author – activist – faculty – mom
Earlier this week, I heard about Starbucks’ absurd “Race Together” so-called campaign to try to address race relations. According to the Huffington Post:
Employees behind the counter were…given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help initiate dialog amid simmering racial tensions in the United States….The campaign, however, has been met with snark and skepticism on social media, with many complaining the company was overstepping it boundaries with a campaign on sensitive cultural topics that had no place in the coffee shop’s lines….[and] they questioned how workers such as baristas, many of them young adults who are not trained to navigate such difficult conversations, would manage…
According to one twitter critic, April Reign who goes by @ReignOfApril, “Not sure what @Starbucks was thinking. I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train. #RaceTogether.”
The whole campaign was particularly surreal for me because earlier this year, I worked with one of my African American student teachers, Alana Banks, to edit a poem about working at Starbucks and being targeted with racist verbal abuse by one of her white customers:
It’s 7am, a barista’s worst nightmare
I was…on the register
keep[ing] the line moving
From a tall latte to a complicated order
I made sure everyone was satisfied…
[A blonde white woman] steps to the silver counter
I need a triple soy vanilla latte
I ask what size?
I said can I have a triple soy vanilla latte
you know if you people don’t understand English maybe you should go back to wherever you came from
Starbucks’ campaign idea is as absurd as thinking we could solve global warming by having oil changers put a “climate together” sticker on our rear windshield, and offer to talk to us about climate change. Racism isn’t about people “understanding” each other or “having dialogue,” it’s about the institutionalized organization of wealth, land, labor, financial and natural resources, political and social power, and the military and police forces that enforce a social order of white supremacy. These institutions have roots in slavery and genocide.
I wonder if Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz would be shocked by how my student teacher Alana was treated? Alana certainly was not. Racism wasn’t new to her, and whatever her personal feelings, she did what African heritage people have learned since we were first brought to this country: shrug it off and keep working.
I chuckled and said [to the other customers] hello I can help the next person here
White blonde looking confused
Wait you didn’t take my order yet
[I wanted to say] No YOU didn’t take MY order yet
I ordered a triple shot of justice unsweetened cause my people don’t sugar coat the truth
It’s morning rush and the line is out the door so no I don’t have any time to
read you a fucking history book
white blonde threw a pretentious fit
You black bitch, you’re ruining my morning
What should Alana have written on the coffee cup? How does a meaningless slogan transform this type of microaggression in the life of a young African American woman? It isn’t slogans but actual solidarity that matters.
[the abusive white woman] calls for my manager who luckily was standing right behind me
a little taller than me
skin like Godiva chocolate
hair in a mini fro…
Ashley stuck straight to the script
Sorry you had a bad experience but you have to leave now or else I will call the police and they will help you leave
White blonde exits my life with a standing ovation by people who understand you can’t just say shit like that
she probably just went to the Starbucks right down the street
barastias can better attend to her needs
but where do I go to solve my problem…?
Alana’s right. The deeply entrenched problems of racism won’t be solved by slogans, so-called racial justice campaigns that are all about creating social media buzz to enrich corporations. This is especially outrageous when, according to the Daily Kos “top executive team of Starbucks…is just 16% people of color.” This is in the context of the restaurant industry workforce, which has a majority of women and people of color, but the majority of those with living wage jobs are white men. Let’s talk about that, Starbucks.
But even setting aside the hypocrisy, we still have the presumptuousness and minimization. Only someone utterly out of touch with the pain and outrage of racism would propose that people of color wanted someone to write “race together” on our coffee cup. But listen Schultz, Mr. Starbucks chief, when you’re ready to give the baristas the option of writing #BlackLivesMatter on my coffee cup? I’d line up outside Starbucks for that. And I don’t even drink coffee.
Alana Banks is a junior at UC Berkeley concentrating on African American Studies, Public Health, City Planning, and Public Policy. She is also a Student Teacher Poet in Poetry for the People and an organizer in #BlackLivesMatter on campus with the Black Student Union. She still lives in North Oakland where she grew up. She is a former member of UC Berkeley’s Women’s Rugby team. She studies health disparities in low income communities. Find her on twitter at @