To Race Together Or Not, That Is The Question..Or Is Knowing Who You Are Talking To The First Question?

20 Mar

race-together-baristaOh boy. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the new Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign where the printed hashtag written on a coffee cup by your friendly barista aims to spark a conversation on race.

While I’ve seen a few supporters of the initiative on my Facebook feed and on twitter, some just friends, some more famous, like Common and Van Jones, the overwhelming majority of feedback by both black and white people has been negative.  The more cynical responses question the motive of whether Starbucks is trying to gain socially conscious feel-good consumer consumption points with the #RaceTogether campaign.  Some critiques also say that these interpersonal chats over lattes are not the answer–it’s the taking apart of institutionalized, systemic racism that needs to happen.

Journalist, Terrell  Jermaine Starr, stated in his article, Dear Starbucks: Black People Do Not Need To Participate In #RaceTogether on alternet.org that naming and providing support for the three black women who started the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and who are involved leaders in the current civil rights movement in Ferguson, is where Starbucks CEO,  Howard Schultz, should show his support.  Starr feels Starbucks would be better off supporting the women’s and other social justice work, just as they’ve supported other movements like minimum wage workers, and the LGBT community.  He adds that the dialogue that needs to happen needs to be amongst white people–that he, and other black people are tired of educating white people on racism.

On the other hand, civil rights and environmental activist, Van Jones, strives for optimism.  He tweeted:

“I think we should applaud @Starbucks for trying to make a positive difference.  But no good deed goes unpunished on Twitter.”

and

“Some activists won’t take “YES” for an answer.  We say we want more racial dialogue.  But then crucify @Starbucks 4 trying? SMH”

 

As for me, I fall somewhere in the middle.  I want to believe that Starbucks is trying to do something with good intention, though I also am skeptical of them cashing in on a “feel-good” skinny social justice latte campaign.  I also have to wonder how well thought out the campaign was, as I hear many folks question the tactic of forcing Starbucks baristas to initiate these conversations.  I wonder…have they even received training, or been asked about their feelings on this, or been able to give input to the campaign?  While I agree with many who say that it’s the systemic racism that needs to be dismantled, and where we need to put our support and resources to really make things happen, I’m not so sure I agree with the idea that individual conversations about our feelings on racism are useless. I still believe there is value in our individual conversations.  To me, it seems that it’s good to do both.

I think this is because I am a person who sees things on a smaller, grassroots, individual level–it’s always been easier for me to relate this way, rather than on a large scale, broad policy way of viewing things.  I worked for ten years in homeless services in New York City, first as a street outreach worker, and then as an Art and Recreation Therapist for homeless adults with mental illness.  When colleagues spoke about solving homelessness and funding and government initiatives and big numbers and all, it was hard for me to conceive what they were talking about.  But when I was face-to-face with a woman who was sharing with me  about how painting herself in her new “dream” apartment gave her hope, and a sense of peace, then I felt like we were making a connection.  I feel the same way about the work I now do as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital.   I don’t know how to create policies for treatment of people with mental illness, but I can connect with the person I am working with on a daily basis.

Not that I equate what I do with civil rights work.  And, trust me, it is not that I want to “help” black people–because that denotes a patronizing “white savior” stance. But I want to be a part of the solution, not part of the group of white people complacent in resting on the laurels white privilege has bestowed upon me.

Of course it’s easy for me to think all of this and say all of this as a white person.  Maybe my belief in conversations on race is that I want a less segregated world because I personally desire a world where we understand and respect black people’s reality when it comes to how systemic, institutionalized racism has impacted their lives, and benefited ours, AND be a part of the change that breaks down those systems.  We still live, for the most part, pretty segregated lives.  I’m hoping that the more we talk, the more we break down the oppressive systems that exist, that maybe we’ll all feel like hanging around each other, living side-by-side, and not wanting to retreat into our own segregated worlds–where white people live in these mostly white worlds because they feel safer and more comfortable with people who look like them, and black people live in black communities because, for one, they have been shut out of white communities for so long.

