“To be welcomed as a customer means that not only do I allow you in, but it means that I’m glad you’re here, I want to serve you, I want your business. And I don’t draw distinctions between you and other customers in terms of your value. But it’s time we talk about what it means to not be welcomed as an American citizen.” –Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
On Tuesday afternoon, over 175,000 Starbucks employees nationwide were asked to do just that—wrestle with the issue over who is made to feel welcome in this country. The coffee giant closed 8,000 stores in an unprecedented shutdown to hold a mandatory four-hour racial-bias training session. It was scheduled in response to a racial-profiling incident in Philadelphia when a white store manager called the police on two black customers who simply wanted to wait for their friend to arrive before ordering. It was a public relations nightmare for a brand that proudly calls itself The Third Place, that safe space next to home and work where everyone belongs.
When the doors closed on Tuesday, employees settled into small self-guided sessions anchored by a curriculum that Starbucks has since posted in full on its website. Folks broke out into one-on-one or small group conversations in which they were prompted with open-ended conversation starters:
- When did you first become aware of your racial identity?
- How do you choose to alter your communication style to avoid playing into stereotypes?
- Describe moments you’ve found yourself treating someone differently because of their race or dress or sexual orientation.
“It was surprisingly productive and I thought the information was carefully prepared and thoughtfully distributed,” says Erin Martysz, a white barista at an Escondido, CA store. “Overall I think everyone benefitted.”
“Honestly it was a painful day for many of us”
Of course, the materials were intended more for educating those employees who walk freer of discrimination’s shadow. Cordell Lewis, the store manager at the Ferguson, Missouri Starbucks, says his young largely African-American staff didn’t much appreciate being told they needed to attend a training session on racial bias. “They’re like ‘We live this every day,'” says Lewis, who is biracial. The store in Ferguson was opened two years ago, in the wake of the riots over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, as part of an initiative to expand the chain to underserved communities.
But Lewis and his team of 18 employees gathered around the two iPads that Starbucks supplied every store, and listened to the same audio clips of employees admitting to embarrassing moments in which they engaged in bias: A barista accuses a disheveled-looking man of panhandling in her store when he’s in fact asking his wife for money; an employee hides the tip jar when a group of young black men enter the store for fear of them taking it only to then be tipped by one of them.
“None of my employees could relate,” says Lewis with a tired-sounding laugh. “They were like ‘This really happens? People behave like this?’ Honestly it was a painful day for many of us.”
The afternoon curriculum was anchored by an eight-minute documentary, Access to Public Spaces in America, by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders), who was first approached by Ifill (whose above words appear in the film) to team up with Starbucks three weeks ago.
“I felt from the beginning that Starbucks closing down its doors was more than most people were doing,” he says. Nelson was given leeway to make a film that transcended the Starbucks moment. He conducted over 45 interviews in New York City, mostly with African Americans like the young man who says “I feel like I’m disturbing people by just being there. Like, people feel uncomfortable when I walk in.”
Nelson thinks the shutdown was about something deeper than Starbucks simply trying to heal their touchy-feely Third Place image. “I don’t think it will stop racism, them closing their stores for four hours. But I think it was an honest try. They got a conversation going and maybe that’s the best they can do. It won’t change the world but if it got anybody thinking ‘Wow, there are these different lives that we each are leading,’ then that’s something.”
At a Starbucks in Austin, Texas on Wednesday morning after the shut-down, two black customers who are IT specialists from Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast doctored their coffees with sugar while wondering aloud how much money Starbucks must have lost shuttering its doors. They guessed every store pulled in roughly a $1,000 a day and they Googled there were 13,000 stores (though they factored in license-owned stores like those in airports and hotels, which didn’t participate in the training). One cross-checked his back-of-the-napkin estimate with the cashier, who said she heard it was around $12 million. “Our algorithm worked!” he said, high-fiving his friend.
Outside, the men, who declined to provide their last names, said they had little hope that the anti-bias training would amount to anything in the end. “This is the political atmosphere today, how people interact with each other,” said Tadesse, from Ethiopia. “It is beyond the scope of Starbucks.”
His friend Alassane agreed. “This will happen again. If it doesn’t happen in Starbucks it will happen in Target or Walmart or a hospital or a hotel.” They smiled sadly and looked tired and left for work with their coffees.