Jeneé Osterheldt

Starbucks' afternoon of bias training is too little, too latte for America

Starbucks plans to close 8,000 U.S. stores next month for an afternoon of racial-bias training. It's a nice first pour.

But it's no more effective than that time the company wanted us all to "Race Together" and talk about bias with strangers over coffee. Racism in America is planted deeper than that.

Two black men were wrongly arrested for sitting while black in a Philadelphia Starbucks last week. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson told The Associated Press on Thursday they were waiting for a friend for only a few minutes before police were called. It won't be the last time someone of color has been profiled and debased in a public space, and white fear strikes.

We just saw it in January, when an Applebee's waitress in Independence called the police on two young black women for dining while black, accusing them of dining and dashing the night before. And in December, security guards told five black teen boys to leave a Virginia mall for browsing while black.

Even diversity experts say there's no easy fix.

Michelle Wimes, chief diversity and professional development officer at Ogletree Deakins law firm in Kansas City, remembers when she was a rookie and arrived at a deposition. She was asked when the lawyer would show up. Apparently there was no way a black woman could be the attorney.

Her husband, a prosecutor, was once assumed to be a defendant. That's bias in action. We're still dealing with those micro-aggressions.

"It is a symptom of a much larger problem in America's fabric. It's a result of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and now other forms are manifesting in the way we have criminalized black people," Wimes says. "Now we are in a situation nationally where a kid gets shot at for asking for directions. It probably didn't occur to the Starbucks manager to not to call the police on those men. There's a national mentality that black people, especially black men, don't deserve the same treatment.

"I feel so exasperated by it all," she says. "I don't know how effective training will be in that sense. We are so determined to 'other-ize' people — women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ — it's almost like we need a cultural revolution. I don't know if any training can resolve that or teach you to see the humanity in others."

But diversity and inclusion are her passion. And she says if Starbucks is going to attempt training, it needs to be ongoing.

"You can't just sit down and expect to change behaviors and culture with a half-day training," she says. "We all have bias. And we have to be able to recognize when that bias comes into play and stop ourselves from reacting negatively. You have to be able to identify in-group and out-group dynamics. The in-group is the group that looks like you, and that is the favored group. That is the group that uses the restroom without making a purchase, and no one calls the police."

Wimes, like most diversity experts, recommends everyone take Project Implicit tests. Created by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, the free, lengthy questionnaires help uncover hidden bias. They are often required before diversity trainings even begin.

Implicit bias is at the root of what went wrong at Starbucks that day, says Susan B. Wilson, UMKC vice chancellor of the division of diversity and inclusion.

This type of prejudice is what fuels staffers at a certain Plaza restaurant to seat Wilson near the bathroom when she meets other women for business lunches. Even when other tables are available. But men get the prime seats. It's what motivates the butcher to overlook her place in line and help the white customer instead.

"An afternoon of training is a way for Starbucks to raise awareness," Wilson says. "It's a good start. But it will not shift the culture at Starbucks, period. They need to do a comprehensive diversity assessment of the organization, starting with policies and procedures and standardize them across the corporation."

As it stands, Starbucks sees itself as a community hub. But it lets individual store managers make the rules about meet-ups and bathrooms, leaving too much room for prejudice.

"They need to look at their hiring practices," she says. "How are managers trained? Is unconscious-bias training mandatory? All diversity training is not created equal. Some trainings just scratch the surface; others create general awareness. But effective training has to be targeted at behavioral change."

The experts involved in Starbucks' upcoming training include former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"I think some people want to believe that there's some magic bullet, and there is not," Ifill told NPR. "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. It means you have to be in it seriously. It means not just training. It means monitoring the effectiveness of that training."

Starbucks does seem to care about diversity. Last month, the company announced it had achieved equal pay for equal work for U.S. employees of all races and genders. Last year, its board became one of the most diverse in America. The company committed to opening stores outside wealthier communities, in places like Ferguson, Mo., and partnered with local minority-owned vendors and nonprofits to hire and train youth.

Yet none of that keeps racists from being racist. Or hidden bias from waving hello.

"If we don't take the time to look outside ourselves, we are always going to get it wrong," says Risha Grant, author of "That's B.S.: How Bias Synapse Disrupts Inclusive Cultures and the Power to Attract Diverse Markets." "Training is important. So is a willingness to listen and understand intent and impact. If I didn't intend to hurt you, then I want to hear your heart because I really want to fix that. But if I intended to impact you in a negative way, then I don't care."

Unjust killings and arrests make headlines. But we overlook micro-aggressions — like moving to the other side of the elevator when a black person gets in or ignoring a woman's idea in a meeting but giving credit to a man when he repeats what she said. Wimes says these biases are more dangerous than we realize.

Some micro-aggressions diversity experts hear often:

"You're a credit to your race." What, you don't expect greatness from people who look like me?

"You're just so articulate." As if people of color can't be well-spoken.

"Are you sure that's how they meant it?" When someone is hurt, your automatic response shouldn't be denial.

"When I look at you I don't see color." You see color when you match clothes. Don't strip people of their identity for your comfort.

"I have several black friends." This doesn't make you incapable of racism. Not even having black children does that.

"We have to get the most qualified person." You know, women and people of color can be the most qualified.

"Can I touch your hair?" You pet animals, not people.

"Why are you so angry?" So a woman or a person of color can't be passionate?

"What are you?" This insinuates a lack of humanness.

Wimes borrows from the philosophy of her friend, inclusion adviser Arin Reeves. "We have to start looking at micro-aggressions as mosquito bites. One or two mosquito bites may not bother you. You can get on with your day. But if every day you are coming to work and getting bit a few times, pretty soon your body is riddled in mosquito bites. How can you function like that?"

You can't. Our country needs a climate change to stop the attacks.

Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist. On Twitter: @jeneeinkc