Open top menu
Is Starbucks the place for race talk?

Is Starbucks the place for race talk?

My name is Denise Clay.

It’s a simple name, really. D-E-N-I-S-E C-L-A-Y. The “Denise” is the conventional spelling and my last name, Clay, is four letters long. Doesn’t look like it would be too hard to grasp on its face, right?

But you’d be surprised at the beating my name takes. “Clay” gets spelled with a “K”, and don’t even get me started on the various ways I’ve seen Denise spelled in 50 years.

I have no problem with companies like Starbucks and USAToday trying to take the lead on solving the problem of racism… but I don’t know if I want to have a discussion on something like race … with someone who can’t spell my name right on a coffee cup.

Nowhere is that more evident than when I go to my local Starbucks for a Grande Sugar-Free Vanilla Latte. I look at the name written on my cup more often than not and say to myself, “I really hope that I didn’t get someone else’s drink…”

I bring this up because Corey DuBrowa, senior vice president of communications for Starbucks, felt forced to delete his Twitter account because of the reaction that he received from folks after Starbucks announced its #racetogether initiative.

Now I have no problem with companies like Starbucks and USAToday trying to take the lead on solving the problem of racism; a problem America has had for far too long. In fact, I’ll give both companies props for being brave enough to realize that America in the Age of Obama is so far away from post racial that it boggles the mind.

(Heck, I’ll even be generous enough not to bring up the fact that if USAToday were really serious about dealing with race relations, it could show it by putting more people of color on its staff and covering the issues of communities of color better. Or at all.)

But…I don’t know if I want to have a discussion on something like race, a topic that demands a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness, with someone who can’t spell my name right on a coffee cup.

And I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to have a discussion on race with someone whose been “asked” by his or her corporate bosses to conduct it. Certain things shouldn’t be forced, and while Starbucks says it’s “encouraging” and not “mandating” that their baristas take the plunge on these discussions, nothing is benign when it comes from a corporate office.

Besides, I’ve been in the middle of a discussion on race where folks felt forced to talk. And. It. Wasn’t. Pretty.

Starbucks isn’t the first to try to force racial dialogue

In the late 90s, I worked at a newspaper in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. While it had its issues, a lack of diversity wasn’t one of them. In fact, the Executive Editor made a conscious decision to consider diversity in hiring decisions. Not in a Noah’s Ark/quota system kind of way, but in a way that included recruiting from minority journalism organizations, and places like JournalismNext.com.

But the Executive Editor noticed that not everyone was happy with her decision to make her newsroom more reflective of the area it reported on, so she launched a series of discussions to try and clear the air, talk about differences, and find ways to achieve common ground.

Having a discussion on race with people who aren’t ready to have it does nothing but make them mad, and that’s kind of how I felt yesterday. Starbucks and USAToday are totally in the right with what they’re trying to do. But you can’t force it. It’s got to be an organic discussion.

I remembered the first one vividly…because it kinda turned into a loud shouting match that didn’t really accomplish much. Afterward, it took a while for the tension to dissipate. In a newsroom that always seemed to have a mushroom cloud hovering overhead, that just made things worse.

So before the next one, I went to the Executive Editor’s office. At the time, I was a deputy regional director with the National Association of Black Journalists, so newsroom diversity was something I found myself talking about a lot.

I started the discussion by saying how much I appreciated her effort. Discussions about race aren’t the kind of thing that people who don’t have to deal with it all of the time take on. I was happy to be in a place that seemed to understand that newsroom diversity is central to good news coverage.

But…

“Having a discussion on race with people who aren’t ready to have it does nothing but make them mad,” I said.

And that’s kind of how I felt yesterday. Starbucks and USAToday are totally in the right with what they’re trying to do. But you can’t force it. It’s got to be an organic discussion.

That’s not to say you can’t help it along, however.

How can Starbucks get this right?

There’s an organization here in Philadelphia called Global Citizen. It organizes the largest Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service in the country and is run by one of the coolest people I know, a man named Todd Bernstein.

Every year, Global Citizen has something called a Beer Summit. It’s based on the sit-down that President Barack Obama had with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass. Police Officer that arrested him for breaking into his own home, James Crowley.

I know you’re a big company Starbucks, but you might want to take a page from Global Citizen’s beer summits and start small when it comes to helping America get closer to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”

The Beer Summit is a chance for folks to get together, grab some beers and snacks (and since it’s usually held at Philly’s Reading Terminal Market, the snacks are always tasty), and talk…and come up with solutions for…the city’s racial issues. Considering we’re the only city in the nation that’s ever used a bomb as an eviction notice, (Google “MOVE” and you’ll see what I mean), it’s a discussion Philly occasionally needs to have.

I know you’re a big company Starbucks, but you might want to take a page from Global Citizen’s beer summits and start small when it comes to helping America get closer to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.”

How about a series of coffee klatches? Offer a space to talk, a tall latte, and maybe a slice of lemon loaf (yum!) to people once or twice a month to talk about race and how we can live the American Salad.

(A salad is a better metaphor for America than a melting pot to me. Salads combine a variety of flavors and allow each flavor to shine equally, while melting pots imply homogeneity.)

Sure, starting small won’t get as much of a splash. But, it could be a lot more effective in the long run.

Or at the very least, it’ll give your baristas more time to say “How do you spell that?” to folks before butchering their names on a coffee cup…


denise clay 2Denise Clay is a veteran journalist, a former adjunct professor, and an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists. She is a regular contributor to Solomonjones.com. Click here to learn more about Denise.

Solomon
Written by Solomon