They'll Talk About Race in Seattle's Starbucks, But They'd Rather Talk About George Lucas

Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz (L) tries a cup of coffee during the Starbucks Annual Shareholders meeting at McCaw Hall in Seattle, Washington March 19, 2008. Marcus R. Donner/Reuters

As green-spangled revelers staggered around the streets of Seattle, I spent St. Patrick's Day with a different kind of green-clad people—the emerald-aproned baristas of Starbucks. The company, in partnership with USA Today, is currently running a controversial campaign called #racetogether. This week, Starbucks outposts have the option of Sharpie-ing "#racetogether" on their paper cups instead of customer names.

CEO Howard Shultz started the campaign, encouraging his baristas to have conversations about race. "It's an emotional issue, but it is so vitally important to the country," he said in a video address about the subject. The campaign began after months of discussions and company brew ha-has about the topic that followed the Michael Brown and Eric Garner controversies. "If a customer asks you what this is, try and engage in a discussion—that we have problems in this country with regard to race and racial inequality," Shultz told his employees. "We believe we're better than this, and we believe the country's better than this."

Though the idea is very American—our revolution started with coffee house conversations in 18th-century Williamsburg—Starbucks has been widely criticized by the Twitterati. The backlash was so strong that Corey duBrowa, Starbucks' senior vice president of global communications, briefly quit the social media platform yesterday. Last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity," he wrote in a Medium post. "I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted." Many critics slammed the coffee company for trying to capitalize on America's race problem. The scalding-hot tweets ran from "I don't have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train" to "Coffee and sugar were 2 of the 3 drugs (w/tobacco) that started this mess in the first place."

Starbucks has its headquarters in Seattle, but my St. Patty search was not unlike a leprechaun's for that elusive pot o' gold at the end of a rainbow. Or maybe Goldilocks' porridge experience: the first Starbucks I went to was too cramped and tiny to eavesdrop on conversations (the original—Starbucks No. 1—at Pike Place Market) and none of the tourists who filled the place were talking race. Topic A, B and C was George Lucas, whom they all seemed to have sighted at the EMP Star Wars exhibit nearby. The second Starbucks I visited was too large (at 15,000 square feet, the "Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room" is the world's largest). And it's a sit-down restaurant, so no Sharpies. My third and final Starbucks had a fireplace and an outside patio, and felt just right for a talky, racy, Sharpie confrontation.

I order a Tall Flat White and ask, "Can we talk race?"

The barista (shaved head, androgynous, as white as I am) says, "Sure. If you want."

"Have you talked race with any other customer today?"

"One guy. He came up to me and said, 'Let's talk about race.' He thought I was a skinhead because of my shaved head."

"Are you a skinhead?"

"No! I directed him over there." She points to the short, goateed guy filling my cup of Tall Flat White at the espresso machine, and shouts, "Hey, she wants to talk about race."

Cup Guy says, "How did you hear about our 'racetogether' campaign?"

"The Internet."

"Oh, me too."

"Have you been talking a lot about race here?"

"Just to people like you who've read about it on the Internet."

"Anything you'd like to say about race?"

"I dunno. Whaddya think?"

"Well, do you think the barista is a skinhead?"

He laughs. "No, but I did ask her why she shaves her head. She doesn't like the way her hair grows. It's curly."