Starbucks Fairly Sure Black Coffee Matters, But Lives? Meh.
Starbucks has screwed up on racial issues at least as often as baristas screw up the spelling of my name. Five years ago, former CEO Howard Schultz tried to spark a “national conversation on race" by having employees write the words #racetogether on coffee cups. That was just one low point. Now the coffee giant has forbidden its employees from wearing “accessories or clothes that specifically express support for Black Lives Matter."
The policy is intended to — get this — maintain "a safe and welcoming" environment at its locations. Why would Starbucks assume the relatively mild statement “Black Lives Matter" is somehow “threatening," like black men sitting in a Starbucks too long? We're just saying we matter. We're not getting full of ourselves and saying we're beautiful like it's the racially progressive future of the 1960s. Can baristas at least wear an afro?
Kathleen Cleaver and Natural Hair, Black IS BeautiFul. Black Panther Party, 1968 www.youtube.com
Last week, Starbucks vowed on Twitter that it would “stand in solidarity with our Black partners, customers and communities." Its pinned tweet even declared, “Black Lives Matter. We are committed to being part of a change." Meanwhile, in an internal memo to staff, the company expressly called out Black Lives Matter attire as violating its dress code policy prohibiting "political, religious, or personal accessories or clothing."
"We know your intent is genuine and understand how personal this is for so many of us," the message read. "This is important and we hear you."
This is what corporations say when they don't plan to hear you. Starbucks fears that Black Lives Matter pins, buttons, or any other accessories could "amplify divisiveness" and potentially incite violence because of “agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles" of the movement.
However, Starbucks isn't just politically chickenshit across the board. As employees have pointed out, buttons and attire celebrating LGBTQ rights and marriage equality aren't just permitted, Starbucks even distributes them to staff. Those are still (unfortunately) contentious issues.
"Starbucks LGBTQ+ partners wear LGBTQ+ pins and shirts that also could incite and create violent experiences amongst partners and customers," one black transgender employee of the coffee chain told BuzzFeed. "We have partners who experienced harassment and transphobia/homophobia for wearing their pins and shirts, and Starbucks still stands behind them."
If you were a black LGBTQ employee who was curious what Starbucks considered least marketable about your identity, now you know! Black Lives Matter is as much an expression of identity as a Pride button. There's no clear distinction other than the perceived discomfort level of Starbucks' customer base. The police have insisted for years that Black Lives Matter is not just a contentious statement but somehow antagonistic toward them. If we're not OK with a cop shooting a 12-year-old boy in just two seconds, if we expect his black life to matter enough to wait at least three seconds to confirm he only has a toy gun in an open carry state, then we want every cop everywhere to die.
If Starbucks is saying #BlackLivesMatter attire is prohibited, and you end up there, Make "Black Lives Matter" you… https://t.co/tAGDXXN6VR— Steve Marmel (@Steve Marmel)1591908605.0
But no one's listening to these drama kings anymore. Something changed with George Floyd's murder. Even Mitt Romney is saying, "Black lives matter." Yes, that Mitt Romney. If the junior senator from Utah said "motherfucker," then Starbucks should feel comfortable playing Richard Pryor albums on Sunday afternoons. It's officially mainstream.
When a Philadelphia store manager called the cops on two black men for existing, Starbucks briefly closed more than 8,000 stores in May 2018 for racial bias training. Two years later, during a major moment in racial justice, Starbucks is siding with the cops and Karens. It's typical but still disappointing.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."