I woke up one morning this week to discover that Starbucks had decided to launch a new initiative at its coffee shops, branding their paper cups with a #RaceTogether hashtag and encouraging baristas to chat customers up about race.
My first thought: what an admirable idea.
My second thought: heck no.
So I dashed off this tweet: “Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”
honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I've had my morning coffee, it will not end well.
— gwen ifill (@gwenifill) March 17, 2015
Nearly 400 people retweeted it, which is a fair amount in my Twitter world. But what I found most interesting was the people behind the tweets — black, white, other — who for their own reasons felt Starbucks might be going a step too far. That’s actually not quite the interpretation I intended.
It’s true that I was unsure that empowering someone to goose me into a sensitive conversation at a time of day when I can barely say “Good morning” was a good idea.
But talking about race, I think, is actually quite a good thing. It’s how we do it that matters.
My friend Michele Norris of NPR has been dipping into these waters for some years now with her Race Card Project, an online discussion forum that invites people to talk about race in six words. The stories that emerge from these comments are invariably enlightening, and take us well beyond the racial straitjackets we usually live in.
On St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, the conversation was largely about what it’s like to be Irish. That’s because race is not just about conflict; it’s also about culture.
That’s why a Pakistani friend can laugh when people tell her sister she looks like the Indian actress Mindy Kaling. (She does not.)
It’s why young African Americans don’t laugh when they notice that a white, tattooed alleged mass shooter in Mesa, Arizona, was subdued with a Taser, while a black University of Virginia honor student emerged bloodied and battered — allegedly by apprehending officers — after an altercation outside a bar.
It’s also why, as admirable as it is, the Starbucks plan is a flawed one. A “conversation” about race cannot be a fleeting one. It certainly cannot be an under-caffeinated one. And it is, most importantly, not a black and white one.
Check out the conversation we’ve launched on this website.
It is about the nation we have become, and are in the process of becoming. It is about demography and destiny. It is about the distance we have come, and the distance we have yet to go.
It is not exclusively about conflict, but we seem to only want to have these conversations when conflict forces it out of the closet.
There are so many good ways to talk about this. Yes, at the barista’s counter, but also at our kitchen tables and in the workplace.
One 12-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, put it well when he sent his six words in to the Race Card Project. He wrote: “Many Different Roads, But All Connected.”
So yes, let me get my latte first. But let’s not end it there. I’ll meet you on the road.