This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a cell phone shop in my local mall. One summer afternoon, while my manager and I were working on a mid-shift sales report, a young Black man dressed in slacks and a too-large blazer came into the store and asked if we were hiring. We were; my manager was interviewing an average of two people a day in the food court. But as my white manager looked up at the young Black man in front of him, his eyes lingered for a moment on the man’s cornrows before saying “Not now, but I’ll take your resume.”
The young man handed over a sheaf from the stack of resumes he was carrying, and thanked my manager. As he turned his back to leave, my manager took a pen from his shirt pocket and marked the numbers “110” in the corner of the resume. When I later asked what “110” meant, my manager drew a diagonal line between the two ones, changing the three-digit code to the word “NO.” Nothing more needed to be said between us. The company we worked for took pride in its “commitment to diversity,” which was painstakingly outlined in the employment contract both my manager and I had signed, and heavily implied in its television and print marketing.
But despite all of that, I’d just watched my white manager profile a Black youth out of a job.
This past week, the world caught a glimpse of what happens when companies with supposedly progressive values are undermined by the actions of staff who, whether they realize it or not, are guided by their perceptions of race. A 911 call by a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia, prompted by two Black men waiting for a friend without having made a purchase, led to those men being handcuffed and arrested. Another patron captured the video of the men being marched out of the shop in silence while their friend, a white man, protested the “ridiculous” arrest. For white viewers, the treatment of those men might have come as a shock. But for Black viewers across America (and the western world), it was only the latest incident showing that corporate affirmations mean nothing when the organization is not prepared to deal with the realities of racism.
Three years ago, Starbucks caused a massive uproar with its “Race Together” promotion –a program whereby former CEO Howard Schultz hoped to jumpstart a national dialogue on race. But the immediate backlash against the program, led by Black writers, journalists, and activists on Twitter, led to its cancellation a week later. Plenty of postmortems were written about the reasons for the program’s cancellation, but the most damning of them was the optics of a white male CEO attempting to lead a conversation on race, when only two of its 19 executives at the time were Black. The incident in Philadelphia (as well as another incident whereby a Black patron was allegedly denied access to the bathroom) aptly demonstrated the work Starbucks needed to do to get its own house in order.
Starbucks is far from the only company, priding itself on a progressive image, to have that image tarnished by its rank and file. Applebee’s, the family restaurant that gambled for years on a millenial-friendly rebranding, wound up apologizing after a manager in Independence, MO, racially profiled three customers and had them removed by police. H&M, the world’s largest fashion retailer, was forced to apologize after releasing an ad in which a Black child wore a hoodie with the phrase “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” And Tesla, perhaps the company that has done more than any other to add a touch of cool to environmental sustainability, is currently being sued by two Black employees who allege they faced ongoing racial abuse at its factory in Fremont, California.
The widespread backlash to the Philadelphia incident resulted in a face-to-face apology from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to the two men who were arrested, as well as a call by Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer to provide unconscious bias training to store managers. It’s certainly a good start, but anti-bias training can encounter resistance from employees and sometimes harden discriminatory beliefs. At the root of the problem is the fact that, for too many white people, racism is a matter of misunderstanding, while for the rest of us, it can cost us our livelihoods, if not our lives. Those men weren’t simply marched out of a Starbucks restaurant; they were photographed, fingerprinted, and added to a police database. And given the decades-long epidemic of police shootings of unarmed Black people, a simple 911 call from a store manager could have held fatal consequences for those men.
In 2016, poet and essayist Claudia Rankine won the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious Genius Grant for her book Citizen: An American Lyric. One of the book’s poems was dedicated to Jordan Davis, who was killed by Michael David Dunn for the crime of playing music too loud at a gas station. The poem reads:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Rankine’s poem encapsulates not only a problem with vigilantism and police brutality, but a problem that corporate retailers have yet to take seriously. Without adequately training their employees to work with multicultural clientele and co-workers, and without enforcing zero-tolerance policies for racialized harassment and discrimination, Starbucks will be far from the last company to have its image tarnished by its white employees’ inability to police their imaginations where the Black body is concerned.
Andray Domise is a Toronto area writer, activist, and Communications Co-Chair for the Black Business and Professionals Association.