In the controversy at hand, the experience of Corey DuBrowa, Starbucks' Senior Vice President of Global Communications, is instructive. Soon after the "Race Together" campaign was announced, he deleted his Twitter account, later explaining that critics attacking him were "a distraction from the respectful conversation we are trying to start." Some of those critics mocked Starbucks for announcing a conversation on race only to have a VP flee social media almost as soon as it began.
A closer look at what happened is clarifying. It all began with a tweet from the vice president, who wrote:
The observation that we're all human beings regardless of our race is about as innocuous a statement on the subject as can be imagined. Angrily attacking it would be a strange choice if one were motivated by a desire to identify or remedy racial injustice. What kind of anti-racism regards that as a tweet from an enemy rather than an ally?
Yet it was attacked by many. Mediaite highlighted the following response: "Easy for you to say mayonnaise boy." That same Twitter user wrote, "your degree did you a disservice." The user was then blocked, along with various other accounts directing abuse at DuBrowa, who concluded that Twitter was unlikely to facilitate a constructive exchange on race with interlocutors who begin with nasty ad-hominem insults. That judgment was reasonable, but caused the user to reply, "I'm blocked bc brown?" No. The VP in the midst of the digital pile-on blocked a user named "feminism and burritos" because of a racialized insult, not because he guessed at the user's race and blocked him or her for not being white.
Unfortunately, blocking a few trolls attracted more people who began baiting DuBrowa into blocking them, too. At that point, he could stay on Twitter, or he could suspend his account on the theory that his presence would do no good and distract from an important conversation that could be conducted more constructively elsewhere. I'd characterize withdrawing as wisdom. In 140 characters, could you constructively respond to queries such as, "why do you think i want to hear what a white barista with matted dreads thinks about race"?
Another way to characterize his actions: "Starbucks SVP Deletes Twitter Account After Actual Minorities Ask Him About Racism," a media headline insinuating that 1) he didn't previously speak to any minorities about this campaign; 2) his Twitter abusers did not include white people (they did); 3) the Starbucks VP knew the races of the people insulting him; 4) his Twitter critics were most accurately characterized as "actual minorities" (as opposed to fake ones?) rather than "tiny subset of Twitter users unrepresentative of the medium, minorities, Starbucks customers, and people," and 5) he's unwilling to engage in conversations about race (as if declining to adjudicate the subject on Twitter is tantamount to giving up).
Notice that the attacks on this man that spread from Twitter to the mainstream media, where they've been aired for millions, are not grounded in any racial injustice he perpetrated, or a rigorous assessment of his character, or a judgment about how earnestly he cares about remedying racial ills in the United States. Rather, he was immediately targeted by people without knowledge of any of those factors because his employer launched a campaign to remedy racial injustice, attracting the attention of people intent on flaunting their superior enlightenment, including a subset who do so by trying to make others look like bigots.
With all the actual racists in America, the guy who tweeted "one race: human" became a villain to people who purport to be motivated by the righteousness of anti-racism.
Here's DuBrowa explaining his return to Twitter:
Last night, around midnight, I deleted my Twitter account. I also blocked a handful of Twitter users — given the hostile nature of what I was seeing, it felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been a dedicated — some might say obsessive — Twitter user for nearly seven years and as a professional communicator, Twitter has proven to be a valuable tool for me to interact with my professional community, with media, on behalf of Starbucks, as well as “on behalf of me.” But last night I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.
In response to that statement, a faction on Twitter savaged him for "tone-policing people of color," as if objecting to and distancing oneself from indefensible rhetoric like "spineless worm" and "mayonnaise boy" is illegitimate. Says another critic of his return-to-Twitter statement, "silencing and blocking PoC with whom you solicited a dialogue about race is an example of racism. Shall you overcome?" Engage constructively with people bitterly insulting you on Twitter or your behavior is racist? Let's be real: No demographic group in America finds that reasonable. This is what it looks like when trolls masquerade as anti-racists.
For Starbucks, the backlash to "Race Together" was hardly confined to one executive. Some Twitter users began scrolling back through the social-media accounts of Starbucks executives and other employees, including a photographer the company used, in hopes of finding some racially unenlightened sentiment in any of their pasts. This sort of hunt for a "gotcha" illustration of what would be cast as hypocrisy creates another perverse incentive: Stay silent about racism and enjoy business as usual—or engage in a seemingly earnest attempt to improve race relations and guarantee that every word posted by anyone in your company with a public profile will be picked over and criticized by uncharitable critics eager to discredit you. And then, if they find anything, major news sites will treat it as a story.
In these ways, a small number of uncharitable people—some leftists, some reactionaries; disproportionately but not exclusively white—poison public discourse on race. And that's a shame, because while remedying identifiable racial injustices strikes me as the ideal first priority—especially for a powerful corporation with deep pockets—I do think that dialogue on race and racism can be salutary.
Yes, when people urge "a conversation" about race, what they're sometimes really saying is that everyone should be educated to embrace their ostensibly correct narrative. (Said one Starbucks critic, "Will you be sending your Baristas to classes on Critical Race Theory and Race Relations to ensure knowledgeability?") While I do think dialogue can leave individual participants better informed—sometimes pushing them in a leftward direction and other times in a rightward direction—my hope is that when people from different ideologies discuss the subject, they'll see the many ways that they can cooperate to remedy injustices and improve policy despite the differences in their overarching theories of race.
After all, the U.S. will always remain an extremely diverse country. And if unanimity on grand racial narratives cannot even be found at individual Thanksgiving tables, college discussion groups, corporate board rooms, or barbershops, the country as a whole is never going to alight on a single understanding. For progress to happen, people who disagree with aspects of one another's approach to race must find ways to tolerate one another's perspectives. Doing so will sometimes generate understandable discomfort or even anger, but there's never an excuse for performative vitriol. Most people of all races understand that.
A tiny minority of users can be relied upon to act like jerks on social media, whether the topic is race or baseball or daylight-savings time. When the subject is race, there is an added dimension: unspoken trepidation that to be wrong about the subject is a mortal sin, even if the error is made with the best of intentions and free of animus. There is, in fact, no shame in having discrete views about a subject as complicated as race that turn out, after further scrutiny, to be honestly mistaken. People conversing in real life tend to understand that better than people on the web. So as imperfect as racial dialogues held at Starbucks are likely to be, they may well be more constructive than many now happening online. So long as that is true, the web should cut Starbucks some slack.