My Beef With Bias Training

Just when I learned to order my venti-hot-soy-chai-two-extra-pumps-no-foam-no-water in a single breath, Starbucks joins the list of companies I have to boycott because racism. Bad enough that my Sundays are spent football free, now every morning will be an exercise in fuming on all black people are left out of in America–peace, justice, Starbucks single stall bathrooms and lemon loaf.  Unlike the NFL, Starbucks is already hard at work to win back my daily $7.65.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/b1e1ebee-403a-11e8-955b-7d2e19b79966

Starbuck CEO announced in an earnest apology video that they will be closing stores on the afternoon of May 29th to train all of the employees in the whole company with a mandatory “implicit bias and conscious inclusion training”  He describes below that this is the first step in trying to live out their company values.  Ahh, back to chai heaven, right?

Wrong.  While I applaud the company’s willingness to respond and respond big with a company-wide shutdown, I wonder if this reactionary-proactive-action will have the desired result.  As someone that frequently engages in racial dialogues and trainings, I have lots of questions.  The massive scale of this concurrent training sounds grand, but I wonder about how you could effect such a training with consistent results at 8,000 stores in different geographic areas and different local contexts, with thousands of different trainers of varying experience and tens of thousands of people with varying lived experiences and beliefs.  (I picture an army of facilitators armed with lattes and flip charts deployed en mass–but from where? ) And what will they learn?  And if they discover they have implicit bias, will this trigger any work on company policies and practices?  After the training, how will we know if they’ll arrest us if we go there if we don’t go there anymore?

My other question is aimed not at Starbucks alone:  is implicit bias the tool we need to help private companies address racism in their practices and customer interaction?  There can be no doubt that implicit bias training is all the rage these days–and it is an important and eye-opening first step for people unaware that humans carry biases.  When discussing race, it can be a helpful entry point for conversations–we all carry around ideas that we are not in control of, some of which relate to race and dominant cultural ideas about race.  We all have implicit biases– it’s important to know that and think about where we each may have an inclination to shut down or react strongly.

But the thing about implicit bias is that you are not in control of it–it is operating unconsciously, ticking away in your brain with no help from you.    Racism, however, is not something lurking beneath our id waiting to stir our sleepwalking self to acts of discrimination.  Racism is systemic, embedded in principles, practices, policies, and actions of institutions and the individuals who work in them.  People not only have implicit bias BUT ALSO act out on subjective ideas and beliefs about race.  Learned behaviors and attitudes about race are conscious parts of how people interact with each other, how they make decisions–conscious decisions–about how and when to enforce policies.  Acknowledging and taking responsibility for the ways that we reproduce racism in our own environments takes more agency and deeper engagement than acknowledging implicit bias alone.

Implicit bias is one of the few places where we can measure the trace of racism or sexism in the brain. Since implicit bias is data-driven and testable, it appears to be a “more scientific” approach to talking about racism than examining history or acknowledging the political significance of race.  But race is a social construct, and years of social science, political science, and historical research has afforded us deeper, more nuanced and more complete ways of talking about and addressing race.  While implicit bias training is a nice start for an afternoon, it lacks the depth needed to address racism in all its complexity.  Well begun is not half done in this case.  If we really want to go there, Starbucks and our country would be well served to look at the many conscious ways discriminitory practices are enforced, reconcile them with their company values and build a new more equitable relationship with the communities they serve.

When they do, I’ll take a venti soy chai with two extra pumps, no foam, no water, no racism.

Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer. A former professor and youth worker, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot, and writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s