On Apologies and Forgiveness: New Developments in My Starbucks Yelp Review

I was exhausted yesterday… and it was only 3pm.

I had been attempting all day to do work, but calls, emails and interview requests about my Yelp review kept coming up. Most of these interviews have been great, and I’ve been able to have great conversations about race, Starbucks and real reconciliation. Others hadn’t gone so great- one radio station host’s questions were insinuating I was making too big of a deal about the whole thing and what I had encountered was not racism (his words, basically, “I admire Asians and their hard work… don’t you think you’re making too big of a deal for having it so good as a people group?”). Suffice to say, I was completely exhausted from being a medium viral sensation… breaking the Asian-American internet is an energy-demanding venture.

Then the phone rang. It was an executive leader for Starbucks. He said he wanted to hear what had happened in my own words. I began to tell him the events again, thinking this was customer service further investigating… when it dawned on me as I was telling the story, that this might just be…

…”Well, Daniel. I want to let you know that I am that person.”

Wow.

He went on to apologize for what he had done. He explained that he was speaking to another customer who told him that he (the customer) was looking at the store’s concept in order to bring it overseas. This customer pointed in our direction and said, “I’m with my friends over there to see how we can do something similar overseas”. Assuming that we were this customer’s partners, he came up to us after the meeting let out, began leading a tour with the people in the meeting and saw that we were still sitting at the counter. It was then that the events described in my yelp review unfolded.

Now I know- it still raises a few questions- Should I trust this exec’s story? Should I believe that there was a person of whom “I can’t even remember what he looks like” that pointed directly at us, conveniently saying that we were actually there to steal secrets? Some of it just seemed too perfect of a storm to believe…

…but then my mind snapped back and remembered the comments I’ve received on some public sites. I remembered some very hurtful statements, saying that I was doing this all for money or attention (to which my response is… I DIDN’T PLOT TO HAVE THIS REVIEW EXPLODE LIKE THIS… but trolls never listen). I remembered racist comments people would say, saying that I was just race baiting, I should fall in line because Asian Americans aren’t really oppressed and that I should grow thicker skin. I remember hating that a lot of these comments showed that there were so many people that assumed the worst in me. And I realized- I can’t stoop down to their level.

But I also couldn’t back down on how hurtful and uncomfortable the situation was. I couldn’t just pretend like it didn’t happen, and I’m not helping the situation by glossing over it like it wasn’t a big deal.

…So I told him that it was hurtful and left me feeling uncomfortable…

It was. EVEN IF it was justified because we were accused by someone else, the fact that we got lumped in as Chinese spies is a stereotype that is hurtful. I was born in the United States and am a citizen. For better or worse, I love this country and its ideals- that my physical complexion and ethnicity is a reason to feel suspected of sedition and robbery of the country that I am a citizen of- that is hurtful. It’s degrading to question my trustworthiness on account of my culture. And whether he had hostile motives or not- what matters is the outside action hurt and it made me feel unwelcome- not just to the store, but to the opportunity, ideals and vision of the country I was a citizen of.

…But I then told him, even acknowledging that real pain, that I wanted to extend grace and forgive him.

As I was in that conversation, I realized the tough balance that real forgiveness and reconciliation requires- that reconciliation is the restoration of each other’s humanity- both the wronged and the wrongdoer. But in the midst of that, for real reconciliation, the wronged doesn’t back down from the reality of his or her hurtful experience. It’s a choice to fully acknowledge in each other the vulnerable imperfect humanity in within, and choose to say “I will call you my brother or sister” instead of relegating the offender as “other”. This executive is also a human being, and I do the same orientalizing (read: Edward Said’s Orientalism if you want a fuller explanation of that term) alienation that those of western descent have historically done to those like me as someone with Asian descent if i leave him locked up as an evil perpetrator of injustice. Although we have different socio-historical forces that influence us towards evil and injustice… we are but the same in our potential towards evil. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

So he thanked me.

I’m not sure if he understood completely the complexities of forgiveness and the mental battle it takes for me not to sweep the wrong done to me under the rug and yet to press in to see his humanity… but I keep in the forefront of my mind that this executive who made these highly inappropriate jokes and myself as well- we have the same potential for wrong… but he also has the same potential for good. So I make the choice to believe in this man’s potential for goodness and for the image of God to be revealed in him.

The exec invited me to come back to the store again at some point. I’m not sure how I can afford to get a plane ticket back to Seattle, but I think that it will be worth it if I get to grab that cup of coffee with him- because for all the criticism I could give to Starbucks as a corporation (their partnership with Monsanto, gentrification, etc.), I do admire their goal and philosophy of creating communal spaces where friendship and family can occur. But as I’ve said before, REAL friendship and REAL family- especially in our diverse country caught up in the lie of “post-racial” America- is messy and hurts… and I hope that I can dive into the mess with this exec over some coffee, because I believe that it’s worth the mess and pain.

Let’s hope I can find a way back to Seattle to have that coffee.

—-

Some of you may be wondering why I won’t outright say this man’s name. While it would help my personal cause to put this man’s name on blast, I feel that it would be deconstructive towards real reconciliation and understanding. Here are some reasons why:

  • I want this man to experience forgiveness and restoration, not shame.
  • While my goal is forgiveness and restoration, I know that the internet is not a forgiving place. I’m not here to destroy Starbucks or this exec’s life; I want to model what it looks like to restore- and not even really for the “internet world” (although I feel our country needs real examples of reconciliation), but because I know I need to have integrity with the teachings of forgiveness, reconciliation and humility that I preach to those because of my work with Intervarsity and for the other communities that I influence.
  • I’ll also add- if this man is dragged out in a witch hunt and crucified for his insensitive and racist comments towards me- when do you think Starbucks will try again to actually engage issues of race? Their #racetogether campaign already failed, and I’m betting they’re feeling skittish about re-engaging with the race conversation. However, I want them to try again, and to succeed at opening constructive conversations about race, because honestly, we need as much dialogue as possible in our country’s race conversation, irregardless if it’s individuals, communities or corporate entities.

