"What if this worked exactly how they wanted it to?" he added. "What if someone genuinely gets engaged, and they really want to know how I feel? They really want to know what I think? We’re talking about an hour or two-hour conversation. I’m getting emotional. I’m telling how I feel. I’m giving my experiences ...I just don’t think that’s the setting. When I say it’s unsettling, I mean, what do they expect? What do they want? That’s what I meant by the tweet. “
For Jennifer Epps-Addison, executive director for Wisconsin Jobs Now, a nonprofit labor rights organization, Starbucks' problems, as she and her organization see it (and as Starbucks workers relay to her), are low wages, erratic scheduling practices, and oftentimes promotions and pay raises that don't benefit workers of color.
"If 40 percent of workers are people of color, and only 15 percent of your executives are," Epps-Addison said to IBTimes, "then it seems clear that the first place that you want to start dealing with race and racism is in your own corporation."
She also questioned whether Starbucks managers had safety measures in place in the event a race conversation provoked a negative customer reaction, and suggested the campaign has the potential to produce a hostile work environment. "Not every Starbucks employee is going to have the same feeling about race and racism," Epps-Addison said.
Epps-Addison cited the case of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed 31-year-old black man who was fatally shot 14 times by a police officer in April 2014 in a park across from a Starbucks in Milwaukee. It was decided in December of that year that the officer would not be charged in Hamilton's death.
"What initiated his police interaction was multiple calls from Starbucks workers," said Epps-Addison. "What if the workers at this particular Starbucks wanted to put a particular hashtag 'Dontre Hamilton' on a cup in this downtown-Milwaukee Starbucks?" she asked. "Would that be welcomed by the corporation? Supported by management?"
It remains to be seen how the Starbucks campaign, which is in partnership with USA Today, will be viewed when it's over, and Schultz and Starbucks SVP of Global Communications Corey DuBrowa, who has received what he calls abuse on Twitter, have finished their PR speeches on the topic.
J. said he and his fellow baristas in Chicago understood what Starbucks was trying to do. “There is sincerity. I and my co-workers understand the thought behind it," he said. "The intentions are pure. But echoing what I said before, it’s impractical.”