Starbucks - it's OK to talk about race

Image of Rebecca Gregory Head of Communications Race for Opportunity and Opportunity Now

Rebecca Gregory -  Head of Communications - Race for Opportunity

I might not be a fan of their coffee (yes, I’m a coffee snob) but have to say I’m impressed by Howard Schultz. A business leader with guts.  Yes, his Starbucks ‘Race Together’ campaign was

received pretty badly. Yes, there was room for improvement on its execution. A Wembley Stadium sized room, admittedly, but in my view the good intention behind the campaign trumps all criticisms on execution.  


Enough has been said as to why it was so ill thought out and I don’t need to spell these out in full here. What frustrates me is the scale of attack levelled at Schultz. It was similar to Cumberbatch - attack, attack, with limited acknowledgement that he was trying to use his position to spotlight ethnic minority under-representation in acting. Many of the negative reactions to Schultz’s Race Together were along the same lines: Rubbish! Awful!


It's crucial that Joe Public is able to engage on inequalities in our society, whatever they might be, without backlash.

These responses could indicate that many people believe that a white man (or a white woman) has no right to talk about race issues. Ever. These reactions are enough to put anyone who does want to live in and contribute to a more equal society back in their box, feeling unqualified to talk about these issues. That saddens and frustrates me – it’s crucial that Joe Public is able to engage on inequalities in our society, whatever they might be, without backlash. 


There is a silver lining however. There have been many positive responses published in widely read publications. A collective (of sorts) agreement that Schultz’s intentions are welcome and to be applauded if lacking finesse. At the very least, Schultz is aware of the diversity of his workforce and is aware of the diversity of the communities that Starbucks serves. This is a lot more than many business leaders know.


The plan for baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups has stopped, apparently the plan all along. So from a Comms perspective, well done Schultz on getting the conversation started. I’ll admit, at the start my eyebrows were raised. Surely Schultz was aware the campaign would be controversial. How could he not be? It was worrying to think a business leader of a consumer business could be so out of touch with modern day public and the quick fire negativity social media allows it. But, as Schultz told his employees:


"…let me assure you that we didn't expect universal praise," he wrote. "We leaned in because we believed that starting this dialogue is what matters most. We are learning a lot. An issue as tough as racial and ethnic inequality requires risk-taking and tough-minded action. And let me reassure you that our conviction and commitment to the notion of equality and opportunity for all has never been stronger."


Having a conversation about race and ethnicity is often highly personal. It can be highly charged. It can be easy to blunder, to misunderstand or misconstrue. From our work with employers, we know that starting these conversations is something that business struggles with. But being able to talk about these issues would make a huge difference in addressing inequalities. 


It’s rare to see a business leader take such a public stance on race. It’s rare to see a business leader talk directly to shareholders about race (or diversity in general). Let‘s hope other business leaders see that it’s okay to be brave. As NPR points out – Race Together hasn’t impacted Starbucks financial performance; consumers didn’t think it was fundamentally wrong to talk about these issues, they just didn’t want to do it getting their morning coffee.