This Sunday, Starbucks took out a full page ad in The New York Times asking “Shall We Overcome?” as part of their new #RaceTogether campaign — an initiative to have baristas discuss race relations with ostensibly interested customers. The program, which started as a grassroots Sharpie’d movement at Starbucks in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, expanded on Monday to Starbucks stores nationwide, where cups are being affixed with big stickers boldly proclaiming #RaceTogether. According to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the idea came up after months of employee forums where baristas discussed racial issues as “racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country.”
While the campaign announcement immediately invited swift mockery as well as wholly accurate criticisms (maybe don’t have only white employees in all your press material about race inclusivity?), I was still curious. What would happen if I went to different Starbucks in New York and actually tried to talk about race? As it turns out: a few uncomfortable questions and a whole lot of puking.
Starbucks # 1: 29th Street and 5th Avenue
It’s worth mentioning at this point that I never drink coffee. Ever. The first time I drank coffee, I was 25, and I only did it because we had a Starbucks on the NBC studio lot and everyone cool hung out there instead of working mid-afternoon. I drank three cafe mochas (extra mocha!) in rapid succession to prove how cool and caffeinated I was, before promptly vomiting in my boss’ office and having to lie down for the rest of the day while she toweled off my forehead with wet paper towels. So yeah, I don’t drink coffee. But in the name of race relations, we all have to make some sacrifices, and let’s be honest, green teas just aren’t edgy enough to talk about America’s racial divides.
When I walked into the 29th Street Starbucks around noon, a tiny outpost in a part of the city littered with Starbucks, I was feeling pretty good about opening up about race. There were two women in hijabs who were leisurely enjoying their coffee and chatting, an Israeli rabbi sipping a tea, and blessedly few white people despite the fact that St. Patrick’s Day revelers had already started roaming the streets in drunken packs. The three baristas were all of color: two black, one of Latina descent, and despite the fact that I was kicking myself for not coming up with better racial talking points (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” rampant race problem felt a little too niche), I figured we’d work it out all the same.
We did not.
Perhaps it was my fault for using my default anglicized Starbucks nickname (“It’s Nicky, with a ‘cky,’ not an ‘i,’ thanks!”) that made the otherwise lovely staff at Starbucks think I didn’t want to talk about race, but no one mentioned #RaceTogether, or even looked at me (or my skin color!) as they handed me my drink. I got too nervous to ask about race, because how do you start that conversation organically, and resolved to do better at my next Starbucks. As an aside, it was also the best hot chocolate I’d ever had.
Starbucks # 2: 35th Street and 5th Avenue
After my swing and a miss at the 29th Street Starbucks, I was excited to head up to the much larger outpost on 35th and 5th, a block north of the Empire State Building, to see if a larger Starbucks was better equipped to get into our nation’s most pressing social issues. And sure enough, when I walked in, I could see cups littering the coffee shop emblazoned with black stickers reading #RaceTogether.
Before I could ask the sweet Spanish couple drinking their frappucinos how their conversation on race had gone, a group of four visibly intoxicated white men in St. Patrick’s Day shirts and sunglasses burst into the Starbucks, walked up to the counter where completed orders were being passed out, and accused the barista of not making their order (a green tea lemonade). When the barista pointed out that the group hadn’t been in the Starbucks at all that morning, the ringleader launched into an expletive-filled tirade, before capping off with a “Fuck you, n***er!” at the black barista, before storming out. Oh shit. If there was ever a Starbucks at which to talk about race, this was it.
But other than some laughs at drunken frat boys on St. Patrick’s Day, the incident passed pretty much without, well, incident. When I placed my order a few minutes later, the Latina barista slapped a #RaceTogether sticker on my café mocha (with extra mocha to draw out the coffee taste — a big mistake less than seven minutes after a hot chocolate, as I would soon learn), but we engaged in no conversation around race. No problem. Perhaps that comes during the hand-off. I gave her my real name, despite it adding 30 seconds of interaction in an already-packed line, because how am I ever going to get the nerve to discuss social justice if I was hesitant to even ask someone to spell my name correctly?
As I waited for my coffee, the black barista doling out drinks called back out to the Middle Eastern man who had just picked up his drink and was heading away, with a friendly “Hey, Moses?” This was it! We were gonna talk about race, with a Moses no less! “Do you want some more whip on that?”
Or not. I asked the barista, John, when he handed me my coffee, whether he was talking to customers about #RaceTogether, and what types of conversations he’d been having. A Chinese-American guy and a white dude, both in their mid-20s, looked on in interest.
“Oh, um, not really. Do you want to talk about race?” he asked, before yelling to the barista who had taken my order, “Christel, there’s a customer here who wants to talk about race!” Christel yelled back that she was extremely busy. I waited a few minutes, but all that caffeine was making me too antsy to stick around. Social justice is hard.
