Sometimes successful movements have unintended consequences. If you’ve been on the Internet in the last 24 hours, chances are that you have seen and have an opinion on the latest example. Yesterday, Starbucks unveiled a program to address race relations at its 11,100 stores nationwide. Baristas are now encouraged/required to write the words “Race Together” on cups, a move intended to spark conversation among customers about race in the United States.
They can also use stickers and a USA Today insert as a conversation starter, which — for anyone who’s been in a busy Starbucks — might seem ill-advised on purely pragmatic grounds. No, writing words on a paper cup, no matter what percentage of that cup is recycled, will not correct one of our society’s most fundamental fissures. As Fusion culture editor Danielle Henderson put it, “It’s the height of liberal American idealism and a staggering act of hubris to think we can solve our systemic addiction to racism over a Frappucino.”
The campaign has drawn the collective ire of the Internet for a few reasons. Unsurprisingly, the Starbucks leadership team is overwhelmingly white. Corey duBrowa, the company’s senior vice president of global communications, fled Twitter and locked his Instagram account for 24 hours after receiving a flood of backlash. The hashtag #NewStarbucksDrinks has produced what might be some of 2015’s best politically-charged puns: “Latte from a Birmingham Jail,” “I Can’t Breve,” “Brew the Right Thing.”
The Internet has decided: Starbucks is doing it wrong. More interesting than the fact that a gargantuan corporation did a bad thing, however, might be what made them do it.
This winter, as the Black Lives Matter movement roared through cities nationwide, the Seattle-based corporation held a series of “Ferguson Forums” with employees around the country. By all accounts, these appear to have been spaces for “partners” (read: employees) to share openly and emotionally about their experiences with race. According to the company’s website, one young partner in St. Louis said that he was proud to have turned 20, as another reflected that “The current state of racism in our country is almost like humidity at times. You can’t see it, but you feel it.” A video on the forum featured pictures from protests in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country, including Millions March NYC this past December.
There are obvious flaws to “Race Together,” much of it stemming from the fact that Starbucks is something of a straw man for the left-of-center when it comes to new-age corporate capitalism; it’s a painfully easy target. “Race Together,” though, speaks to the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement is seeping into society’s farthest, strangest reaches, including corporate citizenship.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms of be made of the campaign, which features an array of cringe-worthy messaging. The full-page New York Times advertisement that the company took out features simply the words “Shall We Overcome?” Probably not while waiting for your Venti Breve, Starbucks.
One of the most compelling arguments against “Race Together” relates to the extra pressure it places on already-underpaid workers, some of whom make less than $8 an hour. McDonald’s drew criticism last month by forcing employees — many currently fighting for a $15 minimum wage — to, on top of slinging burgers and fries, gleefully dance, sing and hug customers, who could then pay for their meal with “lovin’.”
As Bryce Covert wrote in The Nation, “This is a pretty blatant example of emotional labor: The requirement that a low-wage employee not just show up to work and adequately perform her duties, but that she put on a veneer of happiness and cheer for the customer to elicit an emotional response in him.” Unlike cognitive labor, emotional labor is rarely compensated — and sometimes even penalized. Starbucks, then, has joined McDonalds in finding new ways to demand more from its employees. In the case of “Race Together,” that demand is rendered all the more troubling when a Pumpkin Spice Latte is used as the starting point of an on-the-clock conversation about the United States’ most deeply-rooted barrier to equality.
Then again, a multinational corporation finding an innovative, creative approach to extract the labor of the people who work for it isn’t exactly cutting edge news in 2015. Yes, corporations are exploitative. No, they don’t “get” racism or how to address it in the United States, but their milquetoast attempts to do so are proof that the Black Lives Matter movement is making it increasingly unacceptable to stay neutral.
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