UPDATE: Starbucks Ends "Race Together" Initiative

March 24th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Update: Starbucks "phased out" writing "Race Together" on cups, as of Sunday, March 22 as "originally planned." The move comes around a week after a swarm of internet criticism of the program -- and the long lines it caused in stores when journalists went to ask baristas about race. However, it is important to keep in mind that writing Race Together on cups, and having surface level, un-trained, conversations about race was the least productive part of the Starbucks program. Per Starbucks' CEO, they will still continue the more substantial aspects of the program: 

"We have a number of planned Race Together activities in the weeks and months to come: more partner open forums, three more special sections co-produced with USA TODAY over the course of the next year, more open dialogue with police and community leaders in cities across our country, a continued focus on jobs and education for our nation's young people plus our commitment to hire 10,000 opportunity youth over the next three years, expanding our store footprint in urban communities across the country, and new partnerships to foster dialogue and empathy and help bridge the racial and ethnic divides within our society that have existed for so many years."

Some better initiatives Starbucks could institute include providing more well-researched material on race and racism, along with hiring young people of color (a group that is having the most difficult time finding work post-recession). Racism is a serious problem, and it needs more serious solutions.

Read ATTN:'s analysis of "Race Together" below -- looks like the "cons" beat the "pros" of this initiative:

You have probably heard about Starbucks' new initiative "Race Together," which was announced this week. It's an attempt to encourage employees to talk about race with customers. You may have also heard that many overwhelmingly dislike this idea. Negative reactions poured out on Twitter and the blogosphere alike. Critics of the initiative fall into two camps. Some who may be averse to discussing race don't think that a business should subject them to a potentially uncomfortable conversation while they purchase a cup of coffee. Others feel that it's unfair to make low-wage employees (particularly those who are people of color) have these potentially uncomfortable conversations at their place of work.

When boiled down both sides are essentially concerned that a conversation about race will be discomfiting or contentious. Sometimes straying from our comfort zones can be helpful, instructive, and even productive. But is Starbucks the right setup for this important conversation?

Racism is a complicated problem, so it follows that there are going to be pros and cons to any attempt to address it. And Starbucks' Race Together is no exception.

First, Let's Catch You Up.

A lot of the criticism of the program assumes that it is just employees withholding your coffee until you've endured them bringing up racism. Race Together isn't Starbucks' first step into the conversation about race. In December, the company held a large employee meeting in Seattle to discuss the issues brought up by the protests of recent police shootings of black men. The emotional meeting led CEO Howard Schultz to hold conversations in Starbucks stores around the country that have been affected by racial tensions -- including hosting conversations between police officers and community leaders. According to Schultz, many employees present for those conversations appreciated having a safe space to talk and expressed wanting to do more to encourage similar conversations. Race Together was born out of that desire. Its critics have focused on one aspect of it: a conversation with a barista.

But the initiative consists of more than that. Schultz has invited baristas who would like to participate (and has made it clear that they do not have to participate if they don't want to), to hand-write the words Race Together, or #RaceTogether, on a customer's cup. If the customer is curious, they will ask the barista why. The employee can engage them in a quick conversation focused around inclusion and empathy. (Then the customer gets a sticker!)

A Starbucks Race Together Sticker

Starbucks has also partnered with USA Today to produce an insert with information and conversation starters about race that will be available in the store. Hear Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz talks to his employees about the initiative in a video here.

Pros and Cons

As mentioned before, discussing racism is difficult, and discussing it through "Race Together" may be even more so. Here are the pros and cons of Starbucks' new initiative:

Pro: A company is creating a space for an important conversation. Employees are not required to participate, but the ones who would like to have been given an opportunity to discuss this topic. Some customers may have their first exposure to information about contemporary race relations from the pamphlets that USA Today and Starbucks are offering. 

Con: Baristas don't make a ton of money. They certainly aren't paid enough (or trained) to be critical race theory professors (although some may have liberal arts degrees they might want to put to use). Forty percent of Starbucks employees are racial minorities, (go Starbucks!) and people of color are forced into enough emotionally difficult conversations about race -- and racism -- online and in their personal lives without being pushed into more at work. Employees (particularly minority employees) are likely to bear the brunt of any unpleasantness brought on by this experience. Also, it's problematic that a for-profit company like Starbucks is potentially making money off of the work that activists have done to make race a more mainstream topic of conversation.

Pro: That being said, most people will probably just get their coffee and leave, having spent one minute of their day thinking about race that they wouldn't have otherwise. That minute is a good thing. Many people who do not experience racism as a part of their daily lives (and even benefit from systemic racism) just don't think about racism very often. People of color are not afforded the luxury of forgetting about race, because it impacts their lives on a daily basis. Well-meaning people who don't often think about race may find that, just by being more conscious of racism, they are able to find more opportunities speak up and make a small difference.

Con: Saying, "We're all members of the human race" is not particularly revolutionary in most circles. Many Americans would benefit from a more nuanced, advanced, discussion than the coffee chain is offering. For example, scholars have been arguing against the notion of color-blindness for years, but many Americans still believe that the outdated concept is an acceptable way to talk about race. Starbucks' message of empathy and tolerance does little to advance the conversation to a point that will actually challenge people with misguided awareness. Studies have actually shown that due to "just world bias" (the belief that bad things only happen to people who deserve them) exposure to statistics (such as those likely to be found in the USA Today pamphlet) on the effects of racism without appropriate context on its causes can actually make people more racist. The type of surface level conversations Americans are having about race are not effective enough to actually solve the systematic institutionalized racism that plagues this country.

Pro: Race is already present in every interaction we have. Particularly transactional ones. This is a way to acknowledge that and attempt to challenge bias. The conversation guides may help people start talking to each other.

Con: Many people assume that increased exposure to (and conversation with) people of color automatically reduces bias. This isn't necessarily true. Academics have spent years researching and developing specific strategies for counteracting bias. In order to actually have an effect on bias, most Starbucks employees would need years of training. The company would be better off employing trained diversity consultants and coaches or printing well-researched, factual information on cups and pamphlets or just investing in minority owned businesses that do anti-racism work. Everyone thinks they are an expert on race, but there are actual experts who spend years of their lives studying and working on these issues.

Pro: Casual, somewhat uncomfortable -- but still manageable -- conversations about race may help to counteract "white fragility" (a phenomenon where people who are unused to talking about race have huge emotional reactions to being presented with relatively innocuous engagement on the topic). Changing our country for the better is going to require a little bit of discomfort on everyone's part, and people of color have been shouldering the vast majority of it. Starbucks inviting their customers to step outside of their comfort zones in a small way is a good thing. There may be problems with the program, but causing discomfort isn't one of them.

Pro: The hashtag #NewStarbucksDrinks is hilarious. 

Hopefully, this new initiative -- and critiques of "Race Together" -- may propel others to think up better ways to discuss race, while also possibly enjoying a cup of coffee.