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Columnists Why we can’t run from Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign

Once in a while, a gift of a news story comes a humour columnist's way. Something happens and a writer knows she need not toil in the premise mines that week.

This happened to me on Tuesday, when the news broke that Howard Schultz, the chief executive officer of Starbucks, had launched an initiative called #RaceTogether. The idea is that the company's baristas can, if they choose, write that slogan on the side of a coffee cup and then, if a customer asks what it means, they can, if they choose, try to start a conversation about race.

On the face of it, this is comedy gold. Shortly after it develops plans to start serving alcohol, Starbucks is going to get customers chatting about race while some people in the room are holding scalding hot beverages and rock-hard, potential-projectile biscotti. What could possibly go wrong?

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The jokes just up and begin writing themselves.

Yet, after some consideration, and having seen the negative response to the plan – a response that came in furious tweets from self-proclaimed "progressives" and "you should see my other Confederate flag" racists in equal measure – I found myself incap-able of mocking #RaceTogether.

It was as if I held a big fat comedy-premise fish in my hands and had to throw it back.

Online opposition to the plan took many shapes. There were, of course, the "To hell with Starbucks, I'm not a racist. Here, watch me get unreasonably angry at the very mention of race to prove this point" people. There were the "I'm not a racist, I just like quoting contextless statistics from racist websites as much as I hate black people" crowd as well.

Some of these guys clearly had tweets left over from the Ferguson riots that, one could imagine, had been burning a hole in the pockets of their white-hooded robes.

Then there were those who, blithely erasing the 40 per cent of Starbucks employees who belong to a visible minority, decided to break out every hipster-barista cliché. They were sure some vapid young white woman – the sort of person they can barely deign to let pour them a coffee as it is – was about to start lecturing them about race relations the next time they ordered an espresso.

Many people leapt to protect the baristas, whom they clearly view as the coal miners of their generation. How dare Starbucks demand that, on top of everything else a barista does, these hard-working but, it was implied, simple folk, solve America's race problem as well?

Sure, they may have experienced or witnessed racism, but one couldn't expect them to articulate it – on account of their being the kind of people who work at Starbucks, it was all but said.

Here's the thing: The plan evolved from open forums Starbucks conducted recently in St. Louis, New York, Chicago, Oakland and Los Angeles. During these meetings, held in response to recent events in America that screamed "We have a race problem," the company encouraged people who work for it to talk about what racism means to them, and then it listened.

Bear in mind that Starbucks has a tradition of speaking out on controversial issues – gun control, for example. It also has a program that directs its spending toward businesses owned by women and minorities. When, two years ago, an investor at a shareholder meeting complained that the company's support for Washington State's marriage-equality bill had cut into sales, Mr. Schultz simply told the man he was free to sell his shares and go elsewhere.

It's easy to mock #RaceTogether because it is, while achingly well-intentioned, the whitest, most saccharine idea ever. It is the Venti White Chocolate Non-Fat Decaf Soy Latte of race-relations initiatives.

Yet, when you place the plan in context and look closely at its various facets (there will also be an insert dedicated to race relations circulated in USA Today and placed in Starbucks stores), it's clear that Mr. Shultz acknowledges that racism is a profound problem (this should not be notable in a white executive, but sadly, it is) and was moved by what he heard from his employees during those forums. In his excitement, he wanted to take the forums further.

So, much to everyone's amusement, Starbucks put together a plan that involved trusting its employees to talk to their customers on company time, about a topic many people desperately hope won't come up with their families at Thanksgiving dinner – because they don't trust their own granddads on this one.

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I struggle to see this granting of permission to speak as condescension or as an imposition. Having done my share of relatively unskilled work, I'd say some of what makes those jobs a slog is the often-vast tracks of you that must be held back. You know what's a drag for some of the people doing all the things you like to have done? Obligatory scripted pleasantries: pretending they give a damn whether you are "going any place warm this winter?" or have "any plans for the long weekend?" Customers told me stories that I think about still. Perhaps they remember some of mine.

As for the rather precious outcry that people are just trying to get their coffee, and so this is hardly the place for this kind of thing, you can still just get a coffee – but let's not ignore the long and raucous tradition of discussing politics, philosophy and current affairs in coffee houses.

Coffee houses were once predominantly about discourse and debate and, yes, they too had owners who made money – yet still managed to be hotbeds of sedition. Cheer up, grumpy radicals, the French and American revolutions were both plotted in the Starbucks of their day.

I know that, when I walk down a street in New York with my wonderful sister-in-law, who is black, we're walking on different streets. I know, of course, that racism is entrenched and systemic – and that I benefit from it every day.

No one's suggesting that it is a little personal "issue" that can be solved by coffee talks, but we shouldn't underestimate the power of small stories, of moments of connection, to provoke change.

Small stories are how we organize our world, and I find I can't laugh for long at anything that encourages us to glimpse down the other's road.

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