[Dollar] Green Capitalism?: Starbucks, Oprah, and Educational Access in a Cup of Organic Chai


I just left Seattle the morning of May 9 2014. While at the SEATAC airport, I spotted this advertisement. This is what I thought when I first saw the photo:

Once again, buying objects as a way towards social Justice, within a capitalist moral economy, seems contradictory. As if all you need to do is ‘buy’ your way into a cleaner conscious, through the site of Starbucks; an entity that sources ingredients from largely global South regions through methods that are mostly not fair trade.

So, Starbucks, tell me this: how does one extrapolate resources from certain regions of the world in an unethical manner, and then put up campaigns above that ensure patrons that whenever they buy this Oprah approved product, it goes towards creating better educational access for vulnerable populations? Am I missing something here?

Only 10 percent of the coffee Starbucks sells is Fair Trade Certified. As the largest buyer of coffee beans in the world, it seems like they should probably be trying a lot harder. After all, I am pretty sure that the people working under unequal conditions to harvest coffee beans for Starbucks most likely do not have educational opportunities that allow their communities to thrive, as well as not be so dependent on “green” capitalism.

Just my two cents.
Below is my latest project (2017-2018)

Despite having brown skin and being a “melanated peoples”, I burn in the sun in approximately 5 minutes. It can be as ‘cool’ as 69 degrees Fahrenheit and I will burn…My mother used to always joke, “You would have made a horrible field slave”, which kind of makes perfect sense. She has always enjoyed calling me an Oreo since I was a tween. Oreo was then promoted to the affectionate label of Oreo Double Stuff by the time I had graduated from high school in 1994 and I had been accepted into a gazillion PWIs like Smith College, Tufts University, Bryn Mawr, and Dartmouth College.  I vividly remember when I first discovered the Four Seasons when I was 14 years old. I asked my mother if she could buy it for me on CD. Boy was she elated that I was inquiring about the Four Seasons…. Except she thought that I misspoke and that I must have meant the Black Motown group The Four Tops (Yes, I meant some music composed by a dead white Italian man). #blackcardrejected #notauthenticallyblack

How did I get from being a white cream filled dark sandwich cookie with two left feet and an unhealthy obsession with Anton Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to being told I’m uber ‘articulate’ and ‘non-threatening’ in post-racial vegan venues? I could tell this story from so many vantage points. I thought long and hard about it, writing draft after draft, dropping some heavy critical theory sh$t from Angela Davis, to Frantz Fanon, to Charles Mills. But every time I tried to do this, it just wouldn’t work out. Critical theory takes deep concentration, plenty of sleep, and mental acuity….

…which is hella blown out of the water when you’ve got 4 damn kids– a 6 month old, a 3 year old, a 5 year old (the middle one with a damn freaking attitude and a propensity for sticking her hand in the monkey jar) and an 8 year old who continuously interrupt your prophetic destiny to be a  scholar with such greatness and [can’t think of an intelligent word because my 5 year old just came outside screaming and running towards me, naked, holding a bowl of Cheerios] that would make Sara Ahmed’s rumination on phenomenology and post-colonialism look like simple nursery school rhymes. #badphenomenologyjokes

-Dr. A. Breeze Harper. Draft from her upcoming book Black. Mama. Scholar: On Black Feminism, Food Ethics, and Toddler Tantrums in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era (2018).

In a delightful and humorous, yet deeply critical talk, Dr. A. Breeze Harper will ruminate on the past 12 years of her activism and scholarship as well as read excerpts from her upcoming book Black. Mama. Scholar: On Black Feminism, Food Ethics, and Toddler Tantrums in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era (formerly titled Recipes for Racial Tension Headaches). Get ready for a different side of A. Breeze Harper, PhD, as she uses a fusion of satire and critical race feminism to explore just how “post-racial” we are– in veganism and beyond.

This is a fundraising event for the Sistah Vegan Project. Register for the Live Lecture with Q&A below.

Ticket Options

If you can’t make her live webcast but are interested in inviting her to give a talk and/or workshop at your organization or university, contact her at bookbreezeharper@gmail.com .

Dr. Harper is the creator and editor of the first of its kind book about veganism and race: Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society(Lantern Books 2010).

Dr. Harper holds a PhD in social science from University of California Davis (with an emphasis in Black Feminisms, Critical Theories of Race, and Ethical Consumption). She has a Masters degree in Educational Technologies from Harvard University, with emphasis on Black Feminisms. Her thesis earned her the prestigious Dean’s award.

Dr. Harper’s most recently published book, A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England (Sense Publishers 2014) interrogates how systems of oppression and power impact being a Black teenager living in an all white and working class rural New England town. She has taught university staff and students how to use the book as a tool to develop literacy around unconscious bias and understand how deeply impactful systemic racial and socio-economic inequities are.

