You may or may not have seen Starbucks' new campaign to initiate national conversations about race. The idea, apparently, is for baristas to write #RaceTogether on your coffee and then casually address the challenges of racism and division as they hand it to you. Hmm...
I first saw the campaign on Twitter as many bloggers and thought leaders I respect were responding negatively to the idea. I am often saying we need to speak more openly about race, but something didn't seem quite right to me about this take.
I spent some time thinking about it, and two statements from Jay Smooth in this video helped me figure out what concerns me about #RaceTogether.
Is Sloppy Conversation Better Than No Conversation?
Jay said it this way: "I disagree with the notion that any conversation is better than none when it comes to this topic." That statement hit the nail on the head for me.
Even good race conversations can be painful for those involved, for people of color and also for white folks truly trying to listen and understand. An experienced, skilled trainer can make a huge difference in a conversation like this, transforming it from pain to reconciliation. My guess is that most baristas aren't trained in this area.
But I've also seen how damaging stray conversations about race can be. I've listened to friends of color wrestle through comments made in passing years before. Discussing such a sensitive topic with strangers in such an unusual setting could give some people the "freedom" to say very hurtful things, whether they know it or not.
You Know What Happens When You Assume
The most awkward part of the video is when the other panelist assumes Jay is white and suggests he has co-opted black culture. He responds, "It's also interesting because I'm actually black, but you assumed otherwise. And this is the sort of awkwardness that we can look forward to at Starbucks across America."
It was painfully hilarious. I've written before about my white Latino husband, and some of the comments he's received from both white and Latino folks. I even had my own amusing encounter this week at my predominately black gym. The front desk worker, who is black, was eager to return my card before I told him my name. But when I looked down, it was the photo of one of the other white girls who works out there.
I am still a big believer in conversations about race, but I think we need to step back before we subject everyday people to the assumptions of strangers in coffee shops. I fully support thoughtful discussions on race in schools, churches, and other civic organizations. I believe the media can help us see new perspectives, which is why I try to support shows like Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat.
Let's hold on to the notion that there are challenges about race that need to be addressed in our society, and we can do a better job. But I can almost guarantee you I will not be discussing it with a Starbucks barista anytime soon.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. I am still reading on this campaign and working through my own thoughts, so yours are most welcome!