I know it’s not that simple–the reasons we live apart–that it’s part construct, part choice–we can look at the school cafeteria phenomenon of diverse schools with self-segregating lunch tables, which provokes the question of  whether this is a “problem” that needs to be fixed, or is racial and cultural segregation outside of school and work our natural state of being?  I also know how much my statement of desiring to see these kinds of forced and self-selecting segregation comes from a place of white privilege .  I can hear the “isn’t that nice–she’s white and wants us to live with her–we’re being invited by the white lady after all these years of being shut out…what makes her think we want to live with her?…”  For me, just as I remember civil rights activist, Xernona Clayton  say, that connecting with people of different races and cultures makes life much more rich, I feel the same way.  Clayton’s work included getting the local Ku Klux Klan wizard to step down in the Atlanta neighborhood she was working to improve in the 1960’s.   I know that not everyone is going to feel the same way Xernona or I do.  As Terrell Starr said in his article:

“I like many black people, don’t want to talk about how we can all live together; people; I just want to be left alone to live in my own skin and not be prosecuted for it..”

And, then, there’s the whole matter of knowing who you are talking to in the first place when you are trying to have a conversation on race.  My writer friend, Denitra Letrice, shared with me the link of the video where radio host and cultural critic, Jay Smooth, and Nancy Giles, host of CBS Sunday Morning, have a dialogue with Chris Hayes on the All In show.  The topic was Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign with Nancy Giles on the pro latte dialogue side, and Jay Smooth, not in support of personal dialogue via the campaign.

But it wasn’t their positions that made the show interesting.  It was, well, just watch the video and see for yourself.  It shows us just how wrong these conversations about race can go, even right off the bat, when we assume we know what race someone is, and then how we are going to interact and respond to them based on our own perceptions of what we think it means to be black, or white, or of mixed race or ethnicity.

As the warning on the side of a cup of brewed Starbucks coffee should read, perhaps more so than the words #RaceTogether, when it comes to what I still consider to be important–conversations on race: HOT: Drink With Caution.

________________

 SOURCES:

www.alternet.org, Dear Starbucks: Black People Do Not Need To Participate in #RaceTogether, by Terrell Starr, 3/19/15

www.youtube.com, “I’m Actually Black,” MSNBC, Panel on Race Gets Painfully Uncomfortable

4 Responses to “To Race Together Or Not, That Is The Question..Or Is Knowing Who You Are Talking To The First Question?”

  1. Sherry Gordon March 20, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, my so, so very, very sweetly precious and dearest white sisterfriend who you are so, so very much, Wendy Jane!!!!!!! Precious white sister, I thank-you so from the bottom of my heart for this sensitively loving, caring, and heartfelt blog post article of yours, sisterfriend!!!!!! I just love this so, Wendy Jane!!!!!! I absolutely love the idea of going to Starbucks and getting a specially marked coffee cup in order for me to very joyfully and blessedly engage in honest sharing and conversations on race over a hot cup of joe, sister!!!!!! I absolutely love coffee! I drink a lot of hot coffee without fail every day and even in the hot and humid Iowa summers I still without fail drink a lot of hot coffee every day then as well, Wendy Jane!!!!! I have a different outlook as a black person. I never ever tire and I never ever feel overwhelmed, sister, from talking and sharing with my many local white sisterfriends and other white friends on race, racism, and white privilege. This is my heartsblood and my very passion, and I don’t mind at all a lot of questions no matter or and I don’t mind explaining things, sister! Wendy Jane, I don’t ever feel exhausted or annoyed-I could talk on these topics and answer questions for hours upon hours which I do with my local white sisterfriends and other white friends. My precious white sisterfriend, I would love as well to talk to you more directly whenever you want when it would be a good time and work out for you, Wendy Jane, whenever you want to, my friend! I feel that I come from a different outlook and opinion from many other black persons and other nonwhite persons. I don’t feel annoyed or angry, and even if it is a situationn in which I am in a sense educating you and other white sisterfriends, Wendy Jane, and other white persons, I don’t take offense at all, sisterfriend! Wendy Jane, it is my greatest pleasure, joy, and passion to do so! I don’t get mad when you, dearest white sister, and other white persons make mistakes, even if they were bad, racist mistakes, and I so, so understand when the natural process of using white privilege sometimes happens because this healing and recovery from racism and white privilege is an imperfect lifetime’s path and journey toward recovery and healing. I don’t become angry when there are things you, dearest friend, and other white persons don’t automatically know or understand. And that is my promise!

