Mar 202015

WHICH of these Americans belong together? A Chinese-American, female, middle-class, atheist lesbian. A wealthy, Christian-Arab, heterosexual, male doctor. A lower-class, African-American, Muslim, female student. Tough question, right? That’s because there are so many arbitrary classifications that people assign to each other, and belonging to one group as opposed to another is a function of so many variables. Ethnicity? Race? Nationality? Religion? Sexual preference? You name it, these associations are as numerous and as complex as people are. And oversimplification as to the causes of tension among various people can often be misguided at best, and dangerous at worst.

But, throwing caution to the wind, Starbucks went ahead and did it anyway. Prompted supposedly by the racially-charged events in America in recent days, the company’s CEO thought that the best way for his company to get involved was to have the coffee shop attendants (baristas, as they like to style themselves) engage customers in conversations about race. And sure enough, start a conversation he did. Mostly not about race, mind you, but about how ill-thought and poorly-conceived his idea of improving race relations in America was.

The thing is, it is not so much about race anymore, but about diversity which troubles America. Look at the recent phenomenon related to the migration of American citizens to join the terror-group ISIS. You get all sorts. There are introverted white male Christian students, gangster-type African-American rappers, female Muslim-American professionals—indeed, it is difficult to point to any characteristic that would motivate one to be an ISIS supporter. Or think back to the tensions involving Asian-American merchants in the West Coast, who were attacked by lower-class folk of all colors, for no reason that can be concluded apart from that the victims were wealthy, and the attackers were not. So for Starbucks to focus on race alone as the divide to attack is simplemindedness at its purest. And for the company to even contemplate that its coffee shops are a place to discuss subjects of any great import, is presumptuous beyond description.

Certainly, I admire corporations that put their money where their mouth is. The Body Shop, for example, before they were bought out by French FMCG giant L’Oreal, really went out of their way to support grassroots farming communities, because it was their aim to improve the lives of farmer-producers in undeveloped countries. Shell still sends its officers out on sabbaticals to help manage and run non-government organizations, because they believe in strengthening governance and management in the non-profit sector. And I could go on and on.

Perhaps Starbucks really has its heart in the right place. And it really, maybe just really, intends to heal the rifts that currently divide America. But to substantially make a difference, it has to do its homework and get its focus right.

Yes, race is still an issue. Yes, African-Americans still get discriminated against in their own country. But what about Filipino-Americans? Or gay white males? Or white Muslim females? Who receive far worse treatment at the hands of the “majority”? And who are the majority?

Starbucks wants to help? Fair enough. Pick a cause. Put money into it. Start scholarships for all minorities and disadvantaged people, so that one day they could become Starbucks executives. Donate to charities that promote inter-faith dialogue. Again, I could go on and on. The point is, talk is cheap. Talking about race in coffee shops is even cheaper. At least for Starbucks, it is.

So Starbucks, put your money where your heart is. Because in today’s world, only money really talks.

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Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 21, 2015.

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