Starbucks pokes the bear

It’s either an ingenious marketing idea or an epic branding disaster. No matter what side of the Starbucks firestorm you fall on it seems a lot of folks missed the point when the company known for its neighborhood coffee, launched an innocent enough initiative to get people talking about race. Instead of taking it at face value the ‘mean girls’ and guys went straight to mocking it. If only, that is where it ended.

The fact that some of the reaction over a good faith gesture devolved into the very kind of snarkiness, racial insensitivity, ideologic disrespect and language not fit to write, only magnifies why this communal conversation needs to happen no matter how it happens. There is never going to be a right time until there is. It is clearly an uncomfortable topic. And isn’t that the point? We all have varying, value based opinions as well as misconceptions and stereotypes that need to be broken through.

“The rules of engagement, when it comes to this issue in America, must change.” – Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO

Starbucks has boldly taken the discussion outside the corporate walls and into communities where people of all backgrounds gather. That should be applauded. Okay so, you might not want to strike up a conversation half awake and waiting in line for that morning jolt, but what about after that? When you sit down to sip on that Chai Tea Latte? Or right before you power up that laptop and tune out the world around you? Why not take a minute or two to simply get to know the person next to you, who might be of a different background. Frankly, that is part of the problem. We can be so quick to want to get in and out of where we’re going with as minimal contact possible, we miss the world outside of our own. That kind of thinking builds walls, barriers and misplaced assumptions. We’re all guilty of it. The point here is, when we take a moment to spark a conversation we learn something that may have everything or nothing to do with race. At the least, we’re friendly to a stranger and at best, may find a lifelong friend or grow more informed about a subculture.

It is more than ironic, that in a society where speed dating and swapping saliva on national television with total strangers is almost the norm, sharing a candid conversation over a cup of joe with one is too intrusive. For some, the setting might be just the opportune time. After that sip or two, most of us are relaxed and more apt to chat and listen. For others, maybe not, and that’s fine too. But the most inopportune is following an instance of real or perceived injustice, when anger and raw emotion are at peak levels. There has to be a happy medium.

No, it shouldn’t have to take a marketing campaign by a corporate giant to force a societal conversation on racism. It shouldn’t have to. But then again, why not? Think Cheerios. Policymakers aren’t the only ones who have a stake. These are people who also live and invest in our communities everyday. It’s called corporate responsibility and we could all take a page. Sometimes, however inartful it may seem, this is exactly what it takes. An idea meant to poke, prod, create a spark, gets us thinking and expand the conversation beyond what is, or isn’t in many cases, already taking place.

No one expects the barista to solve racial conflict, but we can all embrace the broader narrative: the impetus is on each of us to move outside of our comfort zone and into a place of action.


Leave a Reply