Venti triple-shot mocha and a side of race talk please…or not

As I sit and reflect on my time at the White Privilege Conference that I recently attended, I am reminded of just how difficult honest discussions about race and racism are in the United States. Even in dedicated spaces with people who are working for racial justice, missteps and microaggressions can and do occur. Which is why when I heard of Starbucks newest social initiative to talk race, I had to laugh and wonder: Why on earth would a coffee chain think that a lighthearted approach toward a serious problem could happen and have a significant impact in a few-minute-or-less encounter?

On the surface, the Starbucks initiative might seem like a start in the right direction of addressing our nation’s race problem, but a serious problem requires a serious response. If one is in need of surgery, they generally want a skilled surgeon and ideally the best one that their money or insurance plan will allow; certainly not any random physician of any given specialty. Yet when it comes to race in America, everyone thinks they have the answer or that anyone who labels themselves an expert on the subject of race and racism is qualified to speak on the matter. This is why there is a certain segment of the population that thinks that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson speak for Black people when the average Black person will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.

We cannot address racism by simply focusing on the current events of the day. For those of us whose work and research is race-based, we understand that racism is larger than the stories of racial injustice that come across our paths on an almost daily basis. Racism is about power and privilege; who has the power and privilege and who doesn’t. We also understand that in the United States the very formation of our nation was founded on the backs of disenfranchising certain bodies and creating a class called white that was given access to power and privilege and hundreds of years later we all live with the legacy of race that was created by men long dead.

To be white in our society is to have access; whether or not one actually utilizes that access is a matter of personal situations. Yet while occasionally we hear tales of whites who have been abused and mistreated on the basis of their skin largely it is something that happens to Black and Brown bodies. This is why discrepancies exist in every major system in our society, starting most prominently with our criminal justice system. This week alone a white man who may or may not have had ties to white supremacy groups went on a shooting spree and yet managed to be captured alive (when so many unarmed Blacks have been shot dead by police recently) in the same week when a Black college student at the University of Virginia was beaten bloody by cops on St. Patrick’s Day for engaging in the same type of behavior that is often part of the white college experience (there are conflicting reports of whether or not Martese Johnson was using a fake ID or engaging in public intoxication, neither which are worthy of the bloody beating he sustained at the hands of law enforcement).

These discrepancies exist across the board in every major system and while it is easier to name the intersection of class as the issue, data exists that supports the notion that even college-educated, professional, middle-class Blacks face challenges that their white peers do not. The data that details racial discrepancies is staggering, yet to the average white person and even some people of color, knowledge of this data and the research is missing and a larger analysis of race is absent. Which in order to talk critically and sincerely about race is highly problematic. If you think I am kidding, look in the comment section of any major publication, even highly esteemed ones such as the New York Times.

To solve racism requires more than awareness of the problem. I head up one of the nation’s longest  and continuously operating anti-racism groups; these discussions have been happening for decades. Solving racism is about actively dismantling systems that favor whiteness and at Starbucks, an organization led by a white man, the solution should start at the top, not the bottom. Why is so much of the executive leadership team at Starbucks white while so many of the employees are not? Perhaps that should be addressed first. Are there not any highly qualified non-whites to fill these upper-level roles?

Asking hourly wage front-line workers with little power to broach one of the most pressing issues of our time is the type of tone-deaf change that goes nowhere.These workers have little influence and the bulk of people who go to Starbucks do have some power and privilege. Even using the assertion that with 40% of the staff is non-white, that puts an unfair burden on people of color. In racial justice we subscribe to the notion of “do no harm.” This means that asking people of color to do the heavy lifting is exploitative and nothing more than a gimmick…not the potential for change.

Last night on Twitter, I had an exchange with the Starbucks social media person around working with actual trained folks who work in anti-racism work and I sincerely hope that they reach out if not to my group, then one of the many in the field of anti-racism who could work with them to do a power analysis and move forth from there with a real plan of change. Not a newsworthy gimmick.  So yeah, just give me my decaf, soy,  flat white and skip the race talk for now, I am not interested.


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