Our venti-sized privilege problem

Deciding the right time and place to discuss race perpetuates systemic inequality

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz promotes his campaign for more race discussions by writing #RaceTogether on a cup (Photo via Starbucks.com).

The sun pokes through the downtown buildings, shedding the morning’s first light on quiet streets. The day is just beginning, but the line at Starbucks is already long. A crumpled copy of the Chicago Tribune sits on a nearby table. The front-page story is that of Martese Johnson, the University of Virginia student who was held down and beaten by police officers outside a bar near campus. A few people glance at the newspaper. Many remain glued to their phones, the stresses of their own day beginning to set in.

Now is not the time to worry about others. It would also seem that now is not the time or place to discuss race relations in the United States.

Starbucks’s “Race Together” campaign is a push for more conversation about race relations in the United States. The initiative included race-related articles available on the store’s Wi-Fi and writing #RaceTogether on Starbucks cups to inspire discussion. The response was so vehement against the campaign that Corey duBrowa, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, deleted his Twitter account. Baristas stopped writing the conversation-starting hashtag on cups after just one week.

“Nobody wants to be lectured before her coffee,” Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post.

“Can you imagine the holdup associated with attempting to have a nuanced and expansive discussion of racism in America?” Kate Taylor asked in Entreprenuer.

The message behind this type of response is that talking about race is discomforting. It is uncomfortable, so it should wait until after coffee. Wait until the right time. Wait until America is ready to talk about race.

America has been waiting. A lot has happened in the meantime.

  • The wealth gap between blacks and whites reached its highest point in nearly three decades in 2013.
  • Whites made up 62 percent of those enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement high school course in 2009. Black enrollment was 9 percent.
  • The U.S. poverty rate was 14 percent higher for Latinos and 17 percent higher for blacks compared to whites in 2013.
  • White police officers killed a black person nearly twice a week between 2005 and 2012. Of those killed, 18 percent were under the age of 21.
  • Blacks were incarcerated at a rate six times greater than whites. Despite drug use being five-times greater among whites, blacks had a 10-times greater rate of drug offenses.

The list goes on and on; that is what should be uncomfortable. Instead, the response to Race Together has been that the topic should not be discussed in coffee shop lines. That is not the right place.

Deciding when and where discussions of race should take place is an act of privilege. The privileged choose when to deal with uncomfortable realities because they do not have to live them. In this way, confronting racism becomes a matter of convenience, not necessity. This sense of choice includes the location as well. Racism is pervasive, not location specific. So discussing it should not be reserved for specific places.

There were flaws in Starbucks’s approach. The online quiz about racial biases available on Starbucks’s Wi-Fi can become a checklist item in fighting racism without benefiting anyone. The “conversation starters” available to those waiting in line came across as adult Mad Libs. The campaign did not claim to perfect. Starbucks is attempting to disturb its customers.

The goal of the Race Together is to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America.” Starbucks did not market the campaign as the solution. Rather it is a platform for a long-overdue acknowledgement of the systemic oppression in America. Since that mission has been stifled, the conversations must begin to a different prompting: our own.

America responded to Starbucks’s campaign with “not here, not now.” Waiting until the right time or the right place serves none better than the United States’ systemic inequalities. It can be debated whether the decision to start Race Together was feel-good liberalism or ill-intentioned marketing, but, the reality is, the race conversation needs to happen. It needs to happen everywhere and it will be uncomfortable.

If that means an uncomfortable moment in line or more of a wait, so be it. For the price of a longer wait today, the racial divide could be reduced, internal biases exposed and our nation would not force another family to comprehend the loss of a loved one at the hands of our justice system.

If Eric Garner was in line at Starbucks right now, do you think he would agree that it is not the right time or place to discuss race?


Wyatt Massey is a human rights journalist, social media nerd and self-diagnosed health nut. He is a student at Marquette University, studying Writing-Intensive English and Advertising.

Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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