Starbucks' racial bias training is unsettling

Starbucks will close 8,000 of its stores to implement racial bias training for its employees to improve customer experience. (credit: Courtesy of Joseph Cerulli via Flickr Wikimedia) Starbucks will close 8,000 of its stores to implement racial bias training for its employees to improve customer experience. (credit: Courtesy of Joseph Cerulli via Flickr Wikimedia)
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On May 29, Starbucks will close 8,000 of its stores for “racial bias training.” Yes, it’s 2018 and, yes, this is an actual headline that has graced the covers of various news outlets over the past week.

The incident that sparked this action occurred in a Philadelphia Starbucks restaurant where two black men sat at a table without purchasing anything. While the two men, who were real estate agents, were waiting for a third party to arrive for a business meeting, they were approached by police officers who arrested them and escorted them off the premises. The store’s manager, feeling uncomfortable, had called 911 and reported that there were “two gentlemen in the café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” The crime? “Trespassing and creating a disturbance.”

In an interview with Good Morning America, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, recounted that the manager never approached them about her concerns before the police arrived. Jamie Riley, a Starbucks spokesperson, told The Washington Post that the store’s official policy was that non-paying customers must first be asked to leave the store before police intervention would be necessary.

“In this situation,” Riley said, “the police should never have been called. And we know we have to review the practices and guidelines to help ensure it never happens again.”

Not too long after the incident made headlines, another video surfaced where a black man who was denied access to the Starbucks restroom for not making a purchase, approached a white customer as he was leaving the restroom who, despite not having made a purchase himself, was granted access.

“What did I do? I just tried to use the bathroom like you did,” he said to the man. “Is it my skin color?” he repeatedly asked.

Though these stories shocked many, even prompting the hashtag #boycottstarbucks on Twitter, many black Americans, including myself, saw it as another case of racial bias coming to light in 21st century America. Implicit bias in itself is a natural psychological function that allows humans to react faster in making connections. However natural, when connected to divisions between humans such as gender, sexual orientation, or race, it is a clear problem, one whose reaches and its pervasiveness to this day still continues to be shocking.

Implicit bias towards African-Americans is a historical issue. On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, it’s unsettling to see just how much progress this country has yet to make. For example, in 1960, four black students famously sat down at the F. W. Woolworth’s lunch counter. The difference in their case was that there was no hidden bias, they knew exactly what reactions they would have to face. “We don’t serve Negroes here,” they were told. Though they were well-dressed and polite to their waiter, they were still denied service and taunted by customers who called them derogatory names and poured drinks on their heads. Fittingly, images of this incident have resurfaced in response to the Starbucks ordeal that Nelson and Robinson encountered. Though they were well-dressed and by all accounts not disruptive, they were treated uncivilly, a response that would've been undoubtedly different were it not for the color of their skin and the implicit bias attached to it.

"The Starbucks situation provides dangerous insight regarding the failure of our nation to take implicit bias seriously," said National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) president and CEO Derrick Johnson in a statement. "We refuse to believe that our unconscious bias — the racism we are often unaware of — can and does make its way into our actions and policies."

In response to the incident, Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, stated, “I’ve spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it. While this is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being a part of the solution. Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

While I commend Starbucks for taking the initiative to tackle this issue (but let's be real, anything less would've been scrutinized by the media), I find it unsettling that this is a policy that its employees didn't feel like they had to abide by before: treating people with respect.

Though it has not been disclosed how the training will be conducted, it has been revealed that it will “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome."

Will it work? Comparing the 1960 sit in to today doesn’t leave me hopeful, bias always seems to be lurking.