Starbucks and the Community: Let’s talk about race over coffee!

Photo credit: Fortune Magazine

Photo credit: Fortune Magazine

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says we need to talk. From Fortune Magazine:

In a video addressing Starbucks’ nearly 200,000 workers, 40% of whom are members of a racial minority, Schultz dismissed the notion that race was too hot a topic business-wise for Starbucks to tackle.

“I reject that. I reject that completely,” he said in the video address. “It’s an emotional issue. But it is so vitally important to the country,” he continued, pointing to that the United States is “so much better” than what the current state of race relations portray it to be.

What he didn’t mention is that more than 70% of the Barista’s are under 30 years of age, many of whom have little or no understanding of race in this country, nor its historical significance.  The last thing I need is for a young high school or college student to engage me in a discussion about race, much less any other national topic of interest.  Not to mention that if my response agitates said barista, I might end up wearing my drink.

More importantly, however, are that the issues of race in this country are complex, with deep roots and many complicating factors.  Personal opinion is often colored by perceptions from real life experiences that have different meanings to different people.  In fact, some people have such strong views, no amount of discussion will change them.

A barista, who has barely any life experiences outside their teenage years, are not the proper individuals to engage customers on such a dialog, especially when you have no idea the person you are talking with has lived a far different life than you might expect.  Consequently, a barista that has lived his or her life under the umbrella that racism is everywhere, might decide to challenge someone on their notions without recognizing when to stop.

I have personally been a victim of racism growing up in the late 70’s and 80’s.  I know first hand what it means to be singled out and forced into humiliating circumstances because of my last name.  I was accused of petty theft, and was almost fired from it, because I was the only non-white named person working for the company.  I was denied employment at another business because the owner didn’t like my name (and I was told that by him.)  In school, even though I was all honors academically, I was placed into a special learning group – again, because of my last name.  My son, during the second grade, was placed into an ESL class because, you guessed it, of his last name.

Life experiences do affect how people judge others and, often times, we forget the words of Martin Luther King Jr, who believed that people should be judged by the content of their character.  For some, good intentions can be racist.  For others, it is a learned behavior.  And still others, will assume white people are completely racist because you were born that way.  For a majority of people of all colors, though, these conditions are never an issue.

As a side note, the Starbucks I regularly frequent, most, if not all the baristas know me.  I like that fact that they take the time to engage me in discussions about everyday kinds of things such as “What are you doing today?” “How are your grandkids?”  “Oh, what kind of dog is that?”   We might talk about policy issues on occasion, when one comes out from behind the counter, but generally speaking, none of them have a clue about the real world.  Most of them are either stuck in school, trying to get homework done or perhaps just waiting to get off work.  They are hardly standing around reading newspapers, watching cable news shows, or hosting political gatherings.  Most of their lives are bent on just hoping to get the bills paid, like in my own youth.

Having been to many places around the world, I have experienced a wide array of cultures and people.  You will find that American’s are more open, certainly more aggressive in making social change for inclusion and acceptance than any other nation. Yet, surprisingly, the CEO of Starbucks thinks we aren’t talking enough.  I think the real problem is that the focus is given to too many people talking about race, about social issues that need solving, and not nearly enough about “How do we create an economic climate that allows ALL people better opportunities?”  I’m sure the employees of Starbucks would like a $15 minimum wage.

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