No, Starbucks, I Don't Want to #RaceTogether. I'm Tired of Talking.

by Kimberly Foster

Last week, Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz announced the company's Race Together campaign to open a national dialogue on race relations. In partnership with USA Today, the coffeemaker is encouraging baristas to facilitate these conversations within their shops "in an effort to create more empathy and understanding."

That goal is, no doubt, a commendable one. Study after study shows that Black pain and Black suffering are difficult for most to consider. But Starbucks presented an unserious solution that has rightfully drawn criticism. The problem of the color line won't be deconstructed over a caramel frappucino.

Shultz seems earnest in his desire to create change in a country that has seen more public unrest in the past year than it has in a generation. In the launch video for Race Together, he tells employees  "he felt a burden of personal responsibility"—as we all should.

But, in honesty, it's a shame that 61-year-old Shultz's racial education has been so inadequate that he believes that now is the time for more circular and superficial conversations about about the white supremacy on which this country was founded.

He and his cohort represent a naïveté that is frustrating, if not offensive, to those of us who have been forced to tout the load of  racism's emotional and physical violence. The time for mere talk is not when Black bodies are routinely brutalized in the streets.

Demonstrate a commitment to eliminating the racial caste system with a willingness to act. Starbucks could catalyze social change with  public support for legislation that would end racial disparities, and my admiration of Shultz would grow immeasurably if he used his corporate power to finance community programs and grassroots organizations that do work that produces tangible victories each day.

Or, perhaps, Starbucks could begin its quest to conquer inequality by rectifying its own policies that promulgate the exploitation of workers like reviewing its anti-union policy and raising wages.

Institutional heads can follow the lead of Eric Holder who famously called the United States "a nation of cowards." Holder, in his capacity as Attorney General, not only leads the conversation, but exhibits a commitment to getting things done. The recently issued Ferguson report provides an example of how he proposes accountability for documented wrongs.

Hearts and minds must change, but we cannot wait on them.  Ongoing emphasis on "race relations" does little to chip away at the damage  socialization in a white supremacist society has caused or how that has been embedded in policy that leaves Black lives unprotected. Often a desire to improve "race relations" means appeasing those who are uncomfortable with power shifts.

Those who are truly invested in eradicating racism are always having conversations about race. Some of us have no choice. We need not be prompted by corporate campaign. Not to mention that Starbucks coffee shops are not typically the kinds of communal gathering places in which the most vulnerable participants in these dialogues can feel safe.

That is not to say that words are wholly useless. These conversations are centuries old, and it's time to move beyond the superficial.  Race Together seems to have been proposed with the assumption that all race talk is equally valuable. We don't need any more uneducated talk about race. Whitney Dow's The Whiteness Project offers a glimpse into how some white folks talk about race privately. In a series of interviews, the subjects offer viewpoints that are honest, ahistorical and often bigoted.  The series is interesting, but not at all revelatory, and serves as a reminder that most people are already talking about race but they're doing so in harmful ways.  And no, you don't get a gold star just for trying.  More of that out in the open is not a triumph. Critical conversations about toppling white supremacy don't begin with light-hearted cliches about how we're all human.

Photo: Starbucks

Starbucks has fallen into a classic pitfall of well-meaning liberalism by over simplifying a complex issue. We don't need new ways of understanding racism. We understand just fine.  If you want to see change in this country, start by abandoning the view that talking about race makes you some sort of hero.

To break down the empathy gap, begin by listening. All of us do not have an equal stake in the race game, and this preoccupation with talk therapy misses that fact. I, personally, am not interested in a race conversation that doesn't begin with privilege and end with justice. Anything else is a useless bloviation meant to pacify the participants. Some of us are, quite frankly, tired of talking.

Header photo: David Ryder/Reuters

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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