Coffee Break: A Self-Imposed Time-out for Starbucks

Coffee Break: A Self-Imposed Time-out for Starbucks April 18, 2018

White people, we have a problem.

Ok, we’ve got at least 99 problems, and our expensive coffee drinks are one. Perhaps an even bigger one: our discomfort with drinking those enormous, caffeinated sugar bombs in proximity to not-white people.

I live in a predominantly white suburb in the Kansas City metro. Even here, the general population is far more diverse than the crowd at a coffee chain would indicate, on any given day. Informal survey of such establishments typically indicates that we can file huge lattes under “Stuff White People Like.”

Culturally speaking, we’ve established perimeters. Places where some populations “belong” and places where they don’t. There are lines of demarcation, whether certain streets or schools or stores, where we expect to see people who don’t look like us … and then there are the places where we don’t. What happens to our brains when we see someone out of their expected “place?” At best, we simply notice and go on. At worst, it triggers an all-out fight-or-flight response. Maybe even a call to the police. So maybe that’s why, at a Starbucks in Philadelphia last week, the manager sort of lost his shit and called the police when a few black guys came in and proceeded to disrupt the peace by generally hanging around …

Because black people don’t drink coffee, so they must have been there to start something, right?

Yeah, we’ve got a problem. And I use “we” in the collective sense, because even progressive white folks who feel pretty “woke” still walk around with some implicit bias baggage that we may fail to recognize until we feel the urge to call the police for no good reason. Jason Johnson’s scathing commentary on this phenomenon, and its implications, should be required reading for all white Americans.

We can demonize Starbucks, or at least that one manager, all we want … but this is a deeper corporate sin that demands reckoning. And its on all of us to reckon accordingly.

There’s no one way or easy answer. A brokenness this deep will not be reconciled overnight, and centuries of deeply entrenched fear of the other does not just dissolve the moment we recognize it. But the Starbucks corporate office is taking at least a step in the right direction by putting themselves in time-out for a day. On May 29, they will close all their stores nationwide and hold a racial bias education event for all of their employees.

Some might say it’s too little too late, but I say it’s a good look for the company. For one thing, they are responding at a national, corporate level to an incident that happened in a single location. Furthermore, they are drawing attention to the larger cultural issue by doing this on such a grand scale. I mean, they could easily hold this training in multiple locations over a number of days, so that employees could all attend at different times while stores stay open. But every Starbucks everywhere, closed for a whole day? Y’all know that white people will notice when they can’t get their no-whip-double-shot-two-pump-skinny-minnie whatever fix for the day. It will be noticed, and it will be talked about.

And isn’t that the point?

Furthermore, this move isn’t purely reactionary. It is proactive in a way that sets up all their locations to better serve all customers; to create open spaces for the kind of community gathering that they ‘hope’ is happening in their locations; and it hopefully prevents future incidents like the one that happened in Philly.

You know what else? This training, if done well, has far-reaching potential. Starbucks has about 27,000 locations and nearly 250,000 employees nationwide. That’s a lot of citizens who will be walking around a lot of local communities with a fresh perspective on racial equity, white privilege and implicit bias … in a time when much of popular culture (including the Federal Government) wants to tell us that bias doesn’t exist.

It may not be a perfect response, but on the whole, it’s a good example of what corporate responsibility can look like. For all the harm that large (ok, huge) companies can do, they also have the power to push major social change, if they choose to do so. On this day, at least, it looks like Starbucks is choosing to do so.

While I much prefer our fair trade, Ethiopian coffee shop in Overland Park, or the owned-and-operated-by-friendly-hippies place over by the Olathe courthouse, on May 30, you will find me at a Starbucks (there are only eight in a 2-mile radius of my church … and I’m not joking). I’ll have a skim-two-pump-giant-white-people drink. And you better believe I want whip on that.

With maybe an extra shot of racial justice to go.



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