To Race Together Or Not, That Is The Question..Or Is Knowing Who You Are Talking To The First Question?

20 Mar

race-together-baristaOh boy. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the new Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign where the printed hashtag written on a coffee cup by your friendly barista aims to spark a conversation on race.

While I’ve seen a few supporters of the initiative on my Facebook feed and on twitter, some just friends, some more famous, like Common and Van Jones, the overwhelming majority of feedback by both black and white people has been negative.  The more cynical responses question the motive of whether Starbucks is trying to gain socially conscious feel-good consumer consumption points with the #RaceTogether campaign.  Some critiques also say that these interpersonal chats over lattes are not the answer–it’s the taking apart of institutionalized, systemic racism that needs to happen.

Journalist, Terrell  Jermaine Starr, stated in his article, Dear Starbucks: Black People Do Not Need To Participate In #RaceTogether on that naming and providing support for the three black women who started the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and who are involved leaders in the current civil rights movement in Ferguson, is where Starbucks CEO,  Howard Schultz, should show his support.  Starr feels Starbucks would be better off supporting the women’s and other social justice work, just as they’ve supported other movements like minimum wage workers, and the LGBT community.  He adds that the dialogue that needs to happen needs to be amongst white people–that he, and other black people are tired of educating white people on racism.

On the other hand, civil rights and environmental activist, Van Jones, strives for optimism.  He tweeted:

“I think we should applaud @Starbucks for trying to make a positive difference.  But no good deed goes unpunished on Twitter.”


“Some activists won’t take “YES” for an answer.  We say we want more racial dialogue.  But then crucify @Starbucks 4 trying? SMH”


As for me, I fall somewhere in the middle.  I want to believe that Starbucks is trying to do something with good intention, though I also am skeptical of them cashing in on a “feel-good” skinny social justice latte campaign.  I also have to wonder how well thought out the campaign was, as I hear many folks question the tactic of forcing Starbucks baristas to initiate these conversations.  I wonder…have they even received training, or been asked about their feelings on this, or been able to give input to the campaign?  While I agree with many who say that it’s the systemic racism that needs to be dismantled, and where we need to put our support and resources to really make things happen, I’m not so sure I agree with the idea that individual conversations about our feelings on racism are useless. I still believe there is value in our individual conversations.  To me, it seems that it’s good to do both.

I think this is because I am a person who sees things on a smaller, grassroots, individual level–it’s always been easier for me to relate this way, rather than on a large scale, broad policy way of viewing things.  I worked for ten years in homeless services in New York City, first as a street outreach worker, and then as an Art and Recreation Therapist for homeless adults with mental illness.  When colleagues spoke about solving homelessness and funding and government initiatives and big numbers and all, it was hard for me to conceive what they were talking about.  But when I was face-to-face with a woman who was sharing with me  about how painting herself in her new “dream” apartment gave her hope, and a sense of peace, then I felt like we were making a connection.  I feel the same way about the work I now do as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital.   I don’t know how to create policies for treatment of people with mental illness, but I can connect with the person I am working with on a daily basis.

Not that I equate what I do with civil rights work.  And, trust me, it is not that I want to “help” black people–because that denotes a patronizing “white savior” stance. But I want to be a part of the solution, not part of the group of white people complacent in resting on the laurels white privilege has bestowed upon me.

Of course it’s easy for me to think all of this and say all of this as a white person.  Maybe my belief in conversations on race is that I want a less segregated world because I personally desire a world where we understand and respect black people’s reality when it comes to how systemic, institutionalized racism has impacted their lives, and benefited ours, AND be a part of the change that breaks down those systems.  We still live, for the most part, pretty segregated lives.  I’m hoping that the more we talk, the more we break down the oppressive systems that exist, that maybe we’ll all feel like hanging around each other, living side-by-side, and not wanting to retreat into our own segregated worlds–where white people live in these mostly white worlds because they feel safer and more comfortable with people who look like them, and black people live in black communities because, for one, they have been shut out of white communities for so long.

I know it’s not that simple–the reasons we live apart–that it’s part construct, part choice–we can look at the school cafeteria phenomenon of diverse schools with self-segregating lunch tables, which provokes the question of  whether this is a “problem” that needs to be fixed, or is racial and cultural segregation outside of school and work our natural state of being?  I also know how much my statement of desiring to see these kinds of forced and self-selecting segregation comes from a place of white privilege .  I can hear the “isn’t that nice–she’s white and wants us to live with her–we’re being invited by the white lady after all these years of being shut out…what makes her think we want to live with her?…”  For me, just as I remember civil rights activist, Xernona Clayton  say, that connecting with people of different races and cultures makes life much more rich, I feel the same way.  Clayton’s work included getting the local Ku Klux Klan wizard to step down in the Atlanta neighborhood she was working to improve in the 1960’s.   I know that not everyone is going to feel the same way Xernona or I do.  As Terrell Starr said in his article:

“I like many black people, don’t want to talk about how we can all live together; people; I just want to be left alone to live in my own skin and not be prosecuted for it..”

And, then, there’s the whole matter of knowing who you are talking to in the first place when you are trying to have a conversation on race.  My writer friend, Denitra Letrice, shared with me the link of the video where radio host and cultural critic, Jay Smooth, and Nancy Giles, host of CBS Sunday Morning, have a dialogue with Chris Hayes on the All In show.  The topic was Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign with Nancy Giles on the pro latte dialogue side, and Jay Smooth, not in support of personal dialogue via the campaign.

But it wasn’t their positions that made the show interesting.  It was, well, just watch the video and see for yourself.  It shows us just how wrong these conversations about race can go, even right off the bat, when we assume we know what race someone is, and then how we are going to interact and respond to them based on our own perceptions of what we think it means to be black, or white, or of mixed race or ethnicity.

As the warning on the side of a cup of brewed Starbucks coffee should read, perhaps more so than the words #RaceTogether, when it comes to what I still consider to be important–conversations on race: HOT: Drink With Caution.


 SOURCES:, Dear Starbucks: Black People Do Not Need To Participate in #RaceTogether, by Terrell Starr, 3/19/15, “I’m Actually Black,” MSNBC, Panel on Race Gets Painfully Uncomfortable

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