Starbucks’s Tall Order: Tackle Systemic Racism in 4 Hours
Posted May 29, 2018 10:42 p.m. EDT
Updated May 29, 2018 10:49 p.m. EDT
For Starbucks, the scope of companywide anti-bias training on Tuesday was easy to measure. Roughly 175,000 employees at 8,000 locations pored over nearly 23,000 iPads, learning about the processing power of unconscious brains and the roots of unconscious bias.
The training — part social justice crash course and part self-reflection exercise — is at the core of a well-choreographed effort by Starbucks to improve its corporate image after a backlash over the arrests of two African-American men in a Starbucks in Philadelphia last month. Since then, the company has apologized, most recently in full-page newspaper ads. It has changed its guest policy, allowing people to sit without buying anything. And it enlisted a full complement of social justice activists and policy advocates for guidance.
Starbucks is trying to send a statement with the training. It closed most company-owned stores in the United States, leaving caffeine addicts without Frappuccinos and freelancers without office space.
But the company acknowledges that it is trying to tackle systemic racism going back centuries. And there is only so much that can be crammed into a four-hour session.
Pomp and Circumstance
Starbucks infused its training with some star power.
In one video shown to workers via iPad, the artist Common explains that it is sometimes better to embrace differences than to look for only similarities in one another. In another, documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr. provides an overview of the civil rights era and viral videos of racial incidents in the past. Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. reviewed the materials, and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. gave advice.
The training “is a transformational moment in the history of Starbucks,” said Howard Schultz, the company’s executive chairman. The company, which spent tens of millions of dollars to bring it all together, needs to put on a show. It is trying to convince customers that it is committed to social justice issues and that it wants to create a sense of community at its stores.
Its image was tarnished after the incident at the Starbucks in Philadelphia, where an employee called the police after two African-American men asked to use the restroom. The men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who hadn’t made a purchase and were waiting for a business meeting, were arrested on suspicion of trespassing — a charge that prosecutors declined to pursue. Nelson and Robinson, both 23, reached a settlement this month with the city and Starbucks.
To design the training program, Starbucks teamed up with Perception Institute, an anti-bias research and advisory group, and solicited input from several social scientists. The questions were based on years of research and on past workshops, the group said, adding that the four-hour time frame was more generous than the one hour typically allotted.
As they developed the materials, Starbucks tested them in select stores in Texas, New York, Indiana and elsewhere, and incorporated feedback from employees. Some said that earlier drafts of the materials were confusing, and that directions needed to be clearer, according to a consultant from SYPartners, a consultancy that also helped come up with Tuesday’s program.
A Lesson in Sociology and Science
At the training sessions, employees broke into small groups to guide themselves through 68 pages of materials printed on newspaper print, sure to create ink-stained hands. They watched videos on iPads, some with stands made from a cut-up Starbucks cup.
Many of the exercises had the sort of open-ended approaches that have long been the province of sociology classes and business retreats. In personal notebooks, employees were asked to jot down private responses to vague questions like “What makes me, me? And you, you?” After one of the Common videos, they were asked to pair with a co-worker and list all the ways they were different from each other.
After a brief lesson on brain science, they took the Stroop effect test, quickly reciting the colors that words were written in to show how they form implicit associations. The notebook then took them through what it means to be “color brave” — rather than “colorblind.”
One of the more powerful exercises came toward the end of the training, when the employees listened to recorded audio clips of other colleagues discussing biased decisions they had made. In one instance, an employee said he had hid the tip jar when he saw a group of black men walk in. He became embarrassed, he said, after he gave them their change and they asked if there was a tip jar for them to leave it in.
“The big question was we need to make it much more personal,” said Zarina Masih, a Starbucks employee in Evanston, Illinois, alluding to advice she received about how to treat people in the store. “To make sure we’re not making assumptions, that we get to know them.”
Talking About Race The documentary in the training includes an interview with a bald white man who reflects on how easy he has it when he leaves his house.
“I walk out a free man,” he said. “I just do my thing.”
Going out is much more complicated for a black man with braids, who is also interviewed. He has to be careful of how close he stands to fellow train commuters and how he talks to people in public.
Leaving the house can be so exhausting, the man said, that it sometimes “just keeps you at home.”
The training bluntly shows how white and black people experience the world differently.
To that end, Starbucks is toeing a difficult line. How do you convince white people that they are beneficiaries of the country’s racist history without calling them racists? And if you can convince them, how, then, do you turn that into a more welcoming in-store environment?
This can, expectedly, be a tall task for a company whose work force transcends geographic, socioeconomic, racial and educational lines. Some undoubtedly were familiar with, and had experienced, the concepts in the training. Others found them foreign.
“You’re always talking about a particular percentage that is willing to move off of their narrative,” Ifill said. “You’re appealing to people who are willing to listen and willing to learn.” In the training, an exercise of “firsts” could serve to highlight the Rorschach that is race in America.
When was the first time you “altered your communication style (dialed it up or down) to avoid playing into stereotypes?” For African-Americans, that is likely so common that it would be difficult to remember a first.
When was the first time you “went to work with your natural hair without comments or questions from others?” For white people, that’s likely always.
One question in the notebook highlights the efforts of its creators to emphasize that this wasn’t about proving someone to be a racist.
“Upon reflection, do you notice ways in which you treat people differently?” the notebook asked. “The point here is not to judge whether that is a good or bad thing, but merely to notice.”
The notebook also offered definitions of what it called “key terms,” such as bias, confirmation bias, inclusion and stereotype.
The definition given for institutional racism could prove upsetting without further context. “The ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups, creating unbalanced advantages for whites along with oppression and disadvantages for people from groups classified as nonwhite,” it read.
Starbucks and the creators of the training say it is not meant to end bias. Rather, it is about getting employees to start grappling with issues of race. In other contexts, like policing, this might mean thinking twice before pulling a weapon on someone. For Starbucks, it might mean a barista’s thinking twice before accusing someone in the store of nefarious behavior.
If nothing else, Starbucks employees may have to think twice because all the publicity surrounding the training could send a message that messing up on race could cost them their job.
Challenge in History and Logistics
“It always seems to me that they’re doing it to save face. It is, to me, too little too late,” said Doug Brandt, who was sitting at a Starbucks cafe in New York with two other men on Tuesday afternoon, several minutes before the store would close. “But it can’t hurt.”
One of the men, De’Monie Jackson, joined in. “It’s not Starbucks that needs the training,” he said. “It’s the police.”
Not even Starbucks pretends that the training will solve systemic racism and abuse. But the company is trying to start a dialogue.
“We also have to recognize that there will be some customers for some reason or another who are having a bad day, and that’s the moment of truth where we have to perform,” Schultz said.
“We as a company are systemically dealing with things that are far, far out of the control of Starbucks as a company or the four walls of our stores,” he said. Putting aside whether a corporation is well equipped to address hundreds of years of racism, Starbucks is also up against a “customer is always right” ethos. And it is putting the burden on employees to rethink their own prejudices to offer better customer service, while doing little to help Starbucks’s nearly half-minority workforce address the bias it may face from customers.
Then there are the more logistical concerns. Brian Nosek, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who was consulted on the training, worried that Starbucks was moving ahead too quickly. Productive sessions, he said, require concrete goals, specific behavioral standards and a clear metric for evaluating performance.
“Training to make a caramel macchiato can be quite effective,” he said. “Training to be unbiased toward your fellow human doesn’t achieve any of those criteria.”