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IT GETS HEAVY

What actually happens in bias training seminars?

By Lila MacLellan

Last week, cosmetics giant Sephora became the second major US company to close all its stores, during business hours, for bias and inclusion training.

On June 5, Sephora’s 16,000 employees across the country put down their brow pencils and concealer pens to spend an hour studying how implicit and explicit bias works, or, as a Sephora press statement phrased it, “what it means to belong, across many different lenses that include, but are not limited to, gender identity, race and ethnicity, age, abilities, and more.”

The company says that the mass education project already had been in development for a year when a May 1 tweet from singer-songwriter SZA brought national attention to a Sephora location in Calabasas, California. A store manager had called security on SZA, who is African American, believing she was shoplifting.

 

Sephora isn’t sharing details about exactly what happened during the 60 minutes of bias training that followed. However, Starbucks, the first retail company to forego sales during regular business hours in the name of bias training, has posted its training materials online. For anyone curious about what happens in these types of sessions, the collection offers some answers.

“One hour isn’t enough. One day isn’t enough.”

To refresh your memory, Starbucks closed it 8,000-plus US outlets on May 29, 2018, for a full day, to run group-based bias training in its stores and corporate offices, reaching some 175,000 employees. Howard Schultz, executive chairman at the time (he has since left to run for US president), said he felt compelled to act after a manager in Philadelphia had two black customers arrested for simply being in the store without buying anything. Radical action was required to signal that Starbucks was taking responsibility for the incident and to prevent—as much as possible—anything like it from happening again.

Or perhaps Schultz saw an opportunity for an expensive publicity stunt, which was the cynical view at the time, and may have been fair, and in any case would have been an impossible accusation for any company to avoid. Sephora’s training, too, has been similarly lambasted as meaningless window dressing.

However, the people who put together Starbucks’ day of bias training are well aware that a few hours is not enough to bring about much change. “One hour isn’t enough. One day isn’t enough. One week isn’t enough,” says Jonas Nwuke, vice president of strategic initiatives at SYPartners, the New York-based consulting company that collaborated with the NAACP, Perception Institute, and others for the Starbucks project. Instead, the thinking was that one day of training could build a solid foundation for ongoing education in implicit and explicit bias, and systemic racism. (Indeed, Starbucks says it has been running regular, manager-run inclusion training sessions, dubbed “Pour Overs,”  for the past year. It has also dropped the store policy that said people needed to make a purchase to be welcomed in the story or to use its bathrooms.)

Setting the ground rules and warming folks up

The training day, or “5/29,” as Starbucks insiders refer to it, began with three videos, the first of which set the ground rules for a productive, sensitive discussions. “Conversations about race can induce a feeling that experts call ‘racial anxiety,’ and when we’re anxious we can’t always think clearly,” Starbucks executive vice president Rossann Williams, who oversees the company’s US retail operations, says in the kickoff video. “If this feeling starts to derail the conversation, there are a few things you can do as a group to get back on track.” Those steps, which are also outlined in the day’s 68-page team guidebook (pdf), are to: 1) say you’d like to pause; 2) share what you’re feeling; and 3) have a short group conversation about it.

Next came a game played in pairs. Employees pulled out personal notebooks (pdf) and raced to list a dozen differences they could see or discover in each other. The idea was to start with something that felt light, Nwuke explains. “It was a way of saying, we’re going to talk about differences, but it’s going to be safe, for lack of a better word.” The discussion would get progressively heavier throughout the day.

After studying the concept of implicit bias, or the automatic assumptions our brains make about people without conscious recognition, employees were asked to privately write and reflect on things like the first time they noticed their racial identity, or when they recognized that their accent impacted people’s perceptions of their intelligence and competence. After reassembling in small groups, everyone could choose whether or not to share what had surfaced for them.

Halfway through the notebook, employees were given these instructions: “Imagine you are meeting two different people for the first time. One of them is of your race, and the other is of a different race. Without thinking too much, select the level of difficulty that reflects how you might react in each instance.”  A few of the hypothetical situations that followed were:

  • I can comfortably maintain eye contact throughout the conversation and not fear I’m being aggressive.
  • I can share my accomplishments without someone assuming that I did not earn them myself.
  • I can talk about my childhood and not expect others to assume I grew up in poverty.
  • I can voice my dissatisfaction with a situation and not be told I’m “too angry.”

Nwuke and his colleagues were concerned at first that such exercises would put the burden on people of color to constantly explain what life was like for them, because their white colleagues might never worry that, for instance, maintaining eye contact with someone would come off as threatening. And of course, that kind of observation is exactly the point. But Nwuke says after testing the lesson plans in various iterations, both in New York and “in places that look nothing like New York,” his team no longer feared that most of the heavy lifting would fall to people of color, which would be exhausting and unfair. “The reason we got on planes is because we wanted to test that,” he says. “We didn’t find that happening.”

“Story of Access”

Several videos meant to either educate the trainees or spark discussion were interspersed throughout the lesson plan. Most were standard corporate videos, though Common, the rapper and activist (and Microsoft AI spokesman), also made two appearances. The standout video, however, was a powerful seven-minute documentary called Story of Access, by the filmmaker Stanley Nelson, tracing the history of discrimination against African Americans in public spaces, including in restaurants and stores like Starbucks.

 

Nelson created more than a history lesson. During the film, viewers meet African Americans who describe the psychic toll of always feeling they need to be aware of how others may be perceiving them, of constantly adjusting their expressions, proximity, or physical appearance so that other people will be at ease. “Just leaving the house some days, it’s enough to just keep you at home,” says one man.

Putting it all together

One of the last exercises asked employees to put it all together and consider how bias might play into their everyday behavior at work. Employees listened to eight short audio clips of people recounting real-life situations in which Starbucks employees confessed to prejudging customers. In one, a woman in stained, torn sweatpants is hanging around a shop’s Christmas cups display and the manager approaches her, certain that she was planning to steal something. “Turns out she was hoping to buy one as a gift,” the manager says. In another an elderly black man is turned away when he attempts to return a pound of coffee without a receipt, which normally isn’t a problem. That day the store employee dug in his heels, to use his phrase, and he says he didn’t know why. Another video is about identifying someone’s gender when they ask for bathroom key. After each short clip, the trainees sat in groups to unpack what they heard.

Unconscious bias training is seen by some as too disconnected from day-to-day life at work to be fruitful; arguably, Starbucks found a way to meld the abstract and the concrete, to a degree, with these final, practical tasks.

A report from the field

Nwuke says one year later, what stays with him most about the Starbucks training sessions was watching store managers “lean into” the training materials during practice runs. “If they showed up like that for the pilots, I can only imagine what it was like in stores that day,” he says.

Kelefa Sanneh, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was granted permission to sit in on the training. His final impression, which he described in a radio piece for This American Life, was mixed but ultimately positive. People were awkward and stiff (and you can hear what he means in the podcast), and in the group he observed, only one person, a black woman, could be counted on to take the conversation to honest and challenging places.

The “moments of true connection are rare, but they exist,” Sanneh reported, concluding the effort—which he described as “kind of unwieldy, kind of incoherent, with a couple of moments of insight—ultimately “seemed sincere, maybe even helpful.”