On Speaking Out Against Starbucks (or “…all I really wanted was some coffee”)

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My bad panaroma picture on the day I was at starbucks

Recently, I was doing some catch up on my yelp reviews and decided to write about a recent experience I had during my visit to Seattle at Starbucks’ cutting edge new coffee shop that showcased modern coffee techniques and rare coffee beans (link). I had experienced a rather unpleasant brush with some racist jokes by a corporate employee there, and thought it’d be good to write about it in my review. It wasn’t a new thing for me- in my years working in North County San Diego, I’ve had many instances of minority micro-aggression, and Yelp had been one of the places where I could express my frustrations at the experiences of prejudice and racism being one of the few Asian-Americans in a military town… And usually, my reviews would get a couple chuckles, but would simply get lost in the cacophony of the cloud. I didn’t think anyone paid attention.

I closed my computer, and proceeded to pack for a spring break camp that I was staffing for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the organization that I work with. It was out of cell phone range and there was limited wifi there for only official business.

Imagine my surprise when I went online to send a quick time-sensitive work email to see that I had created a medium disturbance in the Asian-American internet world. My yelp review had been shared multiple times on Facebook. I had interview requests from a couple news outlets. I was featured on the Angry Asian Man blog, an extremely respected blog and voice for Asian America (of which I frequently read as well). All of a sudden my review with questionable grammar was being shared and I was a mediocre viral celebrity.

Resonse From Others

I’ve gotten a lot of responses from people about the review. They fall in these categories:

  • Skepticism: “How can we trust you?” Yes, I know- Yelping is not the most reputable platform (chefs publicly rant about entitled yelpers all the time). And no, I don’t have hard data- I have only my experience. This has been an interesting response from a few people- I saw some comments in which the sharer’s friend was convinced I was lying or that the corporate employee was in fact just some guy in a suit who wanted to be racist to me. Although things could very well be proved (I could find the barista, I could find the security tapes…), and I have a very solid reputation as a yelp reviewer (I have been an elite for 4 years), when it is a story of injustice, somehow it’s instilled in us to not trust the story of the victim. It was a small taste of victim-blaming and voice delegitimization that happens in situations of abuse, prejudice and racism. It’s interesting how our society can quickly cover up real injustice by relegating it to the imagination of the victim. It’s also interesting that I felt tempted to fall in line with those accusations. However I will stand by what I said with clear conscience- I did not make this up. My experience was real and not imagined.
  • Shock and Anger: “How could this happen?” Other reactions were reactions of horror. How could this happen in Seattle, one of the most diverse cities in America? How could a corporate employee not know that his comments were not appropriate that his joke insinuating that my friend and I were Chinese spies was not funny but hurtful? How could Starbucks, a company that claims to be so progressive, allow such a bad miss by its corporate representative? “Let’s boycott Starbucks!” “They better repay you… or sue them.” While I am angry with my friends at this situation… it also opens a window into the state of our “post-racial” society. You see- I was angry, but for me, having lived in a community without that many Asian-Americans for 7 years, I had self-destructively bottled up my anger in a state of internal micro-aggression. The shock and anger, on one hand, revealed how hidden the everyday forces of racism were to many of my friends and community. On the other hand, it revealed how, out of my own internalization of anger, I had began to delegitimize my own voice and anger by silencing it in myself.
  • Relief: “Thank you.” But in the midst of all of this, I noticed another sound in the chaotic response to my yelp review- a sigh of relief. I realized I had tapped into a common experience that many Asian Americans and other minorities in America have experienced- and that they, like me, had began to internalize it in resignation to the prejudice and racism that they experience every day. It was a sigh of gratitude that at least something was being paid attention to, in a time in our country where heinous examples of racial injustice are just swept under the rug and kept from trial. And no- the stupid jokes I got are nothing compared to the treatment of my Latin@ friends as second class citizens or the trauma my black brothers and sisters have experienced in this last year with the multiple counts of untried violence against their young men- but we are all disserviced by the false narrative of our postracial society that attempts to put a whitewash over our stories of racial injustice when we decide to ignore our stories of pain, no matter how big or small. A wound won’t heal if you hide it from the doctor… instead, it festers and gets infected. Healing and reconciliation won’t come from a cover-up, but it comes from exposing it so it can be cleaned, dressed and healed. Perhaps the sigh of relief was from seeing that an experience similar to their own was actually paid attention to.

