Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz caused a stir this week when he urged the massive coffee chain’s 200,000 employees to talk to customers about race relations in the United States. While Schultz may have had the best intentions in mind when he requested that strangers on either side of a retail transaction who rarely even make eye contact nonetheless open a dialogue about one of our country’s most destructive and intractible issues, critics quickly came out in force.
There’s something naively noble about Schultz’s initiative. Besides, coffeehouses have long played host to great artists, writers, thinkers, and people with weird hair who are probably up to something creative. Cafes are places for quiet contemplation and fevered argument, and this is just a logical extension on that continuum: the corporately mandated organic conversation.
In a way, too, Schultz’s move has opened the debate about race into a new, weird sphere, with new, weird questions. When and where is it appropriate to discuss it? Is there a place in commerce for social issues? Have you ever noticed how white people order caramel machiattos like this, but black people order caramel machiattos like this?
But if nothing else, it’s proven to be a rare unifying force for people of all races, creeds, and colors: We all think it’s a really, really dumb idea.
With that sense of unity in mind, I’d like to offer some tips and suggestions for baristas stuck in the unfortunate position of having to add foam to a stranger’s latté while discussing the horror of microaggressions.
1. Have Fun With It. While it’s true that millions (billions?) have suffered unspeakable cruelty as well as centuries (millennia?) of economic isolation due to racial prejudics, people don’t come to Starbucks to get depressed. They come there because they’re depressed and they have a chemical dependency on your product. So try to keep the mood light and sweet, just like the way middle-aged white moms like their coffee.
2. Break the Ice. You can’t just jump right in by accusing customers of perpetuating the white power structure. You’ve got to find an easy “in” to the conversation. For instance, if someone tells you their name is “Martin,” you can say, “Just like the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King.” Or, if you notice someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe, you can say, “Cool hoodie. Would you care to talk about race relations?” It might seem a little awkward at first but, in time, people will just start ignoring you and it’ll get easier.
3. Look for Learning Moments. You’re going to encounter a lot of white privilege during your day-to-day interactions with customers. (In fact, the term “white privilege” was popularized by two white bloggers texting each other about a third white customer in line at a San Francisco Starbucks in 2011.) If you see it happening, blow an airhorn and flick the lights on and off as everyone screams “White Privilege! White Privilege!” and points at the perpetrator. Make sure you offer them a receipt for their purchase when you’re done.
4. Just Repeat that Line from Boyz N The Hood. Improving race relations can be exhausting, especially when you’re working a double, so to save energy, just repeat the line, “Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care what’s going on in the hood.” People will nod and move on.
5. Call Cornel West. The activist and philosopher has kindly agreed to settle any disputes or disagreements that may come up during these conversations. You’ll find his cellphone number in your employee handbook.
6. Remember the Other Races! It’s not just about black and white. As soon as a customer approaches, you should ask whether they’re Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Filipino, Samoan, Native Hawaiian, Hispanic, Latino, Aboriginal, Guamanian, Chamorro, Indian, or Johnny Depp. Then you can tell them that race is actually a social construct while you write their name on a plastic cup.
7. Find A New Job. Ultimately, you might want to consider seeking employment elsewhere, though with decent wages, health benefits, tuition reimbursements, and free coffee, Starbucks is the best place to work in America.