    Wendy Jane, you are such a nice and a sensitively loving and caring person! I can see why you worked so well with the homeless and the mentally ill. I can for sure relate to that population, sister. I have not been homeless recently but I experienced homelessness for a time when I was still in Ohio and when I first came to Iowa City, Iowa I was homeless. I came to Iowa City because when I was still living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio I had a pen pal from a lesbian magazine and at her suggestion I relocated to Iowa City, Iowa. I had feelings for her but the relationship did not work out with her but I am so glad anyway that I did relocate to Iowa City, Iowa because I love it so here even though my relationship with her didn’t work out once I arrived in Iowa City. Also, I lost my old basement apartment in the Summer of 2008 that was on the Iowa River in the Great Flood of 2008. My old apartment went totally under water in that flood. One of my local white sisterfriends came and got me when I received an emergency evacuation order. I don’t drive and I don’t have a car due to my physical disabities. She came for me when I received a short notice emergency evacuation order and saved me from getting trapped in my old basement apartment and drwoning because I had no way of escape without a car!!!!!!! We took out as much of my belonings as we could!!!!!! The flood waters were coming down the street intersecting mine when we left!!!!!! I stayed with this local white sisterfriend, and other white sisterfriends, and other hwite friend for 3 1/2 weeks because I was homeless until I found another apartment. This is not the first time even when my white sisterfriends have been in a lifesaving position for me, Weny Jane. I can also relate to how you have worked with those persons having mental health concerns. I am doing so, so much better over many years with my mental health and being in therapy and 12-Step Programs for decades. I am so, so proud at how far I have come over all of these years with my recoveries and healing in 12-Step Programs and with my mental health. Miracles do indeed happen, my dearest white sisterfriend!!!!!!

    Wendy Jane, you are so right on and on point when you said it is important to consider HOT:Drink With Caution. Wow, you just did so, so much greatly blessed and immense, immeasurable eternal good for my very heart, and my very heart, soul, and spirit from this so caring and touching blog post article of yours, sister! You are a very dearest and darling person, woman, and human being, sister!!!!!! You are just the absolutely best, greatest, and perfectly suited persons for all of the jobs you have done and currently do, my friend!!!!!!
    You give me such joy and blessings, Wendy Jane, For Always reading your very Spirit-filled, soulful, brilliantly inspirational blog post articles, and responding to them with all of my heart!!!!! What great enjoyment I received, and I also learn so from you and benefit greatly, my white sisterfriend!!!!!!! Please have a very nice, special, and a very blessedly Happy Friday, Wendy Jane, and For Always, my precious white friend and sister!!!!!!!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely For Always, my white sister, Wendy Jane, with Peace and Love To You For Always with Blessings and Even More Blessings To You For Always, my white friend,

    Your lesbian black friend and sister For Always in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Wendy Jane March 20, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

      Sherry,

      I always feel humbled and honored when you continue to share yourself, and your struggles here with me and WJSS readers. You have been through so much, and remain so strong and full of joy, that it is infectious. And, you are always so understanding and supportive–thank you! It was interesting for me to hear your take on the Starbucks initiative, and of the opinion and mindset that you are always ready, willing and open to having a dialogue on race with white people, even if it means giving us an education while we’re at it.
      You’re the best, and I thank you for the read, and as always, your heartfelt response.

      Stay strong!
      Wendy Jane

  2. Ellen March 27, 2015 at 11:25 pm #

    Wendy, I really like your blog, and I don’t tell you that often enough, or comment on here often enough. This one and the one about the two Boston neighborhoods thirty years ago were really thought-provoking, and you’re so honest and generous in your writing, sharing your experiences and thoughts. It’s great stuff.

    I’m glad you posted the #racetogether video, which I’d read about in the news, of course. Very interesting, and I really like that Jay Smooth. He makes a lot of sense. “Actually I’m black” — boom!

    Keep up the good work, my friend.

    Ellen

    • Wendy Jane March 28, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

      Hi Ellen,

      Thank you so, so much for being such a dedicated reader. I really appreciate your comments and support. And that Jay Smooth is pretty smooth isn’t he?:)

      Thanks again for the encouragement–it helps to keep me going.

      Wendy

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