Years ago, when I was a college student, my aunt introduced me to Starbucks at a time when I could not afford their now $2.35 tall (small) coffee. The allure of her venti french vanilla cappuccino with whole milk had me hooked on the first whiff. Then I began to see stores on every corner. Eventually, I yearned to carry the shiny gold rewards card in my wallet, a symbol that would brand me into a club I’d never cared to be in before.
But earlier this week, my love for my local Starbucks baristas, of the coffee with the unmistakable nautical figure, siren, gracing the tiny coffee cup I held on my daily commute from home to my office, could no longer be. The article my brother in-law texted me in the middle of the day, when the news broke, read that Starbucks employees could not wear Black Lives Matter shirts and/or accessories during work; doing so would go against their company dress code. With that one text, I vowed to no longer be a card-carrying member of my once-beloved coffee shop, especially knowing that their global chief diversity and inclusion officer is a Black woman.
I admit, I was conflicted with tossing away my gold card so soon after reading the article, before their announcement had time to settle. I am sure Nzinga Shaw, their diversity officer, was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I am sure it was tough to bring the heart of the Black Lives Matter mission into the folds of her white, male-dominated field. I am sure her voice at the table was considered (or maybe it was not). Perhaps it was her call to make such a bold statement, in some ways, against the movement that will find a special place in our kids’ history books. I can only assume to know what she was up against, or where her heart rested when it came time to make a decision such as this one: to stand in solidarity in word and action with the Black community.
Either way, as a Black woman with such a powerful title, sometimes you must give up something in order to have a voice at the table. You must pick and choose your battles. And maybe for this situation, the diversity training offered earlier this year for all staff — the one that closed down all stores to combat what had become a stain on the company’s reputation — they thought to be enough.
But for Black women and women of color, that kind of response is only a band-aid. It does not address that there is an internal conflict which arises in women in power, particularly women of color in leadership roles. The tension is this: What are we giving up in order to hold a leadership position? What tough calls will we need to make to tow the line between answering the call in our hearts to speak out against an issue and giving up our seat at the table?
Of course, there is a CEO or executive who has the final say on messaging, as they should. However, the message should be one that includes as many voices as possible, especially for a company like Starbucks. We — and I include myself in this small pool of women of color — have voices that we don’t always feel empowered to use, and the reasons for this vary. I’ve spoken to enough of my friends, women of color who hold or have held leadership roles in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, to know we all have a decision to make when it comes to both being heard and seen. I also know we have the added struggle of supporting the very mission we were hired to achieve, and holding to our own convictions.
Still, Starbucks got it wrong on this one. On their website, way down at the bottom, this is what they say: We are committed to taking action, learning, and supporting our Black partners, customers and communities. Their move to restrict baristas from joining this particular movement tells me otherwise. Making a statement on their website just isn’t enough “action.” Yes, they’ve reversed their initial decision, but the gesture feels too little, too late.
As a coffee drinker, once diehard Starbucks fan, and as a Black woman who loved seeing the diversity reflected back at me in the faces of my local baristas when I picked up my coffee, I cannot support a company which does not stand up for everyone until they get backlash. The marches, protests, arguments on social media, and the push for equality are for all of us, not just Black people.
As a Black woman I have a seat at the table — a table that was not especially built for me, but I sit there still. I know I don’t always speak up or say what I want to say, sometimes, when I need to say it the most. It’s a hard place to be, wallowing in what feels like a false kind of power. It’s not because I don’t have thoughts, opinions, or feel deeply about a topic, but it’s because I’ve not always been heard or seen while sitting at the table.
I wonder if that’s what it is like for Nzinga Shaw?
I gave up my gold rewards card and my dream of saving up 400 shiny gold stars to earn my free Starbucks swag to take a stand on what I believe in. Yes, anyone can be racist, even the small family-owned deli I now get my morning cuppa from. I may not ever know. But I do know that everyone can and should be heard, even if their words don’t resonate with us. We all have opinions and a voice; now is not the time to sit back and let someone else, some other company, go it alone.
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