By Ahmed Tharwat
Howard Schultz is the CEO of Starbucks, a coffee company that as he describes it, “is a third place away from home and work where Americans can come and enjoy drinking a good cup of coffee sitting down”.
Before Starbucks, Americans usually drank coffee on the run and everyone drank the same kind of coffee – black coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Every morning it was like filling up their morning caffeine fix from any gas station or a convenience store. For lots of Americans, it was the most mundane decision a person had to make before their lives got complicated in the everlasting consumer culture. Today, Starbucks theoretically can make more than 100,000 combinations of different kinds of coffee drinks, expanded to more than 20,000 stores in the US and same number worldwide, spread in 55 countries around the world, even inside the Forbidden City in China.
Schultz is already well-known as one of this generation’s CEO social activists, a group which includes Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein, Duke Energy’s Jim Rogers, and Google’s Eric Schmidt – and other high-ranking corporate leaders like Facebook’sSheryl Sandberg. These leaders think they can transform society and solve major problems over a cup of coffee or a marketing glitz. In 2009, the poised newly elected President Obama tried to have a conversation about race over a beer, when he invited a white police officer who insulted a black Harvard professor inside his own house to the white house for a beer with the black professor.
Now, the enthused CEO Schultz has tried to start a conversation about race in America over a cup of coffee, asked his baristas to engage customers in the conversation, and write #RaceTogether on coffee cups before handing them to customers. The message was meant to be, as he puts it, “just the catalyst” for a broad conversation about race, after a year in which the topic has figured prominently in news headlines and dinner-table conversations across America, especially after a few fatal incidents where white policemen killed young black men.
The campaign only lasted one week before it was cancelled in its 20,000 stores and Starbucks employees were told to stop writing “Race Together” on your coffee cups. The problem with Schultz’s #RaceTogether national conversation invitation is that people actually went to Starbucks and got into the conversation but Starbucks was more interested in racing in selling more coffee than having a long conversation about race. Here are a few customer tweets in response to the campaign:
“Starbucks #RaceTogether is actually useful — as a demonstration of what’s wrong with the way US employers treat their workers.”
“Really mad at this Starbucks employee who wrote #RaceTogether on my croissant.”
“@starbucksstarted #RaceTogether conversation this week, hope next week’s conversation will be about #IslamophobiaTogether.” (Actually that was my tweet once I heard about the #RaceTogether campaign.)
Journalists went to Starbucks to try talking about race, but they quickly realised that making conversation with a barista really holds up the line, and the last thing you want to do in a Starbucks coffeehouse is to hold up the line. However, coffeehouses in the Arab world are places where people actually get together, sit down and have a conversation. Egyptians have mastered the art of sitting in cafés; it became a sort of activities. People actually say “I’m sitting in the café” when asked what you are doing. There are more cafés in Cairo city than minarets.
The way Egyptians experience coffee shops is different than the hyper-functioning Americans. Starbucks, which was meant to be a third place away from home and work, has become work, and the place where people are supposed to go inside and enjoy a sense of community, now has a drive-through to get your coffee without ever getting out of your own car – a very alien concept to most Egyptians.
Coffeehouses in Egypt are traditionally known for their intellectual and politically vibrant nature, especially in downtown Cairo where famous café like Riche Café near Talaat Harb Square were filled with intellectuals, revolutionaries and politicians. Plans were hatched, alliances forged, screeds written. In an Economist article, Kamel Zuheiry, a columnist and 1960s regular remembers: “We continued to discuss in the café what we started in the newspapers. The one constant during decades of caffeinated talk was the question of our Egyptian identity and our Egyptian-ness. The regulars were divided into turban-wearers (traditionalists) and fez-wearers (modernists), even if few of them actually wore headgear.”
I visited Egypt during the heydays of the revolution in 2011. The cafés once again became an extension of the Egyptian political landscape, a replica of the Tahrir Square spirit. People came from the square, stopped at a café, had a drink, continued their discussions, exchanged ideas and would then #RaceTogether back to the Square. As for folks at Starbucks, everyone is back to square one, just quietly making coffee served in Styrofoam cups.
Ahmed Tharwat is host and producer of the Arab American TV show BelAhdan. His articles are published in national and international publications. Ahmed blogs at “Notes From America” www.ahmediaTV.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @ahmediatv