NEWS

#RaceTogether: Starbucks blasted for encouraging baristas to discuss race issues with customers

03/18/2015 02:08 EDT | Updated 05/18/2015 05:59 EDT
Fancy a side of race relations with your morning Macchiato?

A lot of people don’t, it seems — at least not when it’s in the context of a corporate PR campaign.

Starbucks is taking a lot of heat this week for encouraging its baristas to strike up conversations about racial issues with customers as part of an initiative the company calls “Race Together.”

Since the campaign’s launch on Monday, workers at all of the coffee chain’s U.S. stores have been writing the words “Race Together" — often in the form of a hashtag — on beverage cups before they’re served.

Starbucks will also be distributing a publication designed to “designed to stimulate conversation, compassion and positive action regarding race in America” via free USA TODAY newspaper inserts.


 

“As racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country, the chairman and ceo of Starbucks didn’t remain a silent bystander,” reads a press release issued by the corporation Monday. “Howard Schultz voiced his concerns with partners (employees) in the company’s Seattle headquarters and started a discussion about race in America.”

“[Race Together] is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time,” Schultz concluded.

Activity on Instagram and Twitter show that Starbucks employees from across the U.S. are excited to be participating in the campaign, as are some of the customers who’ve received #RaceTogether-branded lattes this week.

Many more online are railing against Starbucks, however, as news of what the company is doing — and how people of colour feel about it — spreads.

More than 71,000 people have used the #RaceTogether hashtag since Monday to voice their opinions, sending it to the top of Twitter’s U.S. trending list for much of Monday.

Unfortunately for Starbucks’ social media marketing team, the vast majority of those posts were from people who say it's opportunistic for a coffee chain to try and inject itself into such an important issue.

Many are also calling the company out for using only white models in the promotional materials for a campaign meant to promote racial equality.



Others are mocking up Starbucks cups with their own hand-written messages in an attempt to subvert the campaign. Some are even crossing out the #RaceTogether hashtag and replacing it with the powerful #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that emerged in November following a grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

There has been so much backlash against the campaign since Monday, in fact, that the company’s senior vice president of communications actually deactivated his Twitter account to side-step the stream of hate being spewed in his direction.

“I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” wrote Corey DuBrowain a Medium post on Tuesday. “I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.”

DuBrowa has since reopened his Twitter account, but his absence – which some found ironic — not go unnoticed.

It's not all anger and outrage over the Race Together campaign online today, however.

Some interesting conversations about the role that corporations should play when it comes to tackling social issues have sprung up today, and thousands of Twitter users are having fun putting a racially-charged twist on Starbucks products with the #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag.

Inserting itself into national issues is not new territory for Starbucks Corp.

In late 2012, the chain asked workers to write "Come together" on cups to send a message to lawmakers about stalled budget negotiations. In 2013, the chain placed newspaper ads saying that firearms were not welcome in its cafes after they became the site of gun rallies, but did stop short of an outright ban.

Schultz said at the time that Starbucks was neither for nor against guns, underscoring that even a company wanting to have a voice in national conversations has to be careful about alienating customers.

Starbucks is expected to elaborate on its plans for the Race Together campaign at its annual shareholder meeting Wednesday in Seattle.

MORE:cbcNews