Starbucks is closing 8,000 stores for one day to conduct 'racial bias training' — will it actually work?

Demonstrators occupy the Starbucks in Philadelphia that has become the center of protests on April 16, 2018. (Photo: AP / Jacqueline Larma)
Demonstrators occupy the Starbucks in Philadelphia that has become the center of protests on April 16, 2018. (Photo: AP / Jacqueline Larma)

In the wake of two black men being senselessly handcuffed by police while waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12, the coffee giant took to Twitter to apologize. “We regret that our practices and training led to the reprehensible outcome at our Philadelphia store,” the company wrote on April 14. “We’re taking immediate action to learn from this and be better.”

In a one-on-one interview this week on Good Morning America, the company’s CEO, Kevin Johnson, expressed his regret about the incident. “I’ll say the circumstances surrounding the incident and the outcome at our stores on Thursday were reprehensible,” he said.

FULL INTERVIEW: “I personally apologize…” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson one-on-one with @RobinRoberts in his first interview after two black men were handcuffed at a Philadelphia store.


— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 16, 2018

Five days after the incident, the company made good on its promise to try harder, announcing a plan to close more than 8,000 stores on May 29 in order to conduct “racial bias training.” In a statement about the decision, the company said the training plans to “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome.”

Although the company has not released specifics on what the program itself will entail, it did note that the curriculum will be developed “with guidance from several national and local experts.” At least two of the organizations mentioned, the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), are well-versed in implicit bias and training. The latter, an over-100-year-old organization dedicated to helping “targeted communities,” conducts implicit bias trainings with major groups, such as the FBI. 

Jason Sirois, national director of the ADL’s anti-bullying movement No Place for Hate, says he’s personally encouraged by Starbucks’s actions thus far.  “Sometimes we are called in to provide a Band-Aid of sorts,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But based on what I saw from the CEO, and the conversations I know that are happening, Starbucks is looking for more than a Band-Aid — they’re committed.”

When it comes to long-term action to counter implicit bias, what does that actually mean?

Getting to the answer starts with understanding implicit bias itself. The term, increasingly referenced in stories about police shootings and violence against unarmed black men, stems from research first done 20 years ago by two psychologists, Mahzarin Banaji, then at Yale University, and Anthony Greenwald, from the University of Washington.

Banaji and Greenwald’s idea was to study how our hidden views about groups of people shape the way we act in everyday life. To do this, they crafted an experiment that flashes images of various faces alongside words that have either a negative or positive connotation. Their experiment, which they later detailed in the 2013 book Blindspot, is called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The initial IAT had two main parts. In the first, individuals had to hit a key matching faces of black people with negative words (e.g., devil) and white people with positive words (e.g., peace). This part, Banaji and Greenwald found, was easy. But when the test was reversed to require hitting a key to match black people with positive words and white people with negative ones, it became difficult.

“I literally could not find the right — the right key,” Banaji said of the experiment during a recent interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. “That experience is a humbling one. It is even a humiliating one, because you come face to face with the fact that you are not the person you thought you were.”

From the results of many individuals taking the test, Banaji and Greenwald concluded that even people who don’t explicitly demonstrate stereotypes likely possess hidden biases. In a 1998 article on the topic published by Yale University, the two claimed that unconscious prejudice affects 90 to 95 percent of people — whether they know it or not. 

“An important example is automatic race preference. A person may not be aware of automatic negative reactions to a racial group and may even regard such negative feelings as objectionable when expressed by others,” Banaji said at the time. “Many people who regard themselves as non-prejudiced nevertheless possess these automatic negative feelings.”

Today, the IAT test and implicit bias are contentious topics in the science world. Some researchers have found flaws in the IAT test itself, and others have pointed to evidence that the prevalence of implicit bias is overblown. The current version of the test is run by Harvard University (where Banaji is now a researcher) and extends to include things like weight, religion, gender, and anxiety. 

Whether or not the results are an accurate measure of how much implicit bias someone carries is up for debate. But the real-life effects of implicit bias are tough to dispute. An abundance of studies have shown that the way we prejudge the people around us has major, real-life consequences.

