Image courtesy Starbucks

what is racial bias training and does it actually help stop racists being racist

As Starbucks announce they will close stores for implicit bias training (after a manager called the police on two black men just sitting down), we take a look at the content of the training and what it can achieve.

by Charlotte Gush
19 April 2018, 10:42am

Image courtesy Starbucks

No one thinks they’re racist, other than a few neo-Nazi alt-righters who will proudly proclaim their festering prejudice as if it’s a badge of honour. Even most of those racists will trumpet the discredited research of pseudoscience charlatans in order to justify their views, rather than admit to straight-up hate (which is what their racism really is). But outside of these committed hate-mongers, most ‘normal’ people don’t think they hate people of colour, even unconsciously. Which is a fallacy that racial or ‘implicit’ bias training seeks to illuminate.

Here’s a cold, hard fact: you are somewhere on the spectrum of racial hate, aka a bit racist. So am I. We all are, because society, our systems, and our institutions have been proven time and time and time again to be racist. That’s what people mean when they say racism is systemic and institutional. And we all grew up inside that system, and were taught its racism in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. I knew this because I read research on it when I studied politics at uni, but it didn’t quite hit me in the gut until a psychology student I knew sent me a link to the ‘black doll white doll’ study, in which young black children easily identify the white doll as the “nice doll” and the black doll as the doll that “looks bad”, as well as being the doll that looks like them. If these little black kids are unconsciously racist against black skin, you can surely see that -- growing up under the same systems, structures, institutions and cultures as them -- you are too.

Now that’s out of the way, and we can all accept that we have been taught to be racist -- and have a lot work to do to deprogramme ourselves to combat the effects of that -- we can consider some recent examples of how this unconscious, automatic racism can play out in the real world. At a Starbucks in Philadelphia last Thursday, two black men were arrested -- handcuffed and escorted off the premises by police -- for sitting at a table and waiting for a third person to join their meeting about real estate before making their order. They were in the store for less than 15 minutes, and a number of bystanders can be heard in a video telling the police that the men had done nothing wrong. After this story broke, another person who experienced a very similar issue in Starbucks, Brandon Ward, reposted a video he took in January. Brandon can be seen asking a white patron, called Westin, who had just used the bathroom, whether he had made a purchase before he was given the toilet door code, because Brandon had been refused it. Westin had not yet made a purchase, but was given the code; Brandon had not yet made a purchase, but was denied the code. "There should have been a sign right there that says ‘Whites Only’, because that's how they treated it," Brandon told CBS.

After the arrest of the two men in Philadelphia, Starbucks obviously had to address the issue of racist behaviour in their stores. Initially, Starbucks CEO issued a statement calling the incident a “disheartening situation” with a “reprehensible outcome”, promising that staff would be given further training about what actually warrants calling the police. Now, they have decided to take the somewhat more appropriate measure of closing every single store in the US for a half day on 29 May for racial bias training. “While this [issue] is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being a part of the solution,” Kevin Johnson said in a video. “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

So, what is racial bias training? There isn’t actually a simple answer I’m afraid, and it may be more useful to be clear about what it is not. It is not an attempt to eradicate unconscious bias, because that is likely not possible. As the New York Times has noted, trying to do so “would be like trying to convince someone with an instinctive dislike for Abstract Expressionism that it was worthwhile”. These biases are learnt over our whole lives and are deeply ingrained in insidious ways. Instead, the training seeks to make people aware that these biases exist in every one of us, in a non-confrontational way that allows trainees to not feel attacked, so they can consider how these biases play out in life, and they can work to notice and avoid acting on them. “The point is to decouple the bias from the behaviour,” Dr Phillip Atiba Goff told the newspaper.

So presumably the Starbucks training will aim to note how unconscious racial bias encouraged the Philadelphia store manager to think two black men sitting and waiting for their friend before ordering coffee was an issue they needed police assistance with, with the aim that if a similar situation crops up again, the staff would know to check their bias, and not act in such a racist way. But there is no standardised implicit bias training, so Starbucks have put together a crack team of “national and local experts [in] confronting racial bias” to develop a curriculum for their half-day of training. (They really want to get it right, because closing all the US stores is predicted to cost them $20m in lost sales.) Those people include the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Demos president Heather McGhee, former US Attorney General Eric Holder, and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. Importantly, Starbucks’ statement adds that they “will involve these experts in monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures we undertake”.

"The bottom line is we don't know how to change the biases in a meaningful, lasting way, because they're the way we think normally” -- Prof. Jack Glaser, University of California, Berkeley

That’s important because the effectiveness of implicit bias training is hotly contested. As I’ve said, there is no standardised curriculum, and much more research is needed. As Calvin Lai, Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Daily Beast, “I can name all the rigorous experiments [on implicit bias training] on one hand.” One of the most cited examples is the ‘Chicago model’ of training for police, which was promoted after the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer sparked furious protests in Ferguson, to improve relations between the community and police. The training, delivered by the Anti-Defamation League, aims to train police to, “Understand key implicit bias concepts and recognise their relevance to contemporary policing practices; Learn skills and strategies to minimise and address job-related challenges involving implicit and explicit bias; Utilise effective interpersonal approaches to foster positive interactions with community members.” This pilot has been expanded to a number of other areas.

However, not everyone agrees that the Chicago pilot should be expanded. Writing for the non-profit criminal justice platform The Marshall Project, staff writer and diversity chair Simone Weichselbaum stated that, “The ‘Chicago Model’ of Policing Hasn’t Saved Chicago”, and so asked, “Why is everyone else copying it?” An academic who worked on the pilot responded to highlight studies that show reductions in crime, saying the work will take time to have an effect, and so hasn’t failed (“...not yet, at any rate”).

"The bottom line is we don't know how to change the biases in a meaningful, lasting way, because they're… the way we think normally and they're based on years of exposure,” Jack Glaser, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, told CNN. “So in the absence of being able to change them, we need to change the way people make decisions and the way that they act." This doesn’t just happen by making people aware of unconscious bias, but by actually changing practices and policy -- like ending racist stop-and-frisk practices by police. “Glaser suggested that Starbucks could employ prescriptive rules on how to handle someone believed to be loitering, with clear rules what to do in those circumstances when there's no danger,” the interview notes.

“This can’t be a one-off,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, of the NAACP and Starbucks’ experts panel, about the training planned by Starbucks. “We know that one day of training will not change this issue. But we do think it’s a window into a possibility of ongoing work.” She says she joined the team of experts because of “Starbucks’ stated commitment to recognising the real issue of racial discrimination and being serious about trying to tackle it and also trying to play a leadership role that others can follow”. When these disturbing incidents happen, she says, “some people want to believe that there’s some magic bullet, and there is not. Racism is deeply entrenched in our society and any real effort to confront it means you have to be in it for the long haul.” Only time will tell if Starbucks -- and every other company and institution that claims to disavow racist acts -- will put in the significant time, money and other resources needed to join this historic fight against hate.

implicit bias