Friday, March 20, 2015

Starbucks and the Problem with Empathy

"I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

I have conversations about racism for a living. And even if my job as a college professor did not professionalize such an activity, I would find a way to have them with as many people as possible. But I would still prefer to have conversations about racism in a classroom, as part of a college course. Why? Because I have fifteen weeks of classes to do so. And that is still not enough time to accomplish what is necessary.

Starbucks has a different idea. Its new "Race Together" campaign operates from the assumption that a few minutes of coffee talk, however humble, is part of the solution to racial injustice. "Race Together" encourages baristas to engage with customers on the topic of "race." Customers are invited to be part of the experiment if the words "Race Together" appear on their beverage containers. Starbucks aggressively promoted the campaign on social media but was unprepared for responses that questioned or outright mocked it. One senior vice president even temporarily suspended his Twitter account because of a barrage of critical tweets. In this blog entry, I will explain how "Race Together" perpetuates a popular myth of social justice education: that empathy is part of the solution to injustice. Empathy is part of the problem.

To be clear, I am not talking about empathy as a problem in and of itself, absent any context. Trying to understand a situation from the perspective of others can be personally edifying. As well, others can benefit from a conscious intent to know their pain. The problem arises when empathy becomes part of a plan--a stage of that plan even--and that plan seeks to undo racism.


Above, Starbucks lays out a simple plan for "change" that begins with "conversation." Conversation ostensibly leads to empathy, which is really supposed to get the ball rolling. However, if the goal of "Race Together" is meaningful antiracist change, then its plan is exactly backward. Authentic relationships and the real conversations that develop from them are, on the whole, the result of institutional, antiracist change, not the catalyst. Do the black mother and the white mother living next door to each other become friends only because they decide to talk to one another? Or because their neighborhood was integrated by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, legislation brought about by organized protest movements? At college, does the interracial couple even meet in the first place if not for the desegregation and Ethnic Studies movements? Institutional change creates the conditions for good relationships, not the other way around.

Complete strangers of different races talking honestly about race is liberal white fantasy. The fantasy presumes that the stakes in the conversation are equal, as well as the trust between parties. How is a person of color supposed to empathize with a white person as a white person over racism when white people cannot experience racism? Quite simply, people of color have more skin in the game. Their role is to satisfy the curiosity of white people at great psychic risk to themselves. There is no good reason why my students should trust me on the first day of class; they shouldn't. I need weeks to foster the kind of trust that enables authentic dialogue on racism. What might two strangers expect to be able to do in a few minutes? Even when I openly model my experiences with overt racism or my own internalized white supremacy, my goal isn't for students to empathize with me. I don't want them to dwell on my stories. I especially don't want my white students to channel their feelings into a conviction to help people like me. My stories should direct all of my students to identify the reach and role of white supremacy in the stories of their own lives. Empathy gets in the way of that learning.

Empathy can be a problem because of the faith that it places in free speech. You do not have to be a literature professor like me to believe that stories are everything. Stories determine our reality. Lies like white supremacy are nothing more than really popular stories. The only reason why people like Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz includes empathy as part of a plan to fight racism is because he also believes that stories are everything, even if he doesn't come out and say so. Empathy is nothing more than the capacity to be transformed by a story: a racist white person believes X about black people, hears a powerful story, and now believes Y. What else is a stereotype but a popular story writ large? "Race Together" reinforces the myth that the best way to deal with racism is to tell a better story. A belief in the efficacy of empathy is simultaneously a belief in the efficacy of free speech. However, ask people of color how much the freedom of speech empowers them at an everyday level, and you begin to understand the problem with empathy as any part of an institutionalized effort against racism.

A critical race theory concept known as the "empathic fallacy" helps to explain the problem with empathy in this context. According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, the "idea that one can use words to undo the meanings that others attach to those very same words is to commit the empathic fallacy--the belief that one can change a narrative by merely offering another, better one--that the reader's or listener's empathy will quickly and reliably take over." A true exchange of free speech is simply not possible under many real-world circumstances. For example, it is often not safe for a person of color to respond to free speech, whether it takes the form of hate speech or of small talk with that nice Asian barista. People of color comprise 40% of Starbucks' workers, and baristas of all races have expressed reservations about "Race Together." Indeed, we must question the honesty of any tête-à-tête between working-class laborers and the customers they must serve. Unlike what was on tap at President Obama's "beer summit" with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the police officer who racially profiled him, Frappuccinos don't necessarily loosen inhibitions.

Most importantly, however, the impossibility of a true exchange of free speech over racism at Starbucks is not a problem of honesty; it is a problem of imagination. Coffee nation cannot have a real conversation about "race" because there is no common consciousness of the meanings of race and racism. A 2011 study found that not only do white Americans believe "reverse racism" to be real but that it is a greater problem than racism against black Americans. "How can one talk back to messages, scripts, and stereotypes that are embedded in the minds of one's fellow citizens," argue Delgado and Stefancic, "and, indeed, the national psyche?" In other words, how do you tell a story to a person whose sense of self is so deeply embedded within another story? And what if that other story is the story of white supremacy? Can you do it in three minutes? With a smile? The Eric Garner video is a three-minute story of racism. The Tamir Rice video is a two minute story with a two-second climax. These are not anecdotes but eyewitness videos. And yet they have no purchase with some. The smugness of "I Can Breathe" can make perfect sense to too many Americans, and the city of Cleveland can blame a twelve-year old boy for his own death. One would hope that these videos--stories of white degeneracy--are more compelling stories than white supremacy. The person who edited Eric Garner's Wikipedia page certainly thought so. But not grand juries.

Howard Schultz is fooling himself if he believes that Starbucks occupies a space in the cultural imagination very different from that of the Mall of America or expensive Sunday brunch. Starbucks is the harbinger of gentrification. Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries of Zillow report that properties near Starbucks appreciate in value at greater rates than the average American home (96% to 65% over the past 17 years). "Race Together" will never interrupt the story of white supremacy and will probably make it stronger. But the story of white supremacy is also a lived narrative, and it can be interrupted. Ask the Black Lives Matter activists who punked the Black Friday free-for-all at the Mall of America last year. Or those who continue to disrupt trendy brunches across the country with "Black Brunch." Racism in America is not a problem of misunderstanding, Howard Schultz, not really. It is a problem of wealth and geography. A recent report from Demos found that eliminating disparities in homeownership rates would shrink the wealth gap between white and black Americans substantially more than equalizing college graduation rates and income.

In this nation's history, there is relationship between casual dining and racial justice. Take the Greensboro Four--Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond--the North Carolina A&T freshmen whose carefully planned, nonviolent protest of segregation could not have happened without coffee. On February 1, 1960, they sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and stayed until closing time, expecting to be refused service. They were joined by more students each following day and eventually inspired a boycott that desegregated more than just lunch counters. With their principled actions, these activists and others like them interrupted the lived narrative of white supremacy, and the social change brought about by these actions is the reason why Howard Schultz can even entertain the ludicrous idea of transformative interracial conversations in his cafes. Engaging with the reality of racism is not meaningful if it happens only when we feel like it. Pity that Starbucks has avoided predominantly-black communities such as Selma, AL, Ferguson, MO, Highland Park, MI, or Gary, IN. Starbucks is not part of the noble history of antiracist activism in America. Despite its literary namesake, a character from an iconic American novel that cautions against the hubris of the powerful, Starbucks has no idea how stories work.

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