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An Insider’s Account of Starbucks’s Anti-bias Training

The coffee chain closed 8,000 stores for diversity training. But just how effective was it?

I race from my part-time archive position to the Starbucks cafe and drive-thru I’ve worked at since moving to Massachusetts a year ago. I had left a tenure-track job teaching African American History at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Today would not be my normal drink-making shift. All 8,000 stores across the U.S. closed on May 29 at 2:30pm so that Starbucks employees could undergo anti-bias training. Five years of teaching classes that often involved anti-bias training as much as academic history made me feel both excited and trepidatious for this grand Starbucks experiment.

Most media outlets spun this event as Starbucks’s public response to an incident in a Philadelphia cafe in April when the manager called the police when two black businessmen asked to use a restroom before they had made a purchase. When the officers arrived and interrogated them, white bystanders defended them, repeatedly saying that the two men had done nothing to deserve the treatment they had received. Despite these assertions and the gentlemen’s cooperation, the police arrested the men and escorted them out in handcuffs.

Starbucks corporate declared soon after this event that they would hold the anti-bias training. However, despite the media’s portrayal of it as a singular response to a singular event, it became clear to me over the course of the next four hours that the unfortunate incident was not the only impetus. Indeed, the corporation was responding as much to the zeitgeist of a post-Ferguson Trump-era as to the single event.

When I arrived that Tuesday afternoon, I passed a few displaced customers on the patio with drinks and laptops. A shift supervisor unlocked the door for me. Once inside, I quickly scanned the room to get the lay of the land. There were five large newspapers spread across the tables. Notebooks and pens sat at each chair. The other baristas, the four shift supervisors, and the manager were chatting in small groups, making themselves drinks, clocking in, and getting pizza.

Our store is in a strip mall on a highway linking two college towns. Our customers and employees have the limited cultural and socioeconomic diversity of a suburban college town. Many of our baristas reflect the manager’s personality — introverted, awkward, a little queer, and with an undercurrent of dry humor. In addition to the twenty or so white folks, there are a Latina and an African American barista and a Latino shift manager.

Those present cover up the discomfort, unease, and annoyance in the air with laughter. For at least two baristas, the training falls on their one day off in nine back-to-back shifts. One shift manager has been at the store since 7am and will close the store after the training ends at 7pm.

But it’s more than just physical exhaustion driving the discomfort. For several weeks, almost everyone has been joking about the session. Most feel like they don’t need the training and that it will be a waste of four hours. My best friend, a witty, gregarious, personable and anxious young white gay guy, suggested we all just listen to the song “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” from Avenue Q the Musical and go home. He assumed it was just a publicity stunt and looked forward to sabotaging or at least mocking the corporate kumbayaying throughout.

I haven’t been making fun of the training but I haven’t been a whole-hearted supporter either. I wanted to know who would be in charge of planning the training and who would be leading it. A Starbucks press release encouraged me when it said the company would be enlisting the help of the lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson as well as the anti-bias trainers within the NAACP. But would the company send skilled trainers to every cafe to lead what could be a solid curriculum?

Three o’clock comes around and the manager plays the sound of a bell on his phone. He demands silence and asks us to sit in small groups of five without our friends. “Those sitting by their friends will be separated.” I grab the last seat at a full table with two very quiet young women and the shift manager I work with the most — a Latino with exceptional skills and knowledge in science, design, cuisine, and people, yet without a college degree. We invite an outgoing vegan over to make it five.

The manager hands each group an iPad and instructs us to open the large newspaper. I’m struck again by the monumental project Starbucks has set up, creating a curriculum that thousands of employees in different communities and with different backgrounds can understand and learn from. This is not just a gathering of elite CEOs, but every single paid employee.

Each iPad is pre-loaded with 19 videos. Phew, I think, here we go.

Starbucks founder Howard Shultz starts off the first video by reminding us of the “Third Space” he imagined while touring Italy in the eighties. The third space is a place between home and work that can act as a second living room, a place to gather, or a dating spot. He emphasizes how different life is now because the world is more hostile. This is the first of many moments I see him reveal his earnest whiteness — the desire to make a difference, but from a privileged space. The eighties may have been a more innocent time for him, but police brutality and racism are realities that people of color have faced for decades.

Shultz introducing the Third Space signals the first theme of the training: welcome. Our notebooks ask us Where we feel we belong and what can we do to ensure others feel belonging too? One of the shift managers says she feels welcome in places that accept her weirdness and geekiness. It’s the first time a sense of seriousness settles over the group.

