Starbucks campaign wasn’t perfect, but at least they’re trying

| Staff Writer

If, last week, you were politely confused as to why your Starbucks double-tall-no-whip mocha came with a side of race theory, you’re not alone. The launch of Starbucks’ latest campaign, “Race Together,” garnered a mixed reaction among customers.

The initiative encouraged baristas to generate conversations about race in stores, namely by writing “Race Together” on cups. This was inspired by a meeting that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had with his employees in December regarding racial tensions in the country, especially after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Almost immediately after announcing the campaign in March, Starbucks was the subject of both praise and outrage.

On Sunday, Schultz announced that baristas would no longer write “Race Together” on cups, but Starbucks would continue with the initiative in other ways. Schultz claimed that the removal of the cup component was not due to the vocal backlash that the campaign received but that this was planned on the timeline of the initiative.

The criticism ranged in severity: some pointed out the lack of diversity in the composition of Starbucks’ executive members while others simply didn’t feel like baristas were adequately equipped to facilitate discussions about race. Others shrugged it off as a disgusting marketing ploy.

Much of this criticism isn’t without warrant. I’m not sure how I feel about having a corporation explain race to me. Not that that was an issue at the Central West End Starbucks, which isn’t participating in the campaign (which is ironic, considering the fact that “Race Together” was partially inspired by Ferguson).

The amount of backlash it has received in its participating locations, however, is unnecessary. For goodness’ sake, Starbucks is trying to make a change. It’s using its power as an institution of American culture to bring awareness to an issue that people are afraid to talk about.

Many feel that it’s ridiculous for Starbucks to “fix” nuanced racial issues with a blanket statement reminding folks that racism is bad. It’s important to note that criticism arrives from consumers who are already cognizant about race. From the perspective of young and liberal minorities (i.e., me), the campaign is infuriatingly simplistic and awfully presumptuous of Starbucks.

At the same time, though, even this small reminder that racism is alive can be a useful wake-up call for American consumers who aren’t constantly perturbed by racial tensions. For example, a Starbucks customer interviewed by NPR revealed that it made him consider racial tension in his own neighborhood and the progress that still needs to be made.

In this aspect, Starbucks succeeds in breaking the safety line between racial turbulence on people’s television screens and their physical lives—Ferguson suddenly seems less far away when racial conversations have permeated your local Starbucks. It stops becoming a passive place, and tells its customers that, yes, this is relevant to everyone’s life, even if it doesn’t directly affect you.

Plenty of critics haven’t been appeased by this explanation. Still, this criticism isn’t completely negative; after all, if you’re going to criticize something, you better have a stronger alternative. The controversy has spurred a new wave of dialogue among critics regarding the best ways to talk about race in mainstream culture—which is exactly what “Race Together” was meant to do. Starbucks is not going to solve racial tension with a campaign—I mean, they can barely brew adequate-tasting coffee—but it sure is a start.

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