IMAG5799What is Race Together? It’s an initiative by Starbucks start to start a dialogue about race. Every national level conversation is really millions of people in their homes, their workplaces, over a cup of coffee or tea, over lunch or dinner, or any number of circumstances, just talking. That’s it. Just talking.


Here’s my thoughts and opinions on the “Race Together” campaign:

It’s always easier to make snide commentary about a slogan than mindful and thoughtful discussion. I never envisioned the near-comedy scene of a barista and a customer having a conversation like this:

  • Customer: I’d like a tall extra hot toffee nut latte.
  • Barista: Great. That’s $5.40. Would you like talk about why people of color are incarcerated at disparately high rates?
  • Customer: Sure. Are they arrested at higher rates? Are they less likely able to post  bail due to poverty? We have to look at the role of poverty in this equation, and the answer is likely complex and multi-faceted. And while you’re at it. I need to reload my Starbucks card. I’ll put $24.99 on my card. Thank  you.
  • Barista: Here’s your drink.

That’s NOT what I envisioned. Some the media and social media responses to Race Together describe unrealistic moments as mentioned above. I don’t see that conversation ever happening at the register (unless the barista and the customer are really comfortable talking and it’s dead slow in the store…).

I personally had thought about Race Together in the context of sparking conversation. It’s part of the fuel that could be sparking conversations among customers, among partners, but not during the 30 seconds at the register.

The campaign itself gets people talking. People already ARE talking about race. It has ignited a conversation.

On Thursday (the 19th) first thing in the morning, I struck up a conversation with a co-worker about the annual meeting. This particular person is a person of color, and someone whom I’ve worked with for years. I feel really lucky to work with her! We had lots to talk about. She was jealous that I got to hear Jennifer Hudson sing, and she’s a huge fan of Common! My friend at work is a professional. She is a licensed MSW social worker. We drifted into the conversation of ‘What does white privilege mean?’, directly sparked by the Race Together conversation.

I have numerous clients who are incarcerated in the county jail. When a person goes into the county jail (I mean, obviously, walking into the front door for some reason, and not the route via handcuffs and a police car), he or she walks through a metal detector (shoes have to come off), puts belongings through an x-ray machine, and there a lot of rules about what can and can’t come into the jail. One rule is that cell phones are not permitted in the King County jail. There are limited exceptions to the cell phone rules for attorneys and certain professionals who have pre-signed an cell phone rule form at the jail. It’s a mini version of airport security. You may even have to take off your belt.

So, as my briefcase goes through the x-ray machine, sometimes there’s a momentary delay when the King County Marshal says, “Hey you can’t have a phone in the jail.” I always reply, “I’m an attorney. I’m on the cell phone list.” After that, I get waved through. Nobody questions a middle-aged white woman carrying a briefcase. My friend the social worker, who is actually from India, has been asked, “Are you here to see a family member?” when questioned by marshals. I have never been asked, “Are you here to see a family member?” My point is that are implicit biases sneak up on us in unconscious ways. It can’t hurt to spark a little conversation about it.

And this is a conversation that is relevant to Starbucks, a corporation with an incredibly diverse customer base. In fact, I saw something this week that made me think, ‘Would this have played out the same way had the person had been a middle-aged white person, and not a person of color?’ Many mornings, on my way into work, I stop at a Starbucks in the retail core and grab a coffee or something to eat. This particular morning, I walked into a Starbucks and plopped into a comfy chair. I slouched over, into my phone, determined to make an excellent Instagram status update before getting in the line. My head was down, and into my phone, which I hate to admit, is common for me. As I worked on the Instagram, thinking about the right hashtags and such, I noticed two police officers standing six inches away from me. I recognize Seattle PD blue uniforms. This made me look up. The two police officers were facing away from me, nudging a person of color, sound asleep, in the comfy chair directly across from me. An African American man was slouched over, sleeping. As the gentleman awoke, I saw that he was wearing a suit. He still had his tie on. He had a soft-sided briefcase near his shiny, nice shoes. He apologized profusely. He was clearly embarrassed to have dozed off at a Starbucks. I heard him mumble, “I’ve been working for days…” He quickly left, obviously embarrassed about what just transpired. And I had to at least think about, ‘If it had been a white person dozing off in a chair, would it have been more likely that someone would’ve just nudged him on the shoulder first before calling the Seattle Police Department?’

We’re not being truthful if we just say, ‘I’m colorblind’ in regards to a race discussion. We have little hidden biases that inform our actions and decisions, whether or not we can admit this.

People are framing this Race Together as a “lecture” or conversation in the midst of a 30 second register transaction. That is never how this was thought to be, from what I know. It’s a discussion. Just a dialogue. A voluntary dialogue at that. I’m a little disappointed to see the mockery and anger over what represents just an attempt to start conversation: which might be between you and your friends while sitting in a Starbucks, not necessarily between you and the register barista. I guess it’s much easier to mock and be angry than to empathetic, mindful, and deliberative.