Starbucks and Bias: a Common Tale of Two Black Men in a Store

So, Starbucks is on fire this week because last week, two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested for being black – pardon, suspicion of trespassing – in a Philadelphia store. Apparently the two men were waiting there for a third party to have a meeting when one asked to use the restroom. He was told the restrooms were for paying customers. Shortly thereafter the police appeared, and the two were cuffed and led away.

Starbucks took the incident seriously, as they should. In the current climate, with a video of the incident going viral and immediate calls for a boycott swirling, this could have been disastrous for them from a brand, an image and a consumer perspective. CEO Kevin Johnson apologized publicly, telling CNN’s Don Lemon on Tuesday: “They didn’t deserve that,” and that the arrest “should not have happened.”

Well, duh. But sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time. Starbucks, however, seems to know that now, and on May 29th 8,000 stores will close for the afternoon to conduct unconscious bias training led by the Anti-Defamation League. The training will reach some 175,000 employees, and it will be developed with guidance from experts like Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

There are a few good things worth noting about this incident, and I use the term good rather loosely as the entire thing is as crooked as a three dollar bill. But in the spirit of glass half full, the employee who called the initially police is no longer with the company. The circumstances around that have not been revealed to my knowledge. And – this is an important one – the coffee giant declined to file charges against Nelson and Robinson, so at least the two men won’t have to come out of pocket or have records behind this foolishness.

Johnson met with the men Monday to apologize to them in person. “I listened as they shared their personal experience with me,” he said. “We had a very constructive dialogue…Sitting across from these young men and really trying to understand how this could happen … in a Starbucks, is an emotional learning experience, and I take it personally.”

I bet he does. Especially since the media has run absolutely wild with this story, protests are active, and Starbucks brand is deservedly suffering. CNN reported that Wednesday, Johnson and Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ former chief executive, met with local church and community leaders in Philadelphia.

Perhaps in appreciation for the global organization’s efforts, Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of POWER, the group that helped organize the meeting, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Starbucks’ response. Leaders took advantage of the sit down to discuss “raising wages, on hiring workers who have been incarcerated and on their role in gentrifying neighborhoods” as well as the bias training.

“We are challenging them to take the lead in supporting racial justice organizations and speaking to other companies to join the cause,” Holston said in the CNN article.

That’s all great, and I’m not being sarcastic. Dialogue is important, and it must be ongoing if this incident is to become the learning moment that everyone seems to want it to be. Because honestly? One session of unconscious bias training isn’t going to do much, no matter how big that session may be, or how many Starbucks locations take part in it.

Why? This incident isn’t isolated. It happens all the time. Literally. All. The. Time. From the Starbucks’ employee’s initial approach and rebuff of the bathroom request to those two men’s subsequent arrest, it’s like a bad rerun. We’re only hearing about it because the media climate is hot right now from a diversity perspective.

All dimensions – religion, LGBTQ, gender, race, all are playing out in myriad ways across all media platforms constantly thanks to technology. Video, and the increasing tendency of the average Joe Public to record and post their everyday experiences, has successfully brought heightened awareness to the difficulties of “living while black” that no one likes to talk about or acknowledge.

I’d wager the recent Starbucks incident in Philly replays itself all over the country every day in some form or other. Furthermore, it has done so for as long as black and white people have occupied the same public space. And it’s stupid. To the woke it’s obvious what’s going on. Those who profess shock or outrage are either lying, consciously oblivious or simple.

It’s common practice for people to sit in Starbucks, use the wifi, and not buy any of those high priced ass drinks. I know. I did it for a good month at the Starbucks near my home outside Chicago when I was starting my company. I went to the counter exactly one time. The beverage I wanted was $6 and change. I sat back down – without it – and got back to work.

My own nephew was once asked to leave a Starbucks in New York for occupying space and not buying anything. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As Robinson said in a CNN piece: “I understand that rules are rules, but what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong.”

The wrong is, do you ask white customers who loiter without purchasing to leave with the same frequency you do the black ones? If not, why? It’s an important question I hope is asked and answered a few times in different ways during the company’s upcoming training.

As is my habit before and after I blog each Friday, I read a few different articles from a few different sources on my chosen topic. I like to see things from multiple angles because as a black female from Generation X, I know I have a distinct perspective.

I read a piece from Bryan Washington, a black male writer from Houston. He recounted similar situations he’s faced that mirror the Starbucks incident perfectly. The piece discussed how incredibly commonplace it is, how it’s about a lack of trust, he even mentioned occupying shared public space. But at the end of his narrative he said the following:

As Toni Morrison noted, “the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” But truly stopping the work, for us, in this country, is not an option — nor is it something we’ve ever had the luxury, or the desire, to do.”


That is correct. I however, have no intention of continually explaining anything to anyone. I decided a few years back that I do not have enough life or energy left in me to try and convince anyone of my worth or suitability for anything.

I will live as I like. This blog is as far in the explication direction as I am prepared to go on a regular basis. My actions, my written words, my work, the set of my shoulders and the tilt of my head will convey who I am and where I belong far better than any words my mouth could ever speak. And if you still doubt it? Well. How I choose to spend my dollars and my ability to manipulate the media should help to educate and sort you out in short order.

Oh, and libraries are excellent places for meetings. They have free wifi, and it’s quiet. I’m sitting in one right now.

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