It has been only a week, but Starbucks is dumping the awkward conversations on race it was serving with its tiramisu latte.
The company’s chief executive announced that baristas are done writing “Race Together” on cups as a way to invite customers to talk about race and promote diversity. No one wanted to ponder society’s ills while trying to get a caffeine fix.
Forcing the conversation at a coffee shop might not have been the best idea, but let’s admit the talk is one we should all have. Maybe we don’t chat about it over Frappuccinos with the person at the register, but we certainly need to start getting real about race in America.
Every week we are faced with stories of brutality and injustice, racism on college campuses and hashtags like #whitegenocide pushing the twisted idea that a diverse America is an anti-white America. The hate is real.
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While most of us agree that the conversation is important, it’s not always easy. I’ve talked about race with friends and family for years. But sometimes I choke up around strangers.
Two weeks ago, a white woman walked up to me at the City Market and demanded a plastic bag. Despite my handbag and sunglasses, she thought I was one of the vendors. Should I have tried to engage in a conversation on stereotypes? Maybe. I was too angry to do much beyond a serious side-eye and a terse “Excuse me.”
Over the weekend, a friend of a friend referred to mixed people like me as mulattoes. The word is loaded with racist history — but in the middle of drinks and friends, the only thing I managed to say to the black woman I’d just met was, “Can you not use that word?” And then I changed the subject.
But the reality is I should have embraced the discomfort instead of shoving it aside. I could have taken a second, tempered my anger and calmly explained my feelings.
To make any progress, we’re going to get agitated. Our ideals will be challenged. And sometimes feelings might get hurt. We must remain civil and committed to the conversation. This is how we evolve. It’s how we move forward together.
When you join the conversation, here are some points to think about:
▪ Acknowledge privilege. When people say diversity is a threat to white Americans or wonder why there is no White History Month, they are ignorant to white privilege.
“There’s a color blindness that I think comes with being in the majority and a sensitivity that comes from being told implicitly that your experience isn’t valuable,” says Anthonia Akitunde, 30, the Kansas Citian behind matermea.com, a blog celebrating black motherhood.
“Sometimes I’m just tired of educating people about why what they said was ignorant. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Why don’t you get it? And why do I have to get everything about you?’ Because it’s a way to survive culturally as someone who is largely around white people most of the time.”
▪ Embrace diversity. Just because people are different from you doesn’t make them aliens. Think before you ask exclusionary questions like, “What are you?” Eh, human.
“It takes me back to childhood when I felt like there was something wrong with me for being different when there is not. And it really angers me,” says Kim Le, 28, a Kansas City nurse practitioner. “I was one of maybe 10 Asian people throughout elementary and middle school in Oklahoma. Growing up, a part of me wished I was white because it was easier to fit in. One of the things I wish I would’ve learned growing up is to embrace diversity.
“But now I love that I come from a different background from others because other people can learn about me and my culture as I love learning about others. I know when I have kids I will expose them to many cultures so that they learn to love people through their personalities and inner beauty rather than through the color of their skin.”
▪ Understand there is no post-racial America. The playing field is not level. Tracy Hull says she wishes she wasn’t taught that everyone is the same and has the same opportunities. It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses.
“I wish I would have known that people are dealt different hands and that some people get to play by different rules,” says Hull, 34, a Kansas City community development manager. “When you are told everyone is the same and has the same chances, you believe any lack is a personal shortcoming.
“We have to talk about empathy and connecting with people. When you never connect to those you see as different, you will never stand up for them or believe they are fighting for something real.”
▪ Challenge yourself by digging beyond stereotypes. We have to get out of our comfort zones and bridge racial gaps, says Jermaine Reed, 30, Kansas City’s 3rd District councilman.
“The first step to having these conversations is to build relationships with people beyond your everyday interactions. Do something you normally wouldn’t and get to know people you might not usually meet in your neighborhood. The more you are exposed to different things and different people, the greater chance you have at diversity and gaining a broader perspective.
“You can’t just believe stereotypes, you have to get to know the people in the world beyond your own four walls and your own neighborhood.”
We don’t need our Starbucks cups to say “Race Together.” But the time is now: Let’s talk race, together.