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Starbucks’ diversity training won’t help unless it makes white people uncomfortable

To be sustainable, it must measure outcomes and give people the tools to enact change

“Diversity trainings don’t work” is an oft-repeated refrain. And yet, Starbucks will devote an entire day to “conduct racial-bias training to address implicit bias and prevent discrimination” for all employees. This decision follows last week’s incident in which a Starbucks store manager called the police on two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks.

Within moments of the story going viral, many identified implicit bias, on the part of the store manager and/or the police, as the potential culprit. However, this suggests that, as a society, we have overlearned the lesson of implicit bias at the expense of acknowledging other societal and structural factors that might also be at play. Implicit bias alone, as pervasive as it is, cannot explain why black people in America are at risk when we get locked out of our own apartment, have car trouble, laugh with friends and, yes, sit quietly at Starbucks.

Starbucks should absolutely train its employees. But if this training has any chance at making a lasting impact, it should not begin and end with implicit bias. Social science has a lot to say about other elements that should also be included to construct a training that will lead to lasting change.

Create mild discomfort

As humans, our instinct when we feel uncomfortable is to avoid whatever is creating those feelings. However, discomfort is a faulty litmus test for success when it comes to conversations about race. For one, plenty of research shows that white people tend to find conversations about race to be more uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking than black people do. Moreover, experts who study attitudes and behavior emphasize that, without mild discomfort, we may not be sufficiently inspired to change how we think or act. Finally, when we focus on comfort, we may compromise other goals. For example, emerging research demonstrates that framing discrimination as the result of unintentional, implicit bias (rather than intentional, explicit bias) can cause white people to judge the discrimination as less intentional; they also see the perpetrator as less blameworthy and the victim as less harmed. Clearly, we undermine the efficacy of any training when we overprioritize the comfort of the majority in the room.

Bridge the bias detection gap

Conversations about race between white and black people often make it seem that we are living in different countries. And, at least psychologically, that may be partially true. For example, research shows that white people are less likely than black people to consider subtler behaviors (such as feeling uncomfortable around black people) as indicative of racism. These differences in bias detection have measurable consequences, as evidenced by the interpersonal, psychological and physical consequences of contending with bias. Thankfully, some research indicates that educating white people about the subtle discrimination black people face can improve their bias detection. Despite all this, little attention is granted toward increasing the bias detection of white people during diversity training, even though the available research suggests this is exactly what needs to happen. A good training must increase awareness of the differences in bias detection and provide foundational knowledge for attendees about the way the world is — for all in the room.

Provide tools and support to enact change

Finally, this training must acknowledge that many of us have good intentions that fail to materialize into actual behavior. This is especially the case when it comes to speaking out against bias, as concerns about what to say, how to say it and whether it will be effective can cause us to freeze in the moment. If any change is to occur, the training must equip attendees with actionable steps they can take to confront bias in future situations. Then, importantly, there should be time for attendees to practice implementing those steps in a variety of scenarios. This increases the likelihood that they will spring to action in the future, instead of standing on the sidelines hoping or expecting someone else to intervene.

Moreover, Starbucks must reinforce that its culture is one that expects everyone to uphold the shared values of anti-discrimination and inclusion.

Starbucks should pay as much attention to how it will measure its desired outcomes as it does to developing the content for this training. Did people become more aware of the ways that bias manifests? Do they feel empowered to enact change? Do they believe these efforts will be supported by their immediate supervisor and co-workers? In truth, it would be foolish to expect magnanimous behavioral change as the result of one training.

On its own, one training can do little more than increase awareness, state ideal cultural norms and lay the foundation for continued conversation. However, by developing a curriculum that is evidence-based, Starbucks could be an early model for how to develop a diversity training that does, in fact, work. Let’s hope it uplifts implicit bias as a point of entry into a much larger conversation.

Evelyn Carter is a social psychologist at UCLA. A self-described data geek, she is passionate about using science to effect change. Originally from the Midwest, Evelyn is enjoying the California sun as an LA transplant.