Starbucks just launched its first original series, called Upstanders, focused on people who, according to a tagline, "stand up" instead of standing by. The idea isn't bad — it "aims to inspire Americans to engage in acts of compassion, citizenship and civility" — and then you read the first story. "The Mosque Across the Street" is, essentially, a tale about a pastor who bravely overcomes his own racism.
The series, a press release stated, focuses on "people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities." Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz wrote:
The upstanders featured in this series are inspiring individuals whose actions are emblematic of the American spirit and what is missing from so much of today’s national dialogue. We have always been storytellers at heart, and more of these stories need to be heard. We are using our scale to share them as broadly as possible.
Though well intentioned, this episode of Upstanders (the first of ten released today, some of which really are good) lauds a singular protagonist, a Tennessee pastor, for overcoming the outdated religious stereotypes he holds instead of doing the right thing and focusing on the community coming together. As detailed in the piece, the Muslim community plans to open a mosque and a cultural center across the street from the pastor's church, and the he struggles to come to terms with the fact.
Starbucks had the opportunity to tell a more articulate story about how people can band together to build something great for their neighborhood regardless of their backgrounds (in the past, the company has attempted to spark national conversation around race relations with its failed Race Together initiative). Instead of opting to tell that story, Upstanders chose to go at this from the perspective of a person who had to convince himself (and his congregation) that a mosque could actually be welcome in their neighborhood.
If the series intends to showcase, like it claims, "people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities," then it’s implying that this pastor did something ‘extraordinary’ when he decided to welcome the mosque — which is, at best, an exhibition of basic-level tolerance. NPR got it right here by telling the story in a way that highlights how the pastor welcomed the Muslim community to pray in his church during Ramadan, while the mosque and cultural center were being built.
Consider this excerpt from the Starbucks piece — one of many that raises concerns:
As Stone ruminated on this love-thy-neighbor tale that challenged preconceived notions, he hit himself on the forehead.
We’ve got to find a way to love these people, he thought.
The story tries too hard to capture the rah-rah sentimentality that Starbucks wants to share — and what it loses in the process is nuance. It’s not easy to talk about cultural differences in a way that does the cultures justice, but here it feels like Starbucks doesn’t really try. There’s an otherizing sentiment behind the phrase, "We’ve got to find a way to love these people," and the fact that Stone has to literally hit himself on the head before he can attempt to find something of value in the mosque opening indicates that he’s maybe not the kind of person we want to hold up as a paragon of "compassion, citizenship, and civility," at least not in this instance.
Instead of featuring inspiring individuals creating positive change, the company gave readers a piece full of latent racism, at the core of which is a pastor who is praised for, in the narrative Starbucks offers, having a brief flicker of recognition of his own prejudices. Surely Starbucks can find more inspiring stories to tell — or maybe it can’t, in which case maybe we’re all doomed anyway.