Last weekend, Starbucks announced it will stop putting the slogan “Race Together” on coffee cups. Their spokesperson said this was a previously scheduled move, but to many it looked like a response to the flak the company has been taking over this initiative.
While there was some snarking about the earlier campaigns, Race Together provoked particularly virulent responses. The Twitterverse lit up with complaints from customers who didn’t want to be ambushed with a dialog about race before they’d ingested their morning caffeine (“honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”), and from baristas being encouraged to initiate these discussions (““Being a barista is hard enough. Having to talk #RaceTogether with a woman in Lululemon pants while pouring pumpkin spice is just cruel.”). Snark aside, it is clear that many people on both sides of the counter felt deeply uncomfortable with this corporate prompt.
Given the swelling national discussion about race, power and prejudice (conscious or unconscious), why are so many people slamming the big S for tackling the issue? Particularly in a market shaped by Millennials, 89% of whom indicate they are more likely to buy from companies who support solutions to social issues? As a thoughtful article in the Economist points out, the pushback may stem in part from a perception that Starbucks is milking the issue to enhance its reputation (and profitability), but I think that the particular savageness of this response is due to a perceived lack of “authenticity” on the part of the company. As the Economist points out, when TOMS Shoes gives footwear to impoverished children it comes across as mission-related. Same for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign for healthy body image. So even if these efforts benefit the companies in question, they seem to be a natural fit—as were the earlier Starbucks initiatives. Fair trade coffee is directly related to their core business. Tuition reimbursement is tied to the welfare of their employees; Create Jobs to the well-being of their communities; Veteran job training to both. Even the “please don’t carry” request was positioned not as a statement for gun control (or against open carry laws) but as being about the comfort and well-being of customers. Race relations may seem like too big a leap, too far from the company’s legitimate areas of expertise or concern.
Which brings us to museums, and to #museumsrespondtoferguson—an informal network of museums and individuals (including a large cadre of tweeters and bloggers). Many museums, notably the Missouri History Museum and the Newseum, responded to the events in Ferguson with programs, panels, rapid response collecting, even of-the-moment modifications to exhibits. These responses were commendable and widely admired. I think these institutions were granted this respect because their actions come across as authentic—rooted in the their missions, relationship to their communities and to a history of serving in these ways. But I’m sure there are museums for which addressing race relations in America would be just as awkward a fit as it is for Starbucks.
I believe, deeply and fervently, that it is the moral and civic obligation of every nonprofit to make the world a better place. This requires staff to be attuned to the needs of their immediate community and the world, and to the organization’s mission, resources and capabilities. Collectively, museums can help heal countless wounds, large and small. For some museums this will mean tackling race relations, or climate change, or immigration reform through education or through activism. For other museums it may mean giving local homeless children a safe place to play, or feeding people hot soup while they discuss food issues impacting their communities. It might mean trying to prevent the extinction of non-human species by educating people about eating sustainable seafood or saving a local turtle. Or helping veterans heal from war-related trauma. And always, as AAM’s Museums and Community initiative emphasized, museums can facilitate community-driven conversations by making resources, like space, available for conversations and activism initiated by others.
But I get uncomfortable when high-profile coverage by the press results in pressure for all museums to address the headline issue of the day or week or month. It’s good to remind each other to stay alert to the needs of the world, to pay mindful attention to opportunities for our organization to help fill those needs. But I think we have to pay attention to the example of Starbucks, as well—museums have to act from an authentic place to be granted credibility and standing to weigh in. Otherwise, at best we risk using scarce time and resources to have no credible impact, and at worst we appear self-serving and naïve.
So, yes, please, #museumsrespond to all sorts of needs. But let’s divvy up the work, rather than all rushing to the same side of the boat. There is no lack of holes in the world that need patching, and we can each find ones we are best suited to mend.