Essay: So a Black Guy Walks Into a Starbucks.. Barista, Bye

Image: Mug with Starbucks logo next to coffee beans
Starbucks plans to launch a food and beverage delivery service in select markets next year.Yuriko K. Nakao / Reuters

A Black guy walks into a Starbucks and asks for a Venti…. It is an old bar joke with a new spin.

Yesterday, when I heard that Starbucks decided that baristas should begin to have conversations about race with customers, I couldn’t stop thinking about those dumb jokes. It was a joke right? Social media went wild, and so did I. I liked the one about the barista saying he knows you want your coffee strong, hot and black, just like you.

The campaign, Race Together, was designed to open the dialogue on race in a common space—their stores. The commentary in response has been so swift that the Starbucks’ Vice President of Corporate Communications, Corey DuBrowa took his Twitter feed down after he said he felt like he had been personally attacked in negativity. He has since reactivated his account. I believe that this was a well-meaning, but, misdirected idea from the senior management of the company.

I pictured the only black or Hispanic baristas I have seen in a Starbucks, handing someone change and saying, “you know black lives matter, right?” and then holding their hands up in the air.

I thought, man, did you talk to any everyday people before you put this out into the universe? And I wondered if the baristas get extra combat pay for taking that on. People tend to get nasty, when all they want is a cup of Columbian roast, and you give them your take on Ferguson.

Just saying.

I pictured the only black or Hispanic baristas I have seen in a Starbucks, handing someone change and saying, “you know black lives matter, right?” and then holding their hands up in the air.

The baristas, as pleasant as they may be, can’t write a name accurately on a cup to save their lives. I have been Andrew, Annette, Austin and Audrey. Maybe, Starbucks should start a spelling campaign first, before a race conversation campaign. I might be more receptive to the information if you don’t call me Audrey.

Trust and believe that if I come in at 7am to get some caffeine to keep me motivated and civilized, it is not going to go well if a perky little girl says, “Hey, Audrey did you know that racism is oppressive?” Or maybe they are going to tell ole Audrey here that Martin Luther King, Jr. worked hard to make sure I could buy my $5.55 morning latte at any coffee shop in America.

Barista, bye.

The conversations about race are prickly and painful. I once attended a three-day workshop on culture, class, gender and race. I was reluctant because I have been through so many diversity classes and workshops that did absolutely nothing to change things. But this was unflinching. It was brave and you had to be brave to lay all your stuff about race on the table.

It was like we got all pulled apart, and then put together again. The two people who lead the session were tough in that they didn’t let anybody off the hook. They were skilled in how to open up the Pandora’s box-of-pain that comes with talking about privilege and lack thereof. They understood that for every one box that you check off for race, there are a thousand permutations, and life experiences. My experience as a child of the ‘60s is light years away from the young gay man who still hadn’t come out to his parents and his church.

They were skilled in how to open up the Pandora’s box-of-pain that comes with talking about privilege and lack thereof. They understood that for every one box that you check off for race, there are a thousand permutations, and life experiences.

Yet the facilitators were able to round up all us wild kitty cats and sit us down with our baskets of stuff, to be real and thoughtful. We knew we weren’t going to end racism at the table, but we also knew that we left with new ways to listen, acknowledge and be respectful. It was life-changing, at least it was for me.

So, yes, I shudder when I think about some young kid from the suburbs, with no training on how to talk about one of the most painful subjects in American history, while she makes my drink.

Do we need to talk about race? Of course.

Do we need to have real and authentic conversations that go deeper than a sound bite or 140 characters? We do.

Do we need to be ambushed with a hot cup of Joe? I don’t think so.

I appreciate that someone in a major corporation understands that we need to do the deep dive on race in this country. But I also know that when you go to a coffee shop, sometimes you just want a cup of coffee, and not a manifesto on slavery and tolerance.

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