In April, Starbucks was in the news because a Philadelphia store manager called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend. To address the bias that could lead to such an unfair response, Starbucks closed its doors early on Tuesday to send its employees through an anti-bias training session.
I talked to two employees from different stores who participated in different sessions. After the conversations I was shocked, confused, and slightly encouraged. Here are excerpts from our conversations. Frank is a white male in his late 30s. Mark is a person of color in his mid-20s.
Do you think the session was needed?
Mark: Truthfully, as a person of color, I feel as though these are things I intrinsically already understand. But I believe it was necessary for my store specifically.
Mark: After the incident in Philadelphia, a co-worker asked me, ‘You know the whole Kanye West thing’ and I was like ‘umm, yeah, I do.’ And she went off saying that people online are calling him an Uncle Tom and a fake n—–. I went, ‘Excuse me?’ And she REPEATED HERSELF. And then she said, ‘it’s not like I was calling you a house n—– or something, I was just talking about the situation.’
Mark: On a different occasion a co-worker said to me, ‘I’m brown just like you, just on the inside’ while I was washing dishes one day. And another time, a friend told me that she heard transphobic comments as we just hired an individual who is transitioning. I didn’t report any of this, because it will just make a hostile work environment. I am trying to transfer.
What was the goal of the session?
Frank: The goal of the training was to bring into the light real-life racial, sexual, insensitive bias and to talk about how we can minimize those situations to the point that hopefully will have them no longer happen. Starbucks admitted that one four-hour training session isn’t going to fix any problems, so they made sure to stress that we all have to make efforts continue the progress that they made. (Neither man could remember the training facilitators giving recommendations for specific continued efforts.)
Mark: Being Color Brave was one of the main themes. The term colorblind was referenced as a platform long ago used to describe people who don’t see color, which is now known to be just as bad. Color Brave is being brave to be who you are and embracing your racial and ethnic backgrounds.
What happened in the sessions?
Mark: One of the first activities we did was introduce ourselves in small three- to six-person groups. We then were told to break off into pairs within those groups and make a list of eight reasons why we are different.
Frank: For me the most effective exercises were watching videos of people of color still telling stories about how they get followed in stores to ‘prevent theft’ and then hearing one woman say that she wishes she could walk out her door and feel carefree like the white guy she sees on the street. That last part is a direct quote and it bothered me to my core that still this bulls— continues.
Frank: They gave us 39-page workbooks. We were supposed to write our thoughts in them and take them with us.
Mark: They explained the difference between explicit and implicit bias. Then they ran us through the Stroop Color [and] Word test so we would understand that stereotypes are cognitive shortcuts we form.
Was the session beneficial?
Mark: For the company, perhaps. Maybe it can stand as a pillar of equality, great.
Frank: Yes. I think more companies need to do this, but the real change that needs to happen are everyday people coming to the same realization that racial bias needs to stop. That’s when true change will happen. I just wish it was easier. People give up because learning anything new is tough and Americans are lazy.
How would you describe the training with one word?
Closing 8,000 stores for a half-day most certainly cost Starbucks some profits. But the costs of biases are ordinarily paid by the same segment of our society. And they don’t get to pick the day or the price.
On April 12, when Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were cuffed and arrested, they were forced to pay with a bit of their dignity. Though everyone knows one session won’t eradicate biases held by Starbucks employees, if the result of the session is a lower likelihood of an incident like that recurring, then Tuesday’s cost is a worthwhile investment.