Secrets of the Siren: Behind Starbucks’ Politically Correct Facade
Over the past few years, Starbucks has frequently been in the news for race related reasons. Back in 2018, the franchise made news when two black men were arrested at one of their Philadelphia locations for the “crime” of waiting in the store. After the attention this incident garnered, all the Starbucks stores closed early on May 29, 2018 for anti-bias training. Starbucks released this mandatory curriculum for all store partners--baristas, shift supervisors, and managers--largely in response to the widespread controversy. At the time I was a partner in downtown Seattle, birthplace of the siren and her coffee shops. For me, these events aren’t just news, they are part of my lived experience as a POC who once worked for the company.
After the Philadelphia incident, the company fired the manager of the store, donated thousands of dollars to charity as reparation, and developed this new “anti-bias” training in order to educate its employees about the reality of implicit bias. However, it wasn’t enough. Outfitted with brand-new iPads, handouts, workbooks, and informational pamphlets, every Starbucks store in the country was given the tools to reflectively evaluate store practices and partner-to-customer interactions. I read some of the questions in my booklet. We were given space to reflect in such questions as:
“Have you ever noticed how race affected your beauty standards?”
“Have you ever altered your communication style (dialed it up or down) to avoid playing into stereotypes?”
“Have you ever felt like you could go to work with your natural hair without comments or questions from others?”
“Have you ever felt your race affected your ability to build a rapport with your manager?”
I was shocked to find these questions in my notebook. My entire life I’ve borne these anxieties, and I was amazed that for once there was space to talk about how these issues came into play in an environment like Starbucks. I have thick, dark, curly hair, blue eyes, and dark skin --and people let me know all the time how exotic I look. No one ever guesses my name is Camilo, that Texas is my place of birth, or that Spanish was my first language. In fact, it was during my time at Starbucks that I shortened my name to “Cam,” so that people wouldn’t ask me where I was from and categorize me in an ignorant way, and it worked. From then on, everyone assumed my name was Cameron. I was now an acceptable token-Starbucks-gayboy and I performed well.
Maybe that’s why they disproportionately assigned me to front-of-house duties, or why I opened the store five days a week. Tips were always the buzz, but my store manager didn’t really care to have an opinion about the burdens of marginal experience. During the time we were supposed to be discussing these questions, he said: “I grew up in a really small town in the Midwest, and probably 95% of us were white. I don’t really get this stuff.” So that was that. Case closed. Representative of the only person of color in a room full of white people, my story was the one that didn’t fit. The reality was sinking in: your voice doesn’t matter and it profoundly affected me.
When I finally had the courage to tell my manager that I’d been sexually harassed by one of the partners at the store, I received nothing but a blank stare. “As far as I knew, Cam, you were having a great holiday; I didn’t need to know anything else,” was the sentence offered as consolation. I found out a few weeks later (no one thought to tell me) that the store manager had plans to promote the (white) man who misused me. Furious, I demanded some sort of justice: transfer me to another store, because I shouldn’t have to work in a place where I no longer feel safe. But Starbucks had no time to help resolve my dilemma. For all their talk of embracing diversity, they couldn’t even be bothered to return my phone calls or listen to my story.
Months later, I got a call back from the HR representative who reviewed my case and decided that transfer procedures had been violated and store code of conduct standards had been broken. But by that point, what was there to do? Nothing within the store would change. I had already left the company because no store was scheduling me to work. I received no communication from any Starbucks personnel. Honestly, I believe that the limbo I experienced while they tossed me about in their “investigation”--a costly, difficult balancing act in one of the most expensive economies in the United States--was meant to drive me out of the system. Partner safety is not a concern for Starbucks corporation; instead of supporting a staff in good standing during a difficult situation, they ghosted me. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but somehow I just never thought the story would end like that. I was devastated. I loved being a partner. I’d poured my heart and soul into that store, only to be spit upon by the management. It was in this moment that I realized that the ever-so-important politically correct jargon Starbucks insists on playing out before the country is just a game that the right words, gestures, and publicity are helping them win.
If Starbucks wants to set an example in its outspokenness for marginalized groups, they ought to be willing to stand behind their “policy”. It already hurts to be different. It’s a burden you never cease to bear when you know people will interact with you differently because of the color of your skin, or perceived sexual orientation, or perceived ethnic identity. But it hurts much more when the safety you were promised is violated, and you are met with dead silence.
About the author: Camilo is an artist from Houston, Texas. You can find him at the water's edge with a mug of coffee in hand.