Coffee, Tea, Or a Race Journey Discussion

When you get to be my age, you should be able to be honest. I honestly hate Starbucks “cuppa joe”, not because it ranks among the highest priced coffee on Planet Earth, but because it tastes like someone burned the beans and scorched the pot it was brewed in. I do not buy Starbucks spin that that is how coffee is supposed to taste. “Hogwash” as my Grandmother Bryant used to say. Obviously, the recipe has been stolen from a branch of the military service that claims if you wash a coffee pot you ruin the coffee.

HOWEVER, I do like Starbucks, the friendly young baristas, the comfy chairs, the calming music…I love Starbucks the Brand and their Caramel Frappuccino. In a dream world, I imagine myself with a Grande (medium) size Caramel Frappuccino with lots of whipped cream, sitting in a comfy chair or on the patio in Spring or Fall, writing the great American novel or meeting my Book Group to discuss with intelligence and passion the book choice of the month. Ah! yes, I do visualize with the best of them and Starbucks holds a marker spot in my imagination.

Starbucks has had its popular/controversial promotions in the past for example the “The Way I see it” inspirational quotes on their take out cups. The diversity of the quotes true to Starbucks own commitment to create a “culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome” proved to be inspirational to many or at least conversation starters while others were offended by the way some folks saw it.

imageAs a person who likes words, I found some of the quotes inspiring or motivational, some I simply agreed with and others caused my eyebrows to raise as I said, “REALLY?”. They were certainly not as crude as many cocktail napkins. Agree or disagree, or ignore, crumble your cup and toss it when empty, but it was up to the customers to decide. And yet, due to criticism from various religious, ethnic, and immigrant groups, the quotes disappeared in 2011.

Some might say “the way I see it” quotes politicized the atmosphere at Starbucks, but not nearly as much as their most recent campaign which started March 20th. Baristas are being encouraged to write, “Race Together” on coffee cups and “to facilitate a conversation between you and our customers” about their “race journey.” Really, I am supposed to discuss my “race journey” with the twenty something Barista who is also trying to move a line full of people from ordering to order delivery, scribbling the person’s name and “race together” on every cup. Do I really believe Starbucks or any other coffee bar is a safe haven for honest dialogue about an emotionally charged topic? How much time would one have for such a conversation?

I don’t mind discussing my “race journey”, but I would rather not do it with my morning, afternoon or evening coffee in the place where I dream of writing my great American novel. Why? Because, it could be that I, a white woman born in the 1940’s, who attended homogenous (white) schools from elementary to my junior year in high school, when two black female students braved the classrooms and halls of Frederick High School, might easily be labeled “racist.” It could be that folks like me live with their stereotypes much like my African-American, Asian and Latino sisters live with theirs.

So, yes, I would prefer discussing my “race journey” with other thoughtful, diverse, caring folks as we ponder lines from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham with the backstory of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

1963 was the year I graduated from high school and that bombing became a part of my “race journey” . The streets were too dangerous during the walks so the children were taken to the safety of the church…Hear Randall’s powerful words as a mother searches for her child amid the rubble:

“For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild,
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.
She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
‘O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?'”

A five minute conversation with a barista at Starbucks could not touch let alone plunge the depths of the course of my “race journey” that the words of that poem and the events that sparked them do. Nor how the shape of my convictions about racism were clarified when one of those brave Black students came to school with her face battered from a beating by girls I knew and had attended school with for many years. Nor could it take into account the diversity of friends I have been fortunate enough to love, work and worship with.

Take heart though, the sloppy handwriting of the baristas may save us all from having to politely decline a politicalized discussion especially if the Cup with “Race Together” looks like “Rocy Toggalothr”.

Or if I pretend it does.

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