Incongruity Theory and #RaceTogether

I’ll admit: The Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign has my attention. I’ll fault Twitter which is, of course, where I caught wind of it and began noting the numerous witty retorts appearing in my feed. Above all, I was amused. Then curious, then amused, and now back to curious.

The amusement came mainly through the #NewStarbucksDrinks group of tweets which were ingenious, clever, and in some cases, piercing. Here are a few of my favorites:

You get the idea. Lot of wit out there. Lot of wit and humor in the face of exasperation at what appears to be going on. Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz thinks it would be a good idea for the company’s “partners” or baristas to offer patrons a little race conversation outreach along with their beverage by writing “Race Together”on the cup. The concept, which appears to be full of good intentions (and simultaneously swimming in cultural and societal obliviousness), misses the mark in many ways.  Read this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom which lays out the prickly nature of this initiative in remarkable clarity and also with a modest dose of snark.

I can’t offer that kind of analysis but I can appreciate and share it. What grabs me about this topic is seeing it from its origins: in white corporate America. I watched the 6 minute video where Schultz explains the thinking and in-house community forums on race that were held in the previous 6 months.

Overflowing with good intentions. And seen as a white-to-white communication venture, it might work. There are plenty of white people who may want to engage and participate in this kind of activity and perhaps shed some guilt in the process. But the assumption on which #RaceTogether actually rests is that we all (POC included) have an equal need for the same conversation and nothing could be further from the truth.

For corporate America this initiative is novel. It’s eye-catching and bold. For the rest of us, particularly people of color, it just looks stupid and clueless. And so it becomes a source of mockery and derision because we see an outrageous incongruity. In explaining where comedy gets its fuel Kathryn Schulz says this:

As its name suggests, incongruity theory posits that comedy arises from a mismatch – specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with an attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief – and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is – give or take a little pleasure – the structure of error.

Being Wrong, Portobello 2010, p. 323

That seems to be what has happened here. There’s the corporate belief: “we really need to have this conversation about race. Let’s get our partners to do the talking.” And there’s the wider response, especially on social media, which says, “LOL, are you serious? you have no clue, no preparation. Just keep your “conversation”and give me my latte.”  Incongruity and the resulting sense of “surprise, confusion”-  this can happen to white people in these situations who fail to grasp or anticipate that fundamental incongruity of belief and experience when we, people of color and whites, venture to just talk about race (not to mention racism).

One other problem I have with this is the commercial piece. The initiative is a PR-thing designed to sell beverages and newspapers (USA Today is a partner in this massive effort). How clever of some people to seize this opportunity to build on the buzz and profit from the dramatic events that have pushed this agenda to the fore. Part of me resents the idea of having a corporately branded/sponsored conversation about a topic of significant importance to me. Even if more information regarding racial disparities in the US is disseminated, circulated, proclaimed from every major media outlet, it will not suddenly elicit changes in behaviors, attitudes, environments, policies and structures which perpetuate them. Again, if you are operating from a place of more or less unchallenged privilege, then talking more about race while drinking a nicely flavored warm beverage will probably sound like a good idea. A great idea.  A noble and also cool idea. Corporate America lives consistently in this space, so sure “Race Together” sounds harmony-inspiring and paradigm-busting, it must be a ‘win-win’ proposition. Who wouldn’t want to “Race Together” with their favorite barista?

If nothing else, the Starbucks example offers us a unique “comedy of errors” from which let’s hope the originators are learning. We have the #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag to provide us comic relief throughout and an avenue to once again showcase some of the sharpest minds in the country. I am choosing to celebrate the ingenuity I have seen arise from this fraught scenario and for the time being I’ll enjoy my tea at home.

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