Getting handcuffed for sitting at Starbucks, in other words, is just the tip of the iceberg. Research has shown that implicit bias can contribute to (or even fuel) police brutality, hiring discrimination, inadequate medical care, and poor education. Aside from more serious complications, it can affect seemingly less important things, such as how NBA referees call fouls

Research like this lends weight to Starbucks’s decision to conduct training with its 175,000 employees nationwide. But for eliminating this type of bias, does training work? As with the IAT test, researchers are divided.

In a piece on the topic from Psychology Today, Rutgers University social psychologist Lee Jussim argues that it’s too soon. “My view is that [implicit bias training] is wildly premature — and potentially even dangerous,” he writes. “The overselling of implicit bias has … contributed to the toxic environment on many campuses and in some corporations in which speech is considered ‘violence,’ and in which if you say the wrong thing, you can be denounced, ostracized, and even fired.”

When reached for comment about Starbucks’s decision to offer this type of training, Jussim directed Yahoo Lifestyle to his Twitter thread on the topic. In it, he makes three major predictions about the company’s plan — for the most part suggesting that the “implicit bias training” is being done for “optics.”

Jussim is far from the only researcher who finds implicit bias training problematic. On top of doubts about the IAT test that it’s based on, some researchers express concerns about a lack of proof showing that the training affects behavior afterward. “I can name all the rigorous experiments [on implicit bias training] on one hand,” Calvin Lai, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University, recently told the Daily Beast. “That’s not saying that they don’t work and that other diversity-type training is better. It’s just that we don’t know and that there isn’t enough research.”

Of course, there are many who disagree. Implicit bias training has been adopted and utilized by major corporations (such as Google) as well as police forces and other government entities nationwide. The Anti-Defamation League, one of the organizations that Starbucks listed as an adviser, is well-versed in the training and has performed workshops on it for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Sirois, who has been performing implicit bias training with the ADL for a decade, says that it starts with individuals recognizing and acknowledging their own biases. Next, individuals discuss different types of people and the biases they face, and then end by figuring out specific actions they can take to change problematic attitudes or behavior.

Although a lot of it hinges on talking through problems, Sirois says that most implicit bias training has an interactive element. Sometimes participants might be asked to do an activity in which they pick a card that has an identity different from their own. “They have to think about what their life would be like with that identity,” says Sirois. “Maybe they’ve made assumptions about people with that identity and they’ve never considered what it feels like to be that person. That’s how you develop empathy.”

In the more than 10 years that Sirois has been doing this work, he’s seen countless “aha” moments when individuals learned something that changed the way they saw the world. A recent example he gives is an implicit bias training with educators to help create an LGBTQ-friendly environment in schools. 

Sirois recalls, “There was an educator in the room who, when he heard LGBTQ, he got defensive and said, ‘Is it homophobic if I don’t want to be touched by a gay man?’” For Sirois, a gay man, the words stung. But Sirois continued on with the training, which included revealing to the group that he himself was gay. As it came to a close on the second day, the educator who had asked that question approached Sirois in tears.

“He said, ‘It’s really hard for me to talk when I’m about to cry.’ It was so unexpected,” says Sirois. “He said he felt horrible about all the students in his 30 years that may have identified as LGBTQ and didn’t feel safe, and that he couldn’t wait to go back to his class to use what he had learned. After we were done, he came up to me and apologized, and instead of shaking my hand, gave me a hug. A man who said he didn’t want to be touched by gay people hugged a gay man 48 hours later.”

Sirois says that this is the type of thing he sees at implicit bias trainings — a result that is extremely difficult to quantify. “That man’s life changed. His attitude changed. It will impact everyone he comes in contact with,” says Sirois. “But that’s the challenge: How do you measure that?” As researchers continue to ask that question, Sirois says ADL is working on finding a way to capture it.

In the absence of proof that the training works, some researchers support the notion that changing beliefs can change behavior. The theory is eloquently summed up in a 2016 New York Times opinion piece by two psychologists, Daniel A. Yudkin and Jay Van Bavel, from the psychology department at New York University, who say that “rational deliberation” can overcome implicit bias.

“Our research suggests that people have the capacity to override their worst instincts — if they are able to reflect on their decision making as opposed to acting on their first impulse,” Yudkin and Van Bavel write. “Acknowledging the truth about ourselves — that we see and think about the world through the lens of group affiliations — is the first step to making things better.”

If that’s the case, Starbucks is one step closer to making things right.

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