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Stop mocking Starbucks’s ‘Race Together.’ It could actually lead to useful conversations about race.

Encouraging people to talk about race and racism more often can actually improve our willingness and ability to do so.

A barista holds a Starbucks iced tea drink with a “Race Together” sticker on it at a Starbucks store in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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Starbucks recently launched a campaign called “Race Together,” in which baristas invite customers to engage in conversations about race by writing “race together” on their coffee cups. The idea has been mocked and critiqued as naive, insensitive and perhaps even abusive to its baristas.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss it. I’ve been teaching and conducting research on the complex and, often complicated, dynamics of race-related dialogues and interracial interactions for more than 20 years. Encouraging people to talk about race and racism more often can actually improve our willingness and ability to do so.

Talking about race-related issues, especially with members of different racial groups, makes people uncomfortable, anxious, and even taxes their cognitive resources. Indeed, more than a decade of research reveals that individuals, both white and non-white, often exit these types of interracial dialogues feeling mentally exhausted. In a 2003 study in Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that when white college students interacted for 5 to 7 minutes with a black college student, they subsequently underperformed on cognitive tasks that required “inhibitory-control” — the cognition that underlies our ability to engage in self-control, stay focused on important tasks and goals and exercising willpower. When these students interacted with other white students, we didn’t see any decline in cognitive ability.

In a series of subsequent experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we found that these interactions are mentally draining, in part, because people are extremely concerned about appearing prejudiced, getting caught saying or doing the wrong thing. Indeed, social psychologist Sophie Trawalter, psychobiologist Emma Adam and I found that white individuals who were most concerned about appearing prejudiced released heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and displayed more “anxious behavior” — for example, averting their eyes — during interracial, compared with same-race, interactions.

These and many other studies underscore the difficulty that individuals often have when they attempt to negotiate interracial interactions, even when they have the best intentions. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the people who are genuinely most concerned about racial bias are also the most likely to suffer these negative affective and cognitive costs.

But these conversations do get easier the more often we have them. Indeed, when people have more interracial contact, they’re less likely they are to feel anxious, more likely to seek out more contact, and the more likely they are to bounce back (rather than retreat into racially homogenous social networks) after experiences of interracial tension. And cross-racial interpersonal contact is one of the most effective routes to prejudice reduction and attitudes change. Indeed, it is overcoming the anxiety that we feel engaging with these topics and in interracial dialogues, and closing the empathy gap that often exists between groups, that is thought to engender more positive racial attitudes.

So, if the “race together” tag on a coffee cup prompts people to engage in cross-racial dialogue, be it in Starbucks or sometime later that day or week, that would be a very good thing. In some ways, it already has been; Starbucks has been challenged to examine its own practices regarding racial disparities in the placement of its stores.

Yes, the race together campaign may indeed be naive, but encouraging greater reflection on the relevance of race in contemporary society, in the course of people’s everyday routines, could serve to provide them with more opportunities to engage with one another on this topic and, hopefully, reduce their anxiety about doing so.

Time will tell if this initiative will be productive for race relations in society, but not talking about race and racism is certainly not the answer.