The Bad Taste of Starbucks #RaceTogether

It’s 9 a.m., you’re on your way to your first lecture of the day and decide to pop into Starbucks for a relatively overpriced and probably sugar-packed cup of joe. After waiting in a sizable line and idling by the counter, your name is called; you pick up your little white cup to see your (most likely misspelled) name and … what’s this … #RaceTogether?

A recent campaign set forth by caffeine behemoth Starbucks Coffee Company saw corporates encouraging their baristas across the nation to write the words “Race Together” or “Together” on the coffee cups of their patrons. In theory, this would then spark a conversation about race relations, in which the barista and customer would engage in lively and educated discussion and come away from the encounter feeling enlightened and empowered to motivate change.

With this goal in mind, Starbucks teamed up with USA Today, one of the most widely read publications in the country, to “tackle racial issues,” as stated on the elaborate webpage devoted to the collaboration.

Here’s my question: since when did the place you go to for finals week espressos and hangover-cure iced coffees also become the premier platform for informed debate on racial relations?

A video promoting the campaign says the aim is to “get comfortable with an uncomfortable conversation about race;” while I find power in that statement, I also think that there’s a time and a place for that conversation to be a constructive and valuable experience.

Starbucks, in my opinion, is not an environment that would foster that kind of experience.

If you look behind the counter of our campus Starbucks, you will find a team of employees chaotically rushing to pump out Frappucinos and toasted breakfast sandwiches — I can hardly imagine them taking a minute to have a significant conversation about race.

The likely unfruitful reality of how productive these conversations would be are not the only problems I have with the campaign — the marketing behind it is clumsy, at best. You would think an effort to promote a change in the public’s conception of race and diversity would include some actual people of color in the advertising … but you would be mistaken. All of the campaign’s promotional images show exclusively, white hands holding cups emblazoned with “Race Together” — take a moment to relish the irony. This oversight only goes to show how misguided this endeavor really is. I can just imagine the boardroom of Starbucks headquarters, full of old white dudes patting themselves on the back for being so forward-thinking and progressive.

To no one’s surprise, the internet went absolutely batshit when news of the campaign broke. Critics bashed the company for the ignorance in their marketing, and accused Starbucks of trying to profit and gain publicity from the burgeoning racial tensions in current U.S. race relations. The short-lived campaign met its demise in just under a week, with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz stating that his team was not “expecting universal praise” in a memo posted to the company’s official website. Yeah, dude, I’d be surprised if you received any praise at all, given the damage done to the #RaceTogether hashtag on Twitter.

So, the chances that you might find anything other than a chicken-scratch version of your name on the side of your coffee have dwindled back down to zero. While the coffee cup controversy has been shut down, USA Today will still be promoting the campaign throughout the year, with “special sections” devoted to Race Together. This, at least, holds more credibility than the proposed customer-barista interactions. Schultz states that the cup initiative was “just the catalyst for a much broader (…) conversation.”

While the intent behind the campaign can’t be faulted, the execution was just too shoddy and attention-seeking to actually come to anything good. Even in the best case scenario, with a conscious and inclusive campaign that succeeded in opening up constructive and helpful dialogue, it would still ring with a note of insincerity. Whenever a corporation takes an overt and vocal political stance, it brings questions of what that company’s motivations are, which undoubtedly hold stock in the almighty dollar.  I take issue with Starbucks trying to profit off the media’s current focus on race relations; I’ll be taking my business elsewhere.

 

Cheyda Arhamsadr is a third-year public health policy major. She can be reached at carhamsa@uci.edu.