Coffee shop racism: why Starbucks made the right call and ‘yay! for social media

Tomorrow, 8,000 Starbucks stores in US close so that staff can receive racial bias training. This was prompted by the following recent event:

Just over a month ago, two black men went into a Starbucks in Philadelphia and sat waiting for a friend but didn’t order anything. They also weren’t allowed to use the toilet. This situation somehow escalated into a member of staff calling the police and the men got arrested for trespassing. It was later decided that there was insufficient evidence to take further action against the men.

To be fair, whoever you are, if you’re going to sit in a coffee shop and not buy anything, there’s a risk that staff will get narky with you. I’ve done it sheepishly a few times, betting on the fact that they wouldn’t have the guts; betting on the slim likelihood that one of them is a jobsworth. But there is no way that calling the police is a response proportional to the wrongdoing. And it seems the police needed no encouragement. They were literally chomping at the bit.

So yes, they did a tiny thing wrong but the Starbucks employee saw red. This must surely have been the result of personal (racial) bias. There was something about those men that touched a nerve for her; touched on a particular cultural and racial stereotype. For instance, two black men who spoke in posh accents and were dressed in expensive suits may not have received the same treatment. Or two black men from Africa etc.

For me this story raises a broader issue than just racism. Employees everywhere have loads of personal biases, not just racist ones. That includes people in senior posts, impressed by the ambitious whippersnapper from Oxbridge, or failing to properly monitor management styles of their subordinates because they seem efficient and charming. The workplace is rife with subjectivity and all the prejudice and favouritism that goes with it.

But thank God for social media. For all its shortcomings, it can act like a flood light, instantly exposing bad behaviour and demanding accountability. It gives power to the people and has the potential to cause real damage to the public image of those in charge. It’s hard to imagine Starbucks reacting so strongly without the added impetus of social media.

And yes, staff training is part of the solution. From an employer’s perspective, they’re covering their backs. But training, when done well, is an opportunity to make people think and reinforce positive norms. Even if you are racist, for instance, if your workplace constantly tells you that your type of view/behaviour is unacceptable, at the very least, you will be far less likely to act in a racist way at work. Workplace training is one of the only spaces since school where equalities issues can be explored and deconstructed.

Social media is the new wolf at the corporates’ door; a form of surveillance derived from and owned the masses; a form of surveillance so far from old theories of control and subordination. It is wild and unpredictable but also has the power to do good.