Monday, March 23, 2015

Rejecting the Dialogue on Race Relations - or - Taking Your Coffee Black

Redesigned logo used from 2011-present.
Redesigned logo used from 2011-present. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I hate being forced to defend Starbucks. I still remember when the overpriced coffee franchise first spread across the country like a fast-moving virus, quickly and efficiently forcing so many independent coffee shops out of business that the Starbucks logo soon became the textbook example of corporate infiltration and cultural destruction, so hating Starbucks and everything it seems to represent comes easy.

At least, it used to come easy. But then Starbucks had to go and support same-sex marriage, and offer tuition aid to employees, and other progressive acts (like supporting Planned Parenthood) that don't necessarily conform to the presumed image of an evil corporate empire. It's easy to hate somebody for charging you $8 for a cup of coffee, but even I have to stop and admit that even corporate entities are allowed to try and have a positive impact on society. After all, aren't corporations people too?

So once again I find myself defending a company I do not financially support (I don't boycott Starbucks, I just prefer cheaper coffee), and as seems to happen more often these days, from the very people that should be supporting them as well.

By now it is already cemented as a legend in PR Catastrophes alongside New Coke and Bill Cosby's "Meme Me" debacle. The company that loves to write stuff on the side of your coffee cup decided that it wanted to get involved in race relations in America by having baristas scrawl #RaceTogether on outgoing orders, and therefore inviting customers to engage in an open discussion about race. If you are a rational adult with any honest perception of how the world works, you are already headdesking in disbelief. Next to religion and politics, race relations in America is the topic most guaranteed to aggravate/offend/anger somebody when mentioned in mixed company. Race relations in America is an ongoing discussion that can devour hours of heated and passionate debate without forging an inch of new ground, and here we have a corporate policy openly encouraging employees to enter into conversations about this hot-button topic in the time it takes to fill a cup with hot liquid and write something on the side. I think the general rule of thumb is that no topic you would be hesitant to bring up at Thanksgiving is suitable for casual chatting for any occupation in the services industry.

Now, the initial problems with this PR brainstorm are obvious. Beyond Starbucks employees having no formal training on discussing sensitive issues with a wide variety of personalities, and no mandated historic or social education on race, the company has no way of preventing the possibility that either the employee or the customer will have views on the subject that aren't a) Too complex or underdeveloped to understand, b) Inherently racist, or c) Batshit crazy. And let's be honest, who has time for lengthy discussions on ANY topic while getting a coffee to go. So, yeah, bad idea all around.

However, the amount of blowback received by Starbucks from people on the left regarding the failed PR campaign feels extremely out of proportion to me, especially considering that what the company was trying to do is, for an corporation, commendable. Critics immediately flooded Twitter (heaven forbid) questioning the diversity of the company's shareholders, complaining about imaging blunders like the hands in all of the #RaceTogether promotional pictures presumably belonging to white people, and criticizing CEO Howard Schultz for closing down his own Twitter account once the barrage of angry responses hit him.

But can we take a step back and look at the "WHY" behind the anger over the Starbucks failed hashtag campaign? Was it poorly thought out and haphazardly executed? Oh my, yes. But apart from there being too many white hands holding coffee cups and collecting the profits (both of which I feel are debatable arguments themselves), what was the big crime perpetrated by Starbucks? Trying to instigate thoughtful dialogue? While I would argue that it isn't a good idea from a business standpoint, I can't think of anything overtly negative about asking people to talk about a subject, or implying that doing so might be a good thing in the long run. And while it's hard to profile an individual's ideology from a Twitter profile, the majority of people that expressed outrage with the campaign appeared to be mostly those in the anti-racism or pro-equality camp. Aren't these the very people who should be supporting an open dialogue about race relations in America?

There seems to be a growing disconnect between what we say we want and what we are prepared to accept. Can we logically claim that we want greater social awareness and understanding if the minute a company says, "Hey, let's talk," the immediate response is "How dare you!" Is the problem that Starbucks just attempted to encourage an open dialogue instead of promoting or supporting an established argument or slogan? If that's the case, then we aren't promoting understanding, we're assigning a specific dogmatic ideology, which doesn't really seem that progressive to me.

Then you have the complaints that Starbucks was trying to "lecture" customers or "solve" racism altogether, proof of which I could not find in any of the #RaceTogether marketing. In fact, Starbucks didn't appear to be pushing any specific agenda - oddly enough, even a more simplistic "Racism is Bad" stance, which might have gone over slightly better - and seems to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to having racism even mentioned in a commercial environment. These were the few reactions that seemed more conservative in nature - complaints about being served white privilege with their black coffee and other such clever bon mots - and come off more defensive than anything else. Which, of course, is what you should normally expect from people when suddenly plunging them into a discussion on race relations. Welcome to America, home of the sarcastic retort via social media.

The other arguments feel even less progressive or rational to me. If the complaint it really that the white hands holding cups in promotional images were somehow contradictory to the message, or that the executives aren't racially diverse enough to promote tolerance and acceptance, then the logical conclusion from that complaint is that discussions on race relations in America aren't valid if they involve white Americans. That's where you really lose me. Because in order for race relations to improve in this country - and I think we're all in agreement that they need improvement - white people are going to need to be a part of that equation. In fact, they're an essential part of any movement towards ending racial oppression and discrimination if the ultimate goal is to get all white people on the bandwagon, and shutting them out of the discussion based solely on the color of their skin isn't exactly the best wat to get that ball rolling.

So, just to recap: Should Starbucks have tried to engage it's customers in a discussion about race relations in America? Hell no. Was it a bad idea? Yes, but not for any reasons that we should feel good or comfortable about. Is this emblematic of how hard it is in this country to even discuss important social issues anymore, regardless of which side of the debate you stand on? Sadly, yes again.