race and space

Too Many Clouds in the Coffee

On May 29, 2018, Starbucks closed its doors to train its staff about dealing with race in present times. On one hand, understanding that they had a problem is admirable, and it really is fascinating to see one of the largest companies in the world. On the other hand, it fell flat, and it fell flat because most people are unprepared to deal with the complex topic of race as it relates to space in the United States. The biggest challenge is understanding that everyone has a right to exist, and if one company claims to be a combination of public and private space, the owners must recognize how space has been claimed in this country.

First, too much of the training was about interpersonal interactions and not about business interactions. However one is with friends is quite different to how people behave in a business relationship. The perception of money or lack thereof is one of the main reasons for initial marginalization, and refusing to understand that all kinds of people have money is what drives incidences like the one in Philadelphia. In the minds of the manager, the Black men had no money and were taking advantage of the business; she never stopped to think that they might be meeting a potential business partner or study buddy, as many middle to upper class people do with wild abandoned. Throughout the training, there was very little reference to how to behave professionally despite any insecurities one might have.

Secondly, there was no discussion of the demographics of where a Starbucks store might be located, because knowledge of who is going to be there is crucial to reducing bias. The manager’s behavior was ridiculous because the store was located in Philadelphia, a city that is known as a relatively safe place for Black people. If a store is located anywhere near a large Latinx population, that is crucial because the manager would need to be prepared to escort people out who threaten to call ICE on Spanish speakers. Actually knowing who is in a neighborhood would have helped acclimate staff to their professional reality. Making a carbon copy of racial training makes it difficult to develop any intimacy with staff’s location, so the incident will mostly likely reoccur because of the lack of discussion on demographics.

Finally, there were no direct instructions on what to do to combat such behavior. Being in a popularly-branded location means that more people will come there than to other locations. Maybe instead of telling everyone to relax–which has been unhelpful for many people–there were no instructions to go to places where one might feel uncomfortable and stay there for the duration of a shift. All Starbucks are connected by the company, therefore, there should be more of a rotation in locations where people should report to work. If someone was located at a Starbucks near a university but then had to report to a Starbucks in a gentrifying neighborhood the next day, that person would get used to see large populations of “other” instead of being insulated by one location.

The people of color in the videos and in the training did their jobs, but the training was still unsuccessful because no changes in structure were announced. No real palpable evolution can be had through a workbook; the infrastructure creating systemic oppression is too great. If Starbucks ever does this again, it would be better spent training employees to respond professionally regardless of who is being addressed, and to not use the police as its personal security guard. Being around different people changes minds, not being held captive in training.

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