After observing numerous white vegans making the claim that race doesn’t matter (i.e. the passive-aggressive responses to Black Lives Matter with “All Lives Matter”) , Dr. Harper organized the highly successful professional conference The Praxis of Black Lives Matter. The conference taught participants how to operationalize racial equity during an era of Black Lives Matter with a focus on plant-based foodie culture like veganism and raw foodism. 

In 2016, Dr. Harper collaborated with Oakland’s FoodFirst’s Executive Director Dr. Eric Holt-Gimenez to write the report Dismantling Racism in the Food System, which kicked off FoodFirst’s series on systemic racism within the food system. Dr. Harper is well-known for her talks and workshops  about “Operationalizing Racial Equity” and  “Intersectional Anti-Racism” in ethical consumption, which were given at top universities this past year (University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Penn State to name a few). 

You can check out Dr. Harper’s 2016 talk at Whidbey Institute below about Uprooting White Fragility in the Ethical Foodscape as well as the University of Oregon-Eugene talk Reading Food Objects: A Black Feminist Materialist Reading of Scars in Oregon.



4 thoughts on “[Dollar] Green Capitalism?: Starbucks, Oprah, and Educational Access in a Cup of Organic Chai

  1. Not to mention that Starbucks only pays their employees minimum wage, doesn’t promise them hours when hired and doesn’t have an option for debit or credit card users to leave a tip. They’ve done a fantastic job misleading their customers into believing their a good company when in reality they pay less and have less opportunity for advancement than McDonalds.

  2. Hi Breeze – I always enjoy your posts – and I have a question for you. How can we consumers get information about businesses, like Starbucks, so that we know that only 10% of their coffee is Fair Trade? Is there a website or somewhere that we can easily access and provide others with access to the truth about corporations?

  3. I agree with what you’ve written. Life probably would be better for many people in the world if Starbucks changed its buying practices.
    That said, I’m (I think similarly to you) mistrustful of the whole corporate view. Maybe Americans shouldn’t even be drinking coffee in the amounts that they do now (maybe the coffee growers should be able to focus on growing local food crops instead). Maybe people should cut dead their fixation with/addiction to expensive cafe drinks.
    I want to knock down the branding that makes people identify as Starbucks drinkers and attach to that some kind of cache and status.
    I wish the solution were just a matter of from whom they source their coffee. But I fear that the fundamental problems have more to do with capitalism and its ills than anything else.
    My initial thought when viewing this (also saw a display for this in my local Target which hosts a Starbucks) was that Oprah is at it again.
    My two critiques re Oprah: 1) I feel that although she means well with the charitable initiatives she promotes that she is out of touch with real people’s lives and her efforts often come off as part of some personal development project. 2) I am generally mistrustful of money from on high (coming as it often does with strings) as a real answer. Especially since it comes from people (Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Oprah…) who are highly invested in the status quo that has created the inequalities in the first place.
    What does it mean to be one of the richest women in America? Where did that money really come from? What would things look like if workers (versus CEOs and in Oprah’s case, media moguls) got their fair share?

  4. All of the comments were so well explicitly thought out that I can only agree and may add to the intelligent insight posted. I am reminded of a time in undergrad, where I was fortunate to have been part of a half semester research project on McDonaldization. A social-geographical critique and analysis of how emerging thought structures becomes the norm in an attempt to help “better” cultural societies through the changing of how food, cultural norms and other things that allowed a society to thrive are now being marketed to and governed by a mass corporate structure. This mass structure, usually a major corporation implements supposed efficiency, and mass produced group think in the attempt to help “positively” transform how the people operate within their societies. Supposedly making it “easier” in their daily life functions as well as less tedious. People are expected to buy in to their proposed concepts with their monies while unconsciously changing important social traditions and changing the culture as the people may know it, for the worse. However, post impact seems to benefit only a selected few higher in the chain.
    This post represents a microcosm of this aspect. Psychologically, we make shortcuts mentally to access whether some decisions are good or bad. So naturally to some, Oprah’s image represents the supposed archetype of “spiritual-do-goodedness” that has been her marketing persona for some past decades. So to buy into her” chai of good” naturally follows. Further, it is implied to buy into buying our way to a better world because Oprah’s endorsement acknowledges it. Though this is flawed in its premise, it is the basis of many of the thought processes behind “green conscious” capitalism’s marketing ploys. The post social and geographical impact usually has negative consequences that A. Breeze and mamazaha so eloquently stated. Thanks for reminding me of people like yourselves that “get it”. And as always A. Breeze, I love your posts!

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