Of course, the decision to call the police on the two Black guys sitting and waiting at a Starbucks for a business meeting was an example of unconscious bias. Seeing them sitting there, wanting to use the restroom, and not buying any food or drink made them seem suspicious. Sitting while Black, I mean. That’s what was suspicious. I, a White woman, have sat in Starbucks (often with my Chai Tea, but sometimes not), and I haven’t appeared suspicious. At least I wasn’t confronted by the police for my “questionable” behavior.
Some decisions have a greater impact than others. All day long in a Starbucks, or any of our workplaces, there are hundreds of decisions made that impact the lived experiences of employees. Some more consequential than others. Who you smile towards, who you take time to greet, who gets your undivided attention and who doesn’t, who gets to sit at the table in the meeting, and who looks for seating around the outer edge. Who you allow to stay in your restaurant, who gets escorted to the door, and a myriad more.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s statement about providing unconscious bias training to all the stores to both protect the brand and take advantage of the moment to cause a shift in consciousness is a great idea and an important step, but not one that will solve the larger societal issues that are behind this kind of decision making.
We are growing increasingly polarized and separate in our lives, making both conscious and unconscious decisions to surround ourselves with people with similar values and perspectives. Of course, this separation reduces our ability to be thoughtful in the above situations, because we’re not patterned towards positive engagement across difference.
Paradoxically, our workplaces are becoming the most diverse places we encounter and we are forced to work across difference. This, therefore, presents a huge opportunity. If all Starbucks employees develop the skills to identify their mental models, invite vulnerability as they explore how their background shapes how they see and engage the world, and construct some strategies for staying conscious as they identify the hundreds of decisions they make every day, the effects of that work will ripple out into our greater society
Exploring our biases in our workplaces can be rich and meaningful. But more importantly, it can allow us to be better colleagues and citizens, helping to shape the future we want our children to inherit.