If corporations want to take up the onus to start such conversations then they must first do so from within their corporate structure, writes Saman Shad.
Back in December of last year Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz held a meeting with various Starbucks employees at the company’s headquarters to discuss racial tension in America. The resulting conversation – that apparently lasted “more than an hour” - clearly moved Schultz to want to do something about race relations in his country.
So last week Starbucks launched the #racetogether campaign. The campaign was hit with severe criticism from the moment it was launched and just a week later the campaign ended rather abruptly, however Starbucks insists it was only meant to last a week.
There are some who say that it was honourable of Starbucks to want to do something about racial tension in America in the first place. While on one side of the equation America has a black president and world famous celebrities like Beyonce and Kanye West representing the nation, it also has a terrible track record of how it treats its black populace. Black men in America are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men; the gap in median household income between black and white households is wider now than it was in previous decades and then there were the recent shootings of unarmed black teenagers - the protests and debate brought up by these shootings showed the level of distrust that exists between the police and the average black American.
While most Americans are aware of the racial inequalities within their country, there seems to be a general reluctance within the wider community and mainstream media to get into the thorny discussion of race. There is even greater reluctance amongst corporations to talk about race relations. So in a way perhaps Starbucks was trailblazing. However the way they went about raising the issue was what got so many people riled up.
Putting the onus on baristas to start conversations on race was ridiculous. A busy barista is under severe time pressure to get coffee delivered to their customers let alone start talking about race. And for customers, the last thing one wants to do before they get their caffeine hit is to get into some kind of heated debate. Also did Starbucks actually expect employees and customers to have any kind of meaningful discussion in the seconds it takes from having their order called out to grabbing their coffee? It is what lead most people to assume this was just one big marketing stunt gone wrong.
If Starbucks really wanted to start a conversation they should have done it from within their own headquarters. As one Twitter user pointed out – Starbucks may want us to #racetogether but this is not reflected in their executive board . Though to be honest this executive board looks way more diverse than most boards here in Australia.
They should have looked at where they open their stores (most Starbucks are located in gentrified, predominantly white areas), and they should consider how much they pay their employees – the average barista is paid a measly $10 an hour - this is despite soaring company profits.
The issue of race is one that needs wider debate not just in America but in countries around the world, including our own. This discussion needs to be lead not only within mainstream media, but on a community level. The more open discussion we can have about where we stand and where we come from, the more likely we are to dispel the misconceptions that create divisions between racial groups in the first place.
If corporations want to take up the onus to start such conversations then they must first do so from within their corporate structure – by removing barriers in career progression and promoting those from socially and economically disadvantaged communities.
It’s only after we level the playing field can we truly go on to have a meaningful discussion about race and how we #racetogether.