Just two years after Starbucks faced a high-profile reckoning over how Black people are treated in its stores, the coffee giant is facing more backlash for its ban on employees wearing Black Lives Matter symbols at work, which it belatedly reversed under pressure Friday.
Critics took to social media earlier this week to flay the Seattle-based retailer and self-styled corporate progressive over reports that employees had been barred from wearing clothing or accessories with Black Lives Matter logos.
The company’s argument: The BLM message might be misconstrued.
“…[T]here are agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles of the Black Lives Matter movement — and in certain circumstances, intentionally re-purpose them to amplify divisiveness,” read an internal memo the company sent out last week, according to a Buzzfeed News report on Wednesday.
The memo also reminded Starbucks workers that they “are not permitted to wear buttons or pins that advocate a political, religious or personal issue.”
That policy has gone over poorly at a moment when tens of millions of Americans want to show support for the BLM movement — and barely two years since Starbucks had to apologize and conduct companywide racial-sensitivity training after a store employee in Philadelphia called the police on two Black customers.
The company was also heavily criticized for a 2015 initiative, well-intended but awkwardly executed, that sought to encourage discussions about racism by directing baristas to write “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups.
Word of the BLM clothing ban sparked a near-instant backlash on social media, with some critics threatening to boycott the company’s stores, just as many locations were starting to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown.
“You choose to be on the wrong side of history, @Starbucks,” wrote one critic on Twitter. “If you’re afraid of pissing off your racist customers, you’re just as guilty.”
“I did not know not wanting to be killed was political,” tweeted another.
Some critics pointed out an apparent discrepancy: Despite its ban on symbols that advocate political, religious or personal issues, the company does allow employees to wear symbols of gay pride. “I’ve seen employees sporting their finest LGBT pins, but no BLM gear at all?” noted one. Starbucks is cancelled”.
On Friday, Starbucks temporarily reversed course: In a post on the corporate website, the company said workers can wear some BLM gear until they receive one of the 250,000 company-designed T-shirts emblazoned with a tamer logo that includes the “Black Lives Matter” slogan tucked in among a dozen others.
“You’ve told us you need a way to express yourself at work,” read the post, written by Roz Brewer, chief operating officer; Rossann Williams, vice president for North American retail; and Zing Shaw, vice president for inclusion and diversity.
The post adds that the company has designed T-shirts with a graphic “to demonstrate our allyship and show we stand together in unity. Until these arrive, we’ve heard you want to show your support, so just be you. Wear your BLM pin or t-shirt.”
A Starbucks spokesperson on Friday confirmed the memo reported on by Buzzfeed was part of a weekly company communication sent to employees, but declined to answer questions about the BLM policy.
By late morning Friday, response to Starbucks’ damage-control efforts were decidedly mixed.
“Now they wanna make BLM tshirts because their sales were declining,” suggested a Twitter critic. “@Starbucks you can miss me with that bullshit #BoycottStarbucks.”
“Whether this is for clout or they’re scared to lose customers or hopefully learned and got educated, our voices still make a difference,” tweeted another. “Being silent does nothing.”