#RaceTogether and Speaking with Your Ears

So, I just found out about #RaceTogether, a partnership between USA Today and Starbucks to begin conversations about race because, apparently, “we are all one human race.”

And… I appreciate that sentiment. Like lots of things, I think it is well-intentioned, for sure. Still, I am a strong believer that intent < actual impact for those you may want to help. And while this is well-intentioned, I worry about the actual impact of this for two big reasons:

1) The concept itself assumes that people of color are not already talking about these issues, or that these concepts are new. It assumes we need help talking about race from a large corporation that’s likely not where we come from.

If you’re not from an oppressed background, it’s easy to forget that many PoC are thinking about these issues all the time. We are often navigating these issues, whether with others or silently and subconsciously. This means you’re sort of deciding to come in and tell us how to do something that we’re doing.

2) You’re asking a bunch of folks to jump into conversations about race, which can bring up a LOT of emotions and be difficult for both parties. I worry that micro aggressions, misunderstandings, and defensiveness will abound. In fact, I know they will, because that’s what conversations about race do: they unsettle the status quo we’ve come to accept about our implicit and explicit biases. Stuff is gonna come up.

So, normally, you prep for that. You read some stuff. You prep emotionally. You come to terms with things. I don’t foresee that happening in a 5 minute interaction after waiting in a too-long line for coffee.

You really want to know how I developed identity and race from my parents? How they had to teach me how to deal with oppression? You want to ask Black men how they try and explain what it is to grow up Black? Is that something we’re willing to share with strangers? Are we ready to also talk about my own internalized racism?

More importantly: is that something the baristas are willing to listen to? That Starbucks is ready to hear? Because it’s going to be really hard. I hope so. The way this has started out doesn’t lead me to think so.

So, Starbucks, if you want to talk about race, that’s ok. That’s great. I encourage you to remember something a mentor and colleague told me when I started teaching: speak with your ears, not your mouth.

Instead of forcing us to talk race with a hashtag and forced conversations starters, you might want to listen, learn, and ask how we start these conversations first. You may learn that the loudest thing you say to us is providing your intentioned, focused, listening silence.

A quick addendum (3/20/15):

Thanks Teaching Tolerance for sharing my piece! I’ve had some good discussions since.

Here’s the thing: I think hope is good, and like I said, I appreciate the intention. My concern is that a “small stumble” or “fine tuning” that needs to happen in the execution of this could lead to big, negative ramifications on a community or individual consumer.

So I ask: wouldn’t it have been better for Starbucks to partner with or donate to a community organization that serves this purpose, instead of assuming they know best and forcing the conversation in the way they see fit?

Part of being an “ally” to communities of color means asking what they need and really listening first, instead of just jumping in and assuming you know how to fix the problem. While I love them, this is an issue that my former employer, Teach For America, ended up having to face. You’re not really allying with our communities if you’re not willing to listen to us first.

So. Here’s to hope, and here’s to the hope that the future includes much listening, THEN doing.

3 thoughts on “#RaceTogether and Speaking with Your Ears

  1. fihuang says:

    Just shows how clueless the executives at Starbucks really are. Can I start a conversation about how Starbucks is usually the mark of when a neighborhood officially gets gentrified, which often displaces people of color? Or, how it took a documentary like Black Gold to get them to use Fair Trade coffee? The scene where they showed that village where they get a lot of their coffee beans from, showing the abject poverty there, challenges the idea that they are this progressive company.


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