To the starbucks exec- it would mean a lot of there was a public apology. It would silence some of those horrible commenters saying I’ve made up the whole thing. But I can’t force that on you, and that really isn’t my goal. I’ll repeat what I want- I simply want to meet up with you, hear your story, share mine… and hopefully share a small sliver of the gospel dream of multiethnic, multicultural reconciliation and shalom that has utterly captured my heart and motivates the work I do as a minister with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Let’s get that coffee appointment organized, eh? 

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9 thoughts on “On Apologies and Forgiveness: New Developments in My Starbucks Yelp Review

  1. Collin Ong says:

    Let’s assume that what he said was true: some guy said he was going to copy the concept overseas and then pointed you and your friend out as part of his cohort. Given that, can you sort out for me which part of the exec’s actions were racial versus just something you would say to a copycat competitor?

    I do want to point out that there is different “other” dynamic in play and that is as a copycat/business competitor. Once the guy declared his intentions to copy the concept overseas, he made himself a business other. So the exec from that point likely had a us vs them conception from that point on.

    I could see that the racial part of it comes like this: Asia/China has a (not-unearned) reputation for copying stuff and not innovating on its own; copycat guy (did exec say if he was Asian?) says he’s going to copy and points to you and you are Asian, so it’s easy for exec to assume you all are copiers and the stereotype is Asian companies copy. However, this is much different from the initial view of your incident, which was: He saw Asians; Asians copy; you are Asian therefore you are here to copy.

    As a hypothetical, given the business competitor view, if the copycat guy were white and pointed at his white friends, it’s still plausible that the exec might had done the same thing. Or, if he specified, we’re thinking of opening one of these in Europe. Would the exec’s reaction have been the same? Perhaps a white guy would get the privilege of being “inspired” but not seen as a thief?

    Of course, we’ll never really know, but does the exec’s explanation change how you view this as a racially-motivated incident?

  2. xingfenzhen says:

    “Or, if he specified, we’re thinking of opening one of these in Europe. Would the exec’s reaction have been the same? Perhaps a white guy would get the privilege of being “inspired” but not seen as a thief?”

    In that case, he’ll say this. You might as well throw money down the drain, because the European cafes are already better, copying Starbucks would just mean you’re just wasting money.

  3. Ron Fong says:

    Thanks for your grace and for “wanting to model what it looks like to restore- and not even really for the “internet world” (although I feel our country needs real examples of reconciliation), but because I know I need to have integrity with the teachings of forgiveness, reconciliation and humility”

  4. Benjamin Hart says:

    Proud of your response Daniel!

  5. T.A. says:

    All I can say right now is “wow”. I’m also Asian American but when I considered your choice of words and actions that you took (and also those that you decided NOT to take) … it gave me pause to reflect upon my own gut reactions with a bit of shame, I might add.

    Had I been in the same situation, the path you took would have honestly been the one I WISHED I had taken… After having doxxed the Starbucks executive, then hit back with something bitter & acerbic with an attempt at being witty, I would have opted for the route that “served me well” in the past – aiming for revenge. For example, getting a racist airline ground staff fired using a meticulously-worded complaint letter (in the days before social media took off).

    I always assumed the alternative was “turning the other cheek”, “sucking it up” … was otherwise weak & passive. Your example shows a strong quiet principled approach that doesn’t back down but is filled with compassion & grace.

    Oh yeah, and Happy Easter!

  6. Adam says:

    I guess I’m not sure why it seems like “too perfect of a storm to believe.” To me, it explains a lot. What I mean is, I’m sure hundreds of Asian people come in and out of the store all day. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that he would single you out and assume you were A.) from China and B.) in the coffee business, unless he had some reason. If the earlier conversation with the Chinese competitor happened, that would be the reason.

    While I don’t doubt that you’re on the receiving end of regular racial “micro-aggressions,” I’m not sure that this is an example of that. Perhaps there are underpinnings — As Collin pointed out, the conversation may have been different if he mistook you for a European competitor. But even that, I think, has more to do with China’s earned reputation than an overall Asian bias. For example, if it were a Japanese clone, he might assume they’d do it better.

    Do you feel like there’s a chance you might owe HIM an apology? If you misread his intent, I feel like you’ve probably made this guy’s life really difficult for the past few days for a simple case of mistaken identity.

    • Alex says:

      The exec wrongly assumed that Daniel was a corporate spy, and you think Daniel owes him an apology? What nonsense.

  7. tom says:

    The racial problem is the executive’s assumption, no matter what he may have been told, that Daniel and his friend are Chinese corporate spies, because being a U.S. citizen still reads as being white (and if that is offensive, think for a moment about why). I think that Daniel’s protecting the executive’s identity rather than lambasting him up and down the interwebs shows that he has and is thoughtful about the things he endured and how they are portrayed. I also think his showing this executive grace and forgiveness and a desire to know the person rather than the assumptions he espouses, is Christ-like and something to aspire to.

  8. Gary Fuller says:

    Well handled and well said, Daniel. I’ve found myself musing your closing invitation to the Starbucks exec since reading it several days ago. How you articulated the gospel dream and how it motives you is contagious. Thank you.

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