A group of eight people walk into a room with a circle of chairs in the middle. They talk in small groups, greeting each other informally, eventually settling in their seats. As the clock hits the hour, the leader of the group summons their attention with a “good afternoon.” The group responds and the discussion begins with the facilitator reminding the group about the rules that were set during a past meeting. He reminds them that they need to work to respect each other, to listen to one another, to be aware of the impact of their statements, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt. The facilitator also reminds the group that they should not talk over each other and that they should be both kind and courageous in their interactions. The group consents to another ninety minutes of difficult dialogue.
This group consists of students who are taking part in a class that focuses on sociological concepts related to power, privilege, and the matrix of oppression that defines the way that society treats people that are not economically advantaged, able-bodied, heterosexual, Christian, White men. They spend 1.5 hours each week in lecture and another 1.5 hours in a difficult dialogue group that is led by a psychologist who is trained in facilitating difficult dialogues.
A difficult dialogue refers to a conversation that focuses on the different experiences of the group members around issues of identity, in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, ability status, social class, nationality, and various other intersecting identities. As one might imagine, these types of discussions can be fraught with intensely emotional and even traumatizing content. For this reason, the facilitator of the class referred to in this blog post spends the entire first class helping the group to build rules for safety. The facilitator spends the entire second class orienting the group to how to use the rules to speak about very difficult issues in a way that is less apt to cause harm to their group members. Most of all, the facilitator models ways to deal with the inevitable moments when the rules do not work, and someone is insulted or triggered, or just loses it for a moment. He shows them how to be contrite when one makes a mistake, and how to be gracious when one’s peers transgress.
Over the course of ten weeks, the dialogue group works through weekly subject materials, and becomes more and more a community. They broach many areas of power and privilege, and learn a lot about themselves. It’s a great program that cost quite a bit of money to run. And it gets results, in terms of helping to change the ways that the students think about themselves and their peers in relation to the world and the power structures that are everywhere.
So why would a corporate entity like Starbucks think that they can just have one of their baristas write #RaceTogether on a cup and start the same conversation? As a person who participated, led, and benefitted from these types of dialogues, it’s maddening to watch this type of over simplification of this important issue. The reality is that the best-case scenario for this campaign is that people do not engage. One of the worst-case scenarios would be that a barista will have to stand there and listen to a customer, who clearly holds racist beliefs, release a stream of micro-aggressive and racially biased opinions, which the barista will not be allowed to confront.
Let’s break this down. Lets all remind ourselves that racism does not merely existence in the US and the rest of the world, but its actually prevalent. Racism is institutionalized and socially accepted. You do not have to read the Department of Justice report on Ferguson or hear the SAE song to know that racism is the norm, though many in the media seem to be perpetually surprised by each successive example.
Keeping that in mind, picture your local Starbucks. Who is that person behind the counter that you order your half-café flat white single origin from? If it’s like the Starbucks near my house, then whether the person is male, female, trans, Black, White, young, old or whatever diverse identity they might hold, it is likely that they are not rich. It is fairly likely that they need the job (though I’m sure there are some folks who do not, but they are not the norm). So you have this barista placed into a position, where they are pushed to start conversations on the most difficult topic in the United States, with customers that may or may not want to talk about it, and who do not need to be customers of Starbucks (at least not this one, as another is likely across the street).
In this interaction, there is a power differential. If you add to this a potential power difference based on race, then you have a recipe for an explosive situation. This would be the place where a facilitator would be able to step in and help. A person who was trained in dealing with difficult dialogues might carefully craft their personal interactions, however since its 8am at Starbucks, let’s just assume that folks are just shooting from the hip and trying to get their cup of coffee before their train leaves.
Here is the potential effect of that worse case scenario that was mentioned earlier: The barista is forced to accept being abused, and possibly sanctioned by management for not better handling a situation that they are not trained to handle. The customer feels great, having been able to get out some things about race that they had been holding back. Their racism has been supported by the inability of the barista to address it, and the customer goes about their day thinking that they are some sort of hero for talking about race.
Wait, I almost forgot. There are also other people in the shop as well. People who are just trying to get some coffee, but instead get their coffee with a shot of racism. They have to spend the rest of their day feeling angry about being present for a corporate publicity stunt that blew up in the faces of everyone in line. Oh, and yeah, there’s the whole thing about this campaign doing absolutely nothing to actually effect institutional change to racist systems. Well maybe that’s not entirely true, I mean it is change. It is just moving in the wrong direction.
About the Author...
I'm an African American man with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. I'm married. I am a professor, a clinician, a social justice advocate, a multicultural competence trainer, a dog owner, an ex-professional photographer (i.e., people paid me, lol), and a self proclaimed nerd, who loves Sci-Fi, Anime, Zombie fiction, cooking shows, character studies, anti-heroes, and telling people about things that I like...
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