Listen up Starbucks: Racial Bias Training Is Not the Answer
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Racial bias training is all over the news right now – with Starbucks and now possibly Nordstrom. As an advocate for unconscious bias training, I would seemingly be behind these efforts. But I’m not. I am also not a fan of gender bias training. If that seems baffling and contradictory, let me explain. I just spent the last three years researching methods and approaches to help weaken unconscious bias and influence behavioral change. Among other findings, my research found you need to avoid shaming the majority and focus on educating them on bias and how stereotypes are formed. Making the majority feel defensive will cause them to shut down and could even backfire and make them more biased.
Change has to come at the individual level, and we must treat each participant in training as someone with the ability to change his/her perspective with the correct motivation. Research has shown that using a stick does not work, but I am not suggesting we offer a carrot either. What will work is to use something in between.
Starting with cognitive biases, such as affinity bias or similarity bias (the tendency to associate with and like people who are similar to us or who we have something in common with) is a more subtle and effective way of raising awareness and can make the difference on whether the message is heard, ignored or resented. Everyone immediately recognizes these biases in themselves, so they are more open to the need to change. Race and gender will inevitably come up in the conversation, but not in a finger-pointing context.
Some may say this is letting the majority off the hook for the oppression of the minority, but I argue this is quite the opposite. By raising the awareness of unconscious bias to these participants, they now have the responsibility to act. They can no longer claim ignorance or deny the biases exist, so they must either accept their own biases or work to change their behavior. The added benefit of cognitive bias training is that you are giving people tools to apply to any situation– whether interacting with a person of a different race, gender or religion to someone who is LGBT or has a disability.
I applaud Starbucks for taking quick action to respond to the situation and for seeking training for their employees, but I also take issue with its approach for several other reasons. First, there is no need to close 8,000+ stores on one day. The training can be rolled out across the company over a week or a month. This focus on one day is either being done for publicity reasons: “Look how important we think this is.” Or it’s a cost-saving maneuver to do mass-training. If it’s the latter, mass training will not work either because participants need the opportunity for experiential learning and to interact with those with different perspectives.
Secondly, as I was reading through the advisor list for Starbucks, it was glaringly missing the academic experts in unconscious bias: Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald, Brian Nosek, Patricia Devine, Daniel Kahneman, etc. They have been researching this topic for decades and have valuable insights into what works and does not work. Starbucks said it wanted to get it right. If that’s true, they should be looking toward the research and not activists and high-profile advisors, jockeying for political notoriety.
It is unfortunate that much of what is passing for unconscious bias training is not based on evidence, and this could backfire for well-meaning companies. Participants should leave training feeling empowered and determined to identify and overcome their own unconscious biases, not ashamed and more biased.