Weighing in on Starbucks' unconscious bias training

Weighing In on Starbucks

It’s been an especially busy week for the topic of unconscious bias and the training for which Starbucks closed approximately 8,000 company-owned stores across the United States. There have been different terms used to describe this training for up to approximately 175,000 employees, and I’m sure some people confused about what this ‘unconscious bias thing’ is all about. How is this different from ‘implicit bias’ which has been used a lot, along with racial bias and stereotypes?

Overcoming Our Biases?

I’ve also heard phrases like the need to ‘overcome one’s biases’ and that ‘racism is based in the heart.’ The first statement implies that we can ‘get over’ our biases – like we get over the flu or a cold. Unfortunately, our brains don’t work that way. Stereotypes and prejudices are taught, usually in our formative years, not ‘caught’ like a cold. I remember learning the term ‘tabula rasa” back in the 1970s that says that all of us are born with a ‘blank slate.’ We aren’t born biased.

A young child sees a person in a wheelchair in the grocery store and innocently asks why she or he can’t walk? A pre-school child sees a white mom with a black child and says, “They don’t match.” In her three years of experience, both parents and their children have been Black or everyone in the family is White. How parents respond in these situations is how young children form their first data points about differences.

Becoming Aware

The things that we learn from many different sources about a wide range of people, places and things are permanently stored in the database of our brains. Unlike other databases, we can’t delete these files. We can’t wipe the slate clean. At best, we can do the necessary work to become aware of the stereotypes that we’ve learned so that we can recognize these thoughts and manage how we react and respond. Managing how we react in situations reflects our increased awareness. Managing how we respond reflects the additional work that we’ve done to move from awareness to cultural competence.

I believe that the vast majority of people are good-hearted and well-intentioned – and have not had the opportunity to learn about unconscious biases. Given that many of us learn stereotypes when we’re growing up and internalize them to some degree ‘unconsciously,’ we’re unable to proactively manage them.

Implicit bias refers to the stereotypes that we’ve internalized to some degree that then affect our actions in an unconscious manner.

Not All Bias is Conscious

Most of us didn’t have the opportunity to talk with the Starbucks Philadelphia store manager whose 911 call led to the arrest of two African-American men. In the absence of any conversation with this employee (which is protected by employment laws), none of us can state as a matter of fact that ‘racism resides in her heart.”

Here is just one of hundreds of stories that I’ve heard doing awareness training for more than four decades. A white female participant shared a story about a black couple who joining their church upon moving into the community – a first for this congregation. The white couple reached out to the black couple to welcome them, further demonstrating their good-hearted nature by inviting this couple into their home.

She said they invited the black couple several times into their home and sort of wondered why the black couple never reciprocated by inviting them into their home. Yet, she said that she and her husband had learned so much about black people through this relationship which was more important than being invited to their home. As the facilitators for this session, I asked “What kinds of things did you learn from developing this relationship?”

Her response was a litany of negative stereotypes about Blacks. Not at all what I expected to hear – because she and her husband had demonstrated that they were good-hearted people by invited a black couple they barely knew into their home. She didn’t have a racist heart. She was simply another white individual with no awareness of the stereotypes she’d learned in the process of growing up – being constantly bombarded with negative images about African-Americans. I ‘gently’ gave her a ‘new’ mirror to look in that probably explained why she and her husband had never been invited into the black couple’s home.

There have been different opinions about whether this training should have been mandatory, rather than optional for Starbucks’ employees, and whether three hours of training reflects a meaningful commitment or merely a strategic public relations move.

My take on Starbucks approach is:

  • Their commitment to close 8,000 stores and provide training for up to 175,000 employees within 4-5 weeks of the incident demonstrated a significant commitment from the top (with estimated costs for closing these stores at $12 million).
  • They assembled an advisory team of high-profile individuals from the Black community who acknowledged that while they don’t have expertise in unconscious bias, they understand the key steps necessary to affect positive change.
  • There appears to be broad-based understanding that this was just the first step in a long-term journey rather than a ‘one and done’ activity.
  • If other types of training, like safety, customer service, or quality are mandatory in an organization because it’s viewed as critical for their success, then unconscious bias training should be treated in the same way.

I hope the training focuses on how to connect with diverse customers rather than a laundry list of what NOT to say or do when interacting with African-Americans or those from other racial/ethnic groups. A laundry list usually ends up causing people to avoid interaction because they don’t want to make a mistake, and they’ve been given too much information to remember about all these different groups.

Finally, I cannot escape the irony that was pointed out by Anthony Stanford in ChicagoTribune.com who wrote: During the civil rights movement in the 1950s, blacks were spat on and arrested for trying to order coffee at a Southern lunch counter. How far have we come since those shameful days? In the America of 2018, two black men were just humiliated and arrested for not ordering a cup of coffee.”

Patricia C. Pope is CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Pope & Associates. She is a recognized subject matter expert with over four decades of knowledge and experience in diversity, inclusion, and culture change. She serves as the lead consultant on many of our client engagements and has primary responsibility for Research & Development. Her passion is creating new assessments/measurement tools, new learning content and training solutions, and innovative ways to build inclusive cultures.