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Black coffee? Sure! Black people occupying Starbucks' "third place"? Hell no!

Why one staff training session won't really help Starbucks get through its ‘racism’ PR crisis.
· PR
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Starbucks’ decision to close all 8,000 US stores for an afternoon to hold "racial-bias" training raises an important question for companies wrestling with how to respond to crises amid racial tension in an era of social media. Can something be a grand gesture that goes above and beyond what many companies would do — yet still not be enough?

All Starbucks company-owned branches and corporate offices will be closed on the afternoon of Tuesday 29 May. Nearly 175,000 staff will receive the training, as will all future recruits.

The training will “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome”, the company reiterated.

While this raises the bar when problems arise in future, the real issue is of course, racial bias — a complex, systemic problem that some observers have said an afternoon of diversity training would do little to change, however well-intentioned or informed it may be.

By examining and confessing our prejudices, the theory goes, we’d all learn how to challenge and overcome them. That would be OK — indeed, it would be great — if we knew that these efforts had the desired effect. But we don’t.

The ambiguity is, in part, baked in to Starbucks’ business model and mission. Far from just selling coffee, Starbucks was conceived by former CEO Howard Schulz as a “third place” between home and work, modelled on Italian cafes where patrons would hang out for hours, conversing or just relaxing. It would be hard to create the sense of community Starbucks is premised on if staff were tasked with forcing everyone in the store to buy a set amount of coffee or cakes.

Instead, such judgments are generally left to store managers or individual store policies. Policies allow managers to exercise their own judgment, but they also, as the Philadelphia incident showed, open a wide lane for Starbucks staff to display their own biases – unconscious or otherwise, racial or otherwise. One sort of person ‘waiting for a friend’ without buying anything may seem innocuous, while another is seen as a threat worthy of a police call.

And everyone is armed with a smartphone today just waiting for a scandal to unravel and a person to misstep in a public place. Is this an Orwellian form of social policing, or a valid check and balance on anti-social and discriminatory behaviour?

Just because many of these events are now being filmed and immediately broadcast around the world, does not mean they are endemic and occurring in every Starbucks location. Not every Starbucks, nor every Starbucks employee, possess the level of mis-judgment exhibited at the Philadelphia store.

In short, people are fallible and large enterprises, notwithstanding their lofty mission and value statements, can be brought to their knees by this fallibility. Especially if reactions to crises are not immediate, sincere and proportionate.

Training for anything is an ongoing process. This, like most company training days will be forgotten within hours if not repeated. Racial bias is a real thing and it deserves real application, but until those ‘unaffected’ take it seriously, actions like this will be viewed as a mere gesture.

Pondering on this “anti-bias training” and how it could play out in the Starbucks classrooms next month:

“So, you know how you sell coffee to white people? Sell it the same way to black people. Any questions?”

“What if a white person didn’t buy any coffee and is refusing to leave?”

“Call the police.”

“And what if a black person is refusing to leave?”

“We don’t cover that till the advanced course…”

My own “anti-bias training” would go something like this:

“We’re all just people. Some of us are just bigger assholes than others. 99% of the time it has nothing to do with incidentals like race or sexuality. Have the same standards for everyone and we won’t have so many problems.”

None of this is to deny that our society is plagued by prejudice and discrimination of every kind. It seems highly likely that the two men at Starbucks were reported to police (while waiting to meet a friend) solely because of their race. And we all know that African Americans continue to be profiled by police.

Of course, we should keep trying to find ways to reduce racism in all our institutions, but we should discard solutions that don’t work, or that make the problem even worse.

If it was truly important to Starbucks, then why did they limit mandatory racial sensitivity training to only the US stores? Is this just a PR crisis playbook strategy by Starbucks to placate the media storm? Will one hour of training move the dial and change the culture – if in fact the culture needs changing?

The whole Starbucks situation brings to the fore a deeper symptom of what many would call a social disease that seems to have plagued a ‘civilised’ world from generation to generation and continues to. No amount of training will fix a biased game if the ones making the rules won’t allow others to be treated in the exact same way as they themselves would like to be.

This article originally appeared in Mumbrella Asia