“So… What do you want from this?”

That was the question that a news reporter recently asked me when interviewing me about this. In reality, I hadn’t written the review with any real motive to get anything from Starbucks. It was just a review, one of the many that I write- some better, some worse. Really, I didn’t have a set goal for what I wanted– but after having this whole thing blow up, it’s made me really think about what I want out of this.

Jokingly, a lot of my friends have talked about how much free stuff I’m going to get and to share “shut-up” money if it comes to that. In fact, a customer service representative from Starbucks has already been in conversation with me and has promised a “gift” to me on my starbucks card (which hasn’t shown up…  but eh Edit: $50 appeared in my account last night) as they further investigate what happened at the Starbucks Roastery. And hey- honestly, I’m addicted to coffee, and I’ll take it… but reparation is not what I want.

Some wonder how far I really want to take this. It’s not really an Asian American value to speak up- you don’t want to be the nail that sticks out, because it will be hammered down. We value peace and harmony, not speaking up. But if there’s one conviction I have gained working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, building and advancing multiethnic witnessing communities- it’s that sweeping things under the rug is not real peace. That fake kind of harmony is nice and pretending it didn’t happen would be a lot less stress… but I won’t settle for that.

The peace that my religious convictions as a Christian speak of are rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom– a peace that comes from wholeness on every level- physical, emotional, social and spiritual. Shalom is translated as peace, but it is also translated as justice- and justice is something deeper than a surface level image of “diversity”. Shalom hurts because it demands real engagement with pain and systemic injustice. Shalom requires self-sacrifice. The peace talked about in my faith is a peace that was bought by a God who chose to fully engage and immerse Himself in personal and systemic evil head-on by being with us in our brokenness as Jesus and even became a victim of it Himself. It is from this self-sacrifice that He conquered evil and death in order to afford us not just surface level peace and harmony, but deep reconciliation and wholeness.

This is what I want- I want real dialogue about race. I actually admire Starbucks for being a corporate entity that desires to take progressive stands of inclusion. I admire their desire to have the race conversations in their #RaceTogether campaign. But if they really want to engage in subjects like race and inclusion, it’s going to take more than corporate policies and PR campaigns. It needs to start from the deep places where racist tendencies fester because we don’t talk about it. It needs to start from speaking in truth about stories of hurt… and allowing the chance for reconciliation. This is what I want- I want Starbucks to live up to its progressive outside image. As a Christian, I want to see shalom- complete wholeness and reconciliation. I speak up not to complain- yelpers get a lot of bad press for being entitled whiners. I also am not speaking up just to rock the boat just for rocking’s sake, just disturbing everyone around me with rage and frustration. I speak up because I recognize my responsibility as a citizen to offer my story up for the good of society. I speak up out of responsibility as a Christian who has been captured by the dream of not just surface level peace, but of deep shalom and wholeness in relationships, including with this corporate employee who humiliated me… I have compassion on him.

Because really, all I want is a real conversation with that corporate employee, to hear his story, and to maybe offer a glimpse of what that dream of deep shalom and reconciliation could look like in real life outside of a publicity campaign or a company policy- and maybe we could do it over a cup of coffee.

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8 thoughts on “On Speaking Out Against Starbucks (or “…all I really wanted was some coffee”)

  1. Bob Moore says:

    Daniel, shalom isn’t just everyone being cool with everyone else. It is also calling out those who offend you, or disrespect you. And not just calling them out, but giving grace to others because they may not know what they are doing. Jesus Himself called out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” If someone says, or does something that offends you because of your ethnicity, it is up to YOU to determine if that offense came out of ignorance, misunderstanding, a false sense of fellowship, or just plain mean-ness.

