Starbucks has been one of the most successful and fastest growing companies in the world for more than a decade. Between the years 2003 and 2017, Starbucks experienced quintuple growth in its revenue. Various awards given to the company include “Best Business,” “Most Admired Company,” and “100 Best Corporate Citizens.”
However, a recent scandal has been a great threat to this glory of Starbucks. In April 2018, two African-Americans were arrested and charged with trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks, even though all they did was sit at the shop without buying a drink. This incident resulted in a breakout of protests, claiming that the action taken against the two men was racially motivated.
The CEO of the company released his official apology and shut down over 8,000 U.S Starbucks stores to provide its employees unconscious-bias training. This immediate response seemed to be effective as Starbucks managed to keep its leading position in the coffee market.
In similar attempts to address the issue of racism in the past, Starbucks launched its “Race Together” campaign in 2015, which encouraged baristas to write the phrase “Race Together” on orders given out. The company’s CEO explained his purpose behind this campaign as “to not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.” He said that he wanted Starbucks to be a place where customers and employees could freely talk about issues like racism.
Despite his “good intentions,” the campaign continued to receive massive criticism. Many argued that the campaign was “unnecessary” and “insensitive.” Similar criticism was received after the 2018 incident.
“I was angry we had to educate people on how to not be racist,” said an anonymous African American employee at Starbucks about the 2018 unconscious-bias trainings. The employee argued that the training was a mere video addressing the differences between race. Many employees wished that Starbucks had instead hosted a discussion between co-workers instead of telling them what they already knew. The employee also argued that Starbucks’ encouragement for the employees to be “color brave” rather than “color blind” makes it seem like the company is trying to point at “race” as the issue rather than “racism.” Another Mexican employee said, “Me and my coworkers of color felt uncomfortable the entire time” during the training.
Starbucks argued that the training session was just the beginning of a long-term commitment to diversity and combating racial bias. According to the company, the program was “designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome.”
However, many experts doubt Starbucks’ capacity to achieve this goal. They argued that Starbucks does not have the ability to change people’s “inherited bias” with a few training sessions. After a day or two, any potential positive results tend to fade away without any follow-ups.
Incidents like these are few of the many times that Starbucks has been accused of being racist and insensitive.
In 2012, a Starbucks employee in Georgia drew “chinky eyes” to refer to a Korean-American customer. This incident evoked great outrage in the Korean community and caused many Koreans to become “anti-Starbucks.”
Being a Korean myself, this incident concerned me more than other controversies involved with Starbucks. I was extremely disturbed, being reminded of my own experiences with racial prejudice here in India.
From being called “Chinky” to unintentional exclusion from conversations with my non-Korean friends, it was a no shock to me when I faced the reality of prejudice in a classroom.
Just weeks ago, when I was presenting my answer to a question in class, one of my teachers made some offensive comments about my English proficiency.
He said something along the lines of: “That is wrong, but I understand because you are an ESL student.” He assumed I was an ESL student because I was Korean.
I was outraged because, in reality, I actually took an AP English class in which I was getting straight As.
However, I felt better when the teacher approached me later that day. He apologized and explained that his actions weren’t meant to offend me. He said that he took full responsibility for his mistake.
I was able to move on from the incident because in his apology, the blame wasn’t put on my racial identity; instead, it was put on his unconscious prejudices.
Unlike Starbucks, my teacher had a genuine interest towards amending the issue, allowing us to address the “actual” problem and to move forward as a whole.
And if we were able to work out this incident by acknowledging our prejudices, instead of blaming our differences, then so can Starbucks.
Edited by Aarti Malhotra.