Next comes the kumbaya moment my friend was waiting for: a message from the rapper Common on how we all need to see the humanity in each other. I noticed the rapper’s awkward public speaking but didn’t grasp how cheesy he was until my friend said he had to stand on his own foot to keep himself from laughing out loud.

The video directs us to open our notebooks to the next exercise: “Similarities bond us together. YET… Being able to perceive what makes us unique — and different from each other — gives us the gift of seeing each other as full human beings.” The exercise requires us to pair up and find at least twelve ways we are different from our partner. Most people stick to external, non-racial characteristics such as eye color and tattoos, things we like, and places we have lived or traveled to. Throughout the exercise, customers keep coming up to the door. Some see the sign and turn away, but most yank on the handle. It takes me a minute to realize someone is keeping tally. It’ll be a shot of liquor at the after-party for each pull on the handle. Every time I think the mood has turned a bit more serious, another customer appears and someone demands to know the number of shots we’re at.

Only 30 minutes in and we have a 15-minute break. So far things don’t seem promising. I flip through the notebook and see questions I too asked my students in the last few African American history classes I taught, inspired by anti-racist thinker Robin DiAngelo. These questions led to profound conversations about racial identity. But we reached that profundity after a semester of reading, discussions, and trust-building. What will be the reaction to those questions in this setting?

I don’t know what to do with myself during the break. My friend seeks me out while I’m picking up pizza boxes. He wants permission from me — “the racism expert” — to laugh. In the past, in between customers and drinks and food going in the oven, I too expressed skepticism. But today I say it is powerful to me that the CEO chose to put money on the line by closing all 8,000 stores and that the questions in the booklet look promising. “What? You think this is real?” he blurts out.

After the break, and the ice breaking, the videos skip niceties and punch to the center of the discussion. Shultz says, yes, the policy on bathrooms will change. Anyone present in Starbucks is a customer, not just those who buy something. But that change is stated and moved past in a blink of an eye. Instead, today will be about historic and contemporary, personal and systemic racism.

Rosalind Brewer, a black woman and COO of Starbucks leads a discussion on implicit bias with a small group of diverse folks who seem to be executives, managers, and perhaps even an academic. To me, the conversation is exactly what I tried to have with my students and mentees each semester. My students found these conversations profound and something mostly lacking in the other departments on campus. The Starbucks roundtable discussed ideas I wished my faculty colleagues had been more willing to engage with. When a professor is critical of the (also problematic) proposal that recruiting more students of color may not solve the budget crisis because “they” are all in need of financial aid and “they” are all in need of remedial training, does that professor recognize the historical depths out of which they speak? When a manager assumes two black men are not customers and decides to call the police, does she recognize those depths? Starbucks directly and publicly addressed the second question where my prior institution never addressed the first.

Brewer’s videoed conversation was about how our brain has to make snap judgments to function, but that sometimes that leads to problematic decision-making. It introduced one of the themes that came up several times — how to treat homeless customers who used the cafe as more of a home than Shultz’s intended Third Space. One of the speakers, a black manager, explained how he processed his immediate dislike of someone who was dirty, smelled and seemed homeless by reflecting on his own year of homelessness during college. He said that he taught himself to respond with kindness rather than with disdain.

The videos also explain the problem with “colorblind” ideology — not only do we all see differences of skin color and hair texture, but denying that you see those differences can blind you to your own unconscious, perhaps unintended, biased treatment of others. They then introduce a term that’s new to me, arguing that we should be “color brave” not “colorblind.” “We process more unconsciously than consciously. Our brains do this because they must,” the notebook explains in bold, large white letters on green and black pages. “To help us function, our brains take shortcuts,” which results in stereotypes. “The risk is that when we hold negative stereotypes, unconscious bias can arise. When we are under pressure, are short on time [like every day trying to meet the rush of latte and Frappuccino orders] or don’t pay attention, unconscious biases are triggered more easily… We can hold biases about race and age and religion. Gender and sexuality and body type. Ability and mental health and class. And many other attributes.” I think of how one former barista described every drink as “diabetes in a cup,” showcasing his own body issues but also challenging my hard-won self-confidence from within my plus-size body.

Next, we watch a video about black history, which emphasizes the way black people have been excluded from public spaces. I don’t know how others reacted to this, because I was in my own head, fighting back tears. I still find it hard to process the vast changes in my life this past year.

In the next exercise, we tackled the questions that had reminded me of DiAngelo. Among the seven questions is one that prompts us to write about the first time we remember noticing our racial identity. DiAngelo recommended similar questions to me when I reached out for advice about teaching majority white students. Using her directions, I had asked students to write their answers anonymously on the first day of class and seal them in an envelope. On the last day of class, we opened the envelope and each student read someone else’s answers without commenting. Afterward we asked what they noticed. Everyone commented on how many white students had talked about being colorblind as a positive attribute and how they now realized the problems with that ideology. We also noticed that students of color often mentioned positive elements of their racial identity as well as negative.