    In most cases it is just ignorance, In some it is because someone may assume that a comfortable association with someone else may allow a certain amount of “ribbing” (think: sharing an ethnic joke with someone of that ethnicity). You mentioned that we are in a post racial society, but nothing could be further from the truth. There is more talk about ethnicity today than at any time in my memory. In those of MY generation, we grew up in ethnic enclaves in eastern big cities, Polish, Italian, Irish, etc. There always was a bit of a tension between competing groups, but among friends of differing ethnicity it was de riguere to accept a swift punch in the arm when a joke became too personal. After that it was largely forgotten.

    But today it is all about “micro-aggressions”, as if the offenders were subconsciously expressing some deeply held bias against the object of the “aggression”. Using that term only allows the offended to remain offended and to see offense where none was explicitly intended. In other words, it creates a continual offended class. In reality this couldn’t be further from the truth in many cases. And even if they WERE, it is up to the offended to let the offender KNOW what was being said rather than to comment in some other way about being offended.

    Now, you may say, “Bob, how can you know? You are part of the privileged class!” I will grant that because I am white (BARELY middle class!) that I may not understand completely what you, or others, may be experiencing. Sure, it’s true. But it just isn’t always intentional. Are we to be tossed into a group of the nonredeemable because of birth? I hope not.

    Now, lets take that to the Christian community. The bible clearly states in Mat 5:23-24 NIrV “Suppose you are offering your gift at the altar. And you remember that your brother has something against you. (24) Leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and make peace with your brother. Then come back and offer your gift.”

    It is incumbent upon US to make right those relationships that are broken. Simply claiming an offense without reconciliation is insufficient. As truth sayers we are obligated to speak out when we are offended and to then determine if that offense is intended or unintended. If the latter, then, grace needs to be applied. This does not absolve the offender because he is required to admit his offense and then to ask for forgiveness. But how can one ask for forgiveness and reconciliation if the manner of offense is left up to the imagination. I am NOT referencing your experience at Starbucks (horrible coffee, btw), I am being more personal.

    I think you may know what I am getting at. You have my email below.

    • BY says:

      A “swift punch to the arm” makes the jokes go away? Then what about asian quotas in higher education? What about workplace representation and cultural depictions? What kind of “punch in the arm” will resolve those jokes?

  2. samtsang98 says:

    Thank you for the nice blog post. I think you’ve done a lot to call this out and extended the olive branch. You’ve done exactly the right thing. I’ll add that you’ve pointed out a potential problem we Asian Americans have from our culture of not speaking up. We must change that. Well done. What you wrote above, Bob Moore, indicates that you haven’t really read carefully what Mr. Lui wrote. He has already done all that and more. Please have a careful read first.

    • Bob Moore says:

      Samtsang98, you really don’t know what I am talking about. My post wasn’t about his Starbucks encounter.

      • Lu Bu says:

        So you’re posting a reply that is directed at something other than the blog post that you are replying to? Forgive us if there is some confusion, but most people go to the comments section of an entry to reply to the entry.

        While I recognize that in real life we have to make some allowances, it’s annoying to tell someone for the millionth time that they are saying something that is inappropriate, only to be met with “you’re so oversensitive” “wow, i didn’t mean it like that. maybe YOU are the real racist” for the millionth time. Sure, there are some people who make a genuine, good faith effort to understand and better themselves, but they’re a tiny minority buried under legions of people who become defensive and angry when someone points out that they might have done something hurtful.

      • BY says:

        You’re right, Bob. Your post was about brushing aside admissions quotas, internment camps, c-word jokes on television, and every other transgression against asian americans. Does that about sum it up?

  3. George Manuelian says:

    I bet you that Starbucks guy was just a fa ggot with some kind of fetish for asian guys and he was trying to “flirt” with you in a weird, creepy way – the way they normally are.

  4. sui says:

    thank you for sharing your story.

    p.s. Seattle is not one of the most diverse cities in the US. in fact it was the least diverse I had lived in in many many years after San Diego, NYC, LA, etc.

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