Starbucks # 3: 36th Street and Madison Avenue
Thirty minutes after downing my first drink, I chugged the last of 35th Street’s cafe mocha and entered my third Starbucks, a sleepy little outpost that was surprisingly empty. The clientele was half black and half white, with no other people of color other than myself, though the three baristas were all black. At this point, my hands had started shaking pretty badly from all the coffee I wasn’t used to consuming, so when Ayaa commented that my name was “hard to spell, but not that hard when you look at it,” I was too focused on hiding my coffee-induced shakes to talk about it with her. She did not give me a #RaceTogether sticker, and I spent 10 minutes laying down on the cool wooden communal table willing the room to stop spinning while obnoxiously loud Irish jigs blasted over the speakers.
Starbucks # 4: 29th Street and Park Avenue
Drink number two may have temporarily flattened me, but chugging the 36th street drink was my best idea to get over the hump. Three coffees in and I’ve NEVER BEEN MORE JAZZED TO TALK ABOUT RACE. I actually skipped down Madison Avenue over to my fourth Starbucks, losing steam only briefly when I tripped over caution tape and landed boobs and chin first in a construction zone while dancing to Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker.” My remaining coffee went remarkably unspilled.
I gotta say, I now get why people love Starbucks. I still didn’t like the taste of coffee (though all that extra mocha was really helping), but there’s a special sense of privilege that comes with striding purposefully through New York City with a fresh manicure, holding one of those cups. I have never felt more like a white girl, and I’m not gonna lie, it felt pretty good.
At my fourth Starbucks, another massive storefront that was surprisingly empty, I asked Jassiel, yet another black barista (I’d yet to see a white barista, despite having met 14 at this point), why they weren’t handing out #RaceTogether stickers. He told me they’d run out, and I asked him how talking to customers about race had been going the last day and a half.
“Well, I haven’t read the papers yet or anything, but we’re supposed to talk to people about stuff like racial oppression and all that,” he told me.
“Has anyone asked you about race yet?”
“You’re the first.”
Starbucks # 5: Empire State Building, 33rd Street and 5th Avenue
Wholly disappointed with my racial findings so far, I decided to head up to the Starbucks in the Empire State Building, a place that seemed likely to be teeming with multiculturalism and frenzied tourists. I thanked my lucky stars that I had switched from warm cafe mochas to an iced coffee with no extra sugar, because who knew that consuming three and a half coffees in 50 minutes would make you sweat profusely from the middle of your back? Not me, that’s for sure.
While dancing in place to Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” I encountered my first white barista, Gabe, who was entirely nonplussed when I asked him how the #RaceTogether campaign was going. Sensing his discomfort, a Latino manager named Justin — who was wearing an apron that read “Coffee Master” — quickly swooped in. When I asked Justin how the conversations around #RaceTogether were going, he rattled off an entirely lovely, if not wholly rehearsed, PR pitch of an answer.
“The #RaceTogether movement is about inclusion, which is what Starbucks coffee is all about! Our coffee comes from all over: Latin America, Asia, Africa, and so do we,” he cheerily intoned, while pointing at the diverse group of baristas in the packed store. “Coffee is social. We sit down over a cup of coffee, we talk over coffee, and Starbucks is trying to be more inclusive of all races that enjoy these conversations. Starbucks is incredibly diverse, and so are we!”As Justin launched into a three minute sermon about how climate change was affecting coffee production at astronomical rates, I got the sense this wasn’t what their CEO had envisioned when he promised his baristas would be talking about America’s recent “racially-charged tragedies.”
I asked Justin if there had been any pushback to the #RaceTogether campaign that he’d seen, and he told me that the store gets more than their fair share of racist customers, before quickly dialing back his statement with a “It’s probably just people who are having a bad day and take it out on us. Not real racists or anything!” Like Jassiel, he told me that I was one of the first customers to even ask him about race.
When I asked if Starbucks baristas were starting race-related conversations, as Schultz’s memo had promised they would, he parroted back his party line of “Starbucks customers are incredibly diverse!” It was not an answer to my question. I switched to green tea.
One and a half incredibly caffeinated hours later, I was back in the Frisky offices vehemently denying to my boss that coffee had any discernible effect on me, while she threatened to videotape me talking at speeds previously reserved for the fast-forward setting on tape decks. I threw up coffee-flavored bile not long after.
My tour of Midtown Starbucks and their attitudes towards diversity taught me one thing: It’s really fucking hard to talk about race. Sure, Starbucks’ campaign has smarm written all over it and all the trappings of a colossal PR nightmare, but if you think about it, how often do we start conversations with strangers about racial politics?
Ultimately, Starbucks would be better served to talk about race in ways that are organic. If I know all about fair-trade practices in Sumatra because of posters hanging all over the place, I’d gladly accept a few sandwich board signs about racial inclusion. Host community forums or weeknight salons, similar to the employee ones that prompted the #RaceTogether campaign to begin with. Teach baristas how to truly engage, instead of throwing them a sheet of talking points that are hard to back up when challenged by a caffeine-addled reporter and a long line of customers.
And for the love of god, keep any and all coffee far, far from me.