'I'm Not Aware Of That': Starbucks Employees Receive Racial Bias Training

May 29, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 7:25 pm

A viral video sparked outrage over the inappropriate arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks last month.

Now, the company is responding with videos of its own as part of the four-hour training session it rolled out for employees across the country on Tuesday.

For the training, Starbucks commissioned a short film by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson about race in America. There's a moment when a black man faces the camera and talks about his own experiences being profiled in retail establishments.

"I have to make sure that my hands are visible when I walk into certain places, so they make sure I'm not stealing," the man says. "I watch my tone to make sure I don't come off as threatening. Just leaving the house some days, it's enough to just keep you at home. Just keep you away from everything."

After watching the video and others on racial anxiety and implicit bias, the employees talked with each other about their own reactions and experiences.

"That made me just go 'wow, that's heavy.' And that's a lot to carry around," said Carrie Teeter, who manages a dozen Starbucks stores near Columbus Circle in Manhattan. She was one of the first Starbucks employees to participate in the training today in Brooklyn.

"It first made me sad, and then it made me realize I'm not aware of that," she continued. "And I don't realize what impact that has on you, to constantly be feeling that way."

Her African-American colleague Les Fable was not as surprised. He says he had similar experiences of being profiled growing up in Brooklyn.

"You know, I have a 12-year-old son," he says. "And to look at those young men have those same experiences, it's like wait, maybe I need to have that conversation today."

Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores for the training on how to combat racial bias.

The controversy was sparked by a video that showed two black men being led out of a Starbucks in handcuffs after a white manager called the police.

The company quickly apologize for the incident, which it called "reprehensible." Starbucks reached an undisclosed settlement with the men who were arrested, and offered them a free college education.

The woman who managed that store no longer works for the company.

The training was voluntary. But all employees were "invited and encouraged" to attend.

"I don't know of another company in the history of American business that's done anything remotely close to this," said Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. He has talked about this moment as a "transformation" for Starbucks.

But people who study racial bias say that's asking a lot.

"Training virtually never has any effect on people's bias," says Frank Dobbin, who teaches sociology at Harvard University. "And it's partly because bias is based on a lifetime of experiences with the media, and with real life."

Dobbin says any benefits tend be short-lived. What works better, he says, is more diverse hiring at the management level.

Even the designers of the curriculum acknowledged its limitations.

"We actually shy away from the word 'training' altogether, because it's not quite possible to retrain our brains within a four-hour period," said Alexis McGill Johnson, co-founder of the Perception Institute, which helped design the sessions for Starbucks. She said the goal is to create "more awareness of how bias works," and to give Starbucks employees tools to apply that awareness on the job.

Starbucks executives stressed that today's store closing is just a first step. There are plans for more employee training, and outsider advisers are looking at other steps the company can take.

One of those advisers, former Attorney General Eric Holder, says that in some ways it's "disheartening" that these conversations still need to happen.

"But when a company is willing to put the hard issues before us," he says, "I think those kinds of companies should be supported, should be applauded."

Starbucks is making all of its training materials available for free Wednesday to anyone who wants to see them.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores today to give employees training on how to combat racial bias. The move is prompted by that inappropriate arrest last month of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The company quickly apologized and called the incident reprehensible. And today it rolled out four-hour training sessions for employees across the country. NPR's Joel Rose got a look.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was a cellphone video that sparked the controversy. It shows two black men being led out of a Starbucks in handcuffs after a white manager called the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But what did they do? What did they do?

ROSE: And video is a big part of the company's response. Starbucks commissioned a short film by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson about race in America. There's a moment when a black man faces the camera and talks about his own experiences being profiled in retail establishments.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "YOU'RE WELCOME")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, I have to make sure that my hands are visible when I walk into certain places so they make sure I don't - I'm not stealing. I watch my tone to make sure that I don't come off as threatening. Just leaving the house some days - you know, it's - sometimes it'll just keep you at home.

CARRIE TEETER: That made me just go, wow, that's heavy. And that's a lot to carry around.

ROSE: Carrie Teeter is a Starbucks district manager in Manhattan. She was one of the first company employees to get the training today in Brooklyn.

TEETER: First it made me sad, and then it made me realize, I'm not aware of that. And I don't realize what impact that has on you to constantly be feeling that way.

ROSE: Her colleague Les Fable (ph) was not as surprised. Fable, who is African-American, says he had similar experiences of being profiled growing up in Brooklyn.

LES FABLE: You know, I have a 12-year-old son, and we've never had that conversation. And to look at those young men have the same, you know, experiences is like, wait; maybe I need to have that conversation today.

ROSE: Hundreds of thousands of Starbucks employees are watching Nelson's film and a series of other videos that tackle thorny topics like racial anxiety and implicit bias. Then the employees talk with each other about their own reactions and experiences. The training was voluntary, but all employees were invited and encouraged to attend. Howard Schultz is Starbucks' chairman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD SCHULTZ: I don't know of another company in the history of American business that's done anything remotely close to this.

ROSE: Schultz has talked about this moment as a transformation for Starbucks. But people who study racial bias say that's asking a lot. Frank Dobbin teaches sociology at Harvard.

FRANK DOBBIN: Training virtually never has any effect on pupils' bias. And it's partly because bias is based on a lifetime of experiences with the media and also experiences with real life.

ROSE: Dobbin says the benefits of training tend to be short-lived. What works better, he says, is more diverse hiring at the management level. But Starbucks executives today stressed that this is just the first step. There are plans for more employee training. And outside advisers are looking at other steps the company can take. Former Attorney General Eric Holder is one of them.

ERIC HOLDER: In some ways, it's disheartening that we're still having these conversations. But when a company is willing to put the hard issues before us, I think those kinds of companies should be supported, should be applauded.

ROSE: Starbucks is making all of its training materials available for free tomorrow to anyone who wants to see them. The company reached an undisclosed settlement with the men who were arrested in Philadelphia. The woman who managed that store no longer works for the company. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLR'S "SANYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.