I Went To Five Different Starbucks To See Who Would Talk To Me About Race

Ed. Note: The following is an excerpt from Beejoli Shah’s story which was originally posted on The Frisky. Basically we loved it and wanted to share.

This Sunday, Starbucks took out a full page ad in The New York Times asking “Shall We Overcome?” as part of their new #RaceTogether campaign — an initiative to have baristas discuss race relations with ostensibly interested customers. The program, which started as a grassroots Sharpie’d movement at Starbucks in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, expanded on Monday to Starbucks stores nationwide, where cups are being affixed with big stickers boldly proclaiming #RaceTogether. According to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the idea came up after months of employee forums where baristas discussed racial issues as “racially-charged tragedies unfolded in communities across the country.”

While the campaign announcement immediately invited swift mockery as well as wholly accurate criticisms (maybe don’t have only white employees in all your press material about race inclusivity?), I was still curious. What would happen if I went to different Starbucks in New York and actually tried to talk about race? As it turns out: a few uncomfortable questions and a whole lot of puking.

Starbucks # 1: 29th Street and 5th Avenue

It’s worth mentioning at this point that I never drink coffee. Ever. The first time I drank coffee, I was 25, and I only did it because we had a Starbucks on the NBC studio lot and everyone cool hung out there instead of working mid-afternoon. I drank three cafe mochas (extra mocha!) in rapid succession to prove how cool and caffeinated I was, before promptly vomiting in my boss’ office and having to lie down for the rest of the day while she toweled off my forehead with wet paper towels. So yeah, I don’t drink coffee. But in the name of race relations, we all have to make some sacrifices, and let’s be honest, green teas just aren’t edgy enough to talk about America’s racial divides.

When I walked into the 29th Street Starbucks around noon, a tiny outpost in a part of the city littered with Starbucks, I was feeling pretty good about opening up about race. There were two women in hijabs who were leisurely enjoying their coffee and chatting, an Israeli rabbi sipping a tea, and blessedly few white people despite the fact that St. Patrick’s Day revelers had already started roaming the streets in drunken packs. The three baristas were all of color: two black, one of Latina descent, and despite the fact that I was kicking myself for not coming up with better racial talking points (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” rampant race problem felt a little too niche), I figured we’d work it out all the same.

We did not.

Perhaps it was my fault for using my default anglicized Starbucks nickname (“It’s Nicky, with a ‘cky,’ not an ‘i,’ thanks!”) that made the otherwise lovely staff at Starbucks think I didn’t want to talk about race, but no one mentioned #RaceTogether, or even looked at me (or my skin color!) as they handed me my drink. I got too nervous to ask about race, because how do you start that conversation organically, and resolved to do better at my next Starbucks. As an aside, it was also the best hot chocolate I’d ever had.


Starbucks # 2: 35th Street and 5th Avenue

After my swing and a miss at the 29th Street Starbucks, I was excited to head up to the much larger outpost on 35th and 5th, a block north of the Empire State Building, to see if a larger Starbucks was better equipped to get into our nation’s most pressing social issues. And sure enough, when I walked in, I could see cups littering the coffee shop emblazoned with black stickers reading #RaceTogether.

Before I could ask the sweet Spanish couple drinking their frappucinos how their conversation on race had gone, a group of four visibly intoxicated white men in St. Patrick’s Day shirts and sunglasses burst into the Starbucks, walked up to the counter where completed orders were being passed out, and accused the barista of not making their order (a green tea lemonade). When the barista pointed out that the group hadn’t been in the Starbucks at all that morning, the ringleader launched into an expletive-filled tirade, before capping off with a “Fuck you, n***er!” at the black barista, before storming out. Oh shit. If there was ever a Starbucks at which to talk about race, this was it.

Read the rest of Shah’s “I Went To Five Different Starbucks To See Who Would Talk To Me About Race” here.