But here we were two hours in and with no one to lead the discussion. The manager told us to talk through our answers and I quickly spoke up and pointed out that the instructions said that we did not need to reveal our answers but simply discuss how the questions and our answers “made us feel.” That’s as close as I could get to that discussion I’d led elsewhere.

In addition, the notebook asked us the following question: “Imagine you are meeting two different people for the first time. One of them is of your race, and the other is of a different race. Without thinking too much, select the level of difficulty that reflects how you might react in each instance.” After quietly writing, the Latino shift manager I’m sitting next to asks, “But why would I ever talk to a stranger about race?? Actually, why are we even talking about it today?” I reply with a gentle tone, “Because you and [the Latina barista] get pulled over by the cops coming to or leaving work and I don’t. Or when [a white shift manager] told a story of recently getting pulled over, she said she never gets more than a warning because of her charming smile.” “But why,” he said, “would I speak to someone of a different race any differently than someone else?” “But didn’t you grow up in Florida?” I asked him, “Where you had a diverse group of friends from youth? That’s an unusual experience for most people. Most childhoods don’t prepare people to interact with all types of folks in a similar way like you can do.” He nodded in increasing recognition. The others at the table listened but stayed silent.

The next video, the documentary You’re Welcome directed by Stanley Nelson and commissioned by Starbucks, was the one that provoked the greatest response. It started with a white man saying he doesn’t have to think of anything before he walks out the door. He just walks out. Then a black man describes his everyday routine. How he dresses, how he holds his body, where he puts his hands — each thing has to be controlled to reduce strangers’ fear of him. The white vegan sitting next to me said she just couldn’t believe everything black people had to think through on a daily basis. She had no idea.

While Nelson’s film commanded the greatest empathy, most baristas found the final activity most engaging. We listening to a wide variety of Starbucks partners share examples of complicated situations they had encountered and how they responded. We then discussed what it was about their response that worked and what didn’t. Interestingly, Starbucks corporate never provided the answers it expected of us.

One story that I was amazed to hear included was that of a manager who insisted on giving the “pink” bathroom key to a person who had requested the men’s restroom key. After the customer explained that he identified as a man and wanted the men’s restroom key, the manager apologized and somewhat reluctantly handed it to him. But when the customer tried to access the bathroom, the building security refused to let him use it. He came back into Starbucks and made a very verbal complaint. Many of the baristas at my store got stuck on the idea that anyone would care whether they got the men’s or women’s key for a single stall bathroom. Our manager, despite past behavior I’ve found tinged with misogyny and other biases, was the only one able to suggest what the manager with the bathroom keys ought to have done, i.e. escorted the customer back to the bathroom and explained to security that he was allowed to use whichever bathroom he wanted to.

Our final activity was to figure out what to tell customers the next day. One young white woman at my table who had spent most of the videos trying to catch the eye of someone behind me said she would say she had learned how to make everyone feel welcome.

The response that I found most interesting was by a young white man. He is by far the most difficult individual to work with in our store. He badly wants to be liked by everyone but struggles to read body language. In particular, he does not deal well with people who ask him to step back and leave them alone (whether through body language or through very direct speech). He has had at least one formal complaint of sexual harassment and most all the women and some of the men have shared feeling harassed.

He was, however, the barista who engaged most verbally with the whole curriculum. The next day, he told customers that he had learned a lot by walking through specific situations and being given concrete ways to respond. During the activities, he was also the only one to describe a situation he had been in and asked if he might have been perceived as biased. Unfortunately, he focused on how he had been received rather than figuring out if he had acted on his implicit bias. The next day he took a right turn, insisting that he had never been biased, nor could he imagine anyone in our store had ever intended to be, but that the information learned would surely be very valuable for other places. A customer of what I presumed was South Asian descent agreed with him. This area was diverse enough to not have problems, but other places must.

And so the attempt was monumental. A vast corporation decided to stand up against racism and the implicit biases that can fuel our prejudices against others. The type of implicit biases that result in white people calling the police when two black businessmen try to use the bathroom or have a family BBQ or a pool party. Did it make a difference? I am unsure. What is clear is that there is much more work to be done.

Lauren L. Anderson currently resides in Northampton, MA with her wife, Bob the dog, and Penny the cat. She is an artist, writer, and barista and has a Ph.D. in history. Twitter: @LAWhims_Whimsy 

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