3 Racial Bias Trainers on What They’ve Seen in American Workplaces

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Photo: Luis Alavarez/Getty Images

Just over 40 days after the store manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks sparked national outrage for calling the cops on two black men who’d asked to use the shop’s bathroom before placing an order, the company will close all 8,000 of its stores today for a nationwide “racial-bias education” day. Starbucks’s decision has largely been met with applause, though many have wondered what exactly this day will entail.

Ahead of the upcoming education day, the Cut spoke to three implicit-bias trainers about their experience working in workplaces around the country, some of the specific examples they’ve encountered, and what must be done to ensure that the learning process doesn’t come to a halt after training.

Patricia Pope, CEO of Pope & Associates

I’ve been doing this work for 42 years, and when we first started, we talked about prejudices. But “unconscious bias” maybe helps it go down a little smoother because nobody likes to think of them as being prejudiced.

An example I might see when training Fortune 500 corporations is, say, a black person comes in a meeting about ten minutes late, and as he walks in, he notices somebody glancing at their watch. And then five minutes after he walks in, a white person comes in. Nine times out of ten, the person who glanced as their watch is not going to do that again. So why did that happen? It’s because we have a stereotype that black people are always late.

Once, I did a two-day unconscious bias training for groups of women some years ago. I’d learned that women are more comfortable talking about race around women. In the training, I said, “When you go home tonight, ask your kids if they have ever heard you say something about black people or Hispanic people,” and the women came back the next day with totally different looks on their face. Kids are like tape recorders. One of the mothers came in and said, “Oh my God, there’s an empty lot next to our house, and I noticed one day that one of the kids out there playing with my son was black. I guess I called my son over to the garage and said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t tell Michael where you hide the key to the house.’” And she said, ‘Wow, I didn’t even realize what I was teaching my son.’”

All organizations have to be clear about why they’re doing bias training. Also, no matter how good training is, you have to reinforce it. It can’t be a one-and-done. Especially when it’s good, people walk out the door, their question is going to be, “This was great, what’s next?” If there’s not an answer to that question, they’re going to think, it’s another flavor of the month — that the bosses are just checking a box. You also have to hold people accountable.

Matthew Kincaid, founder of Overcoming Racism

Education is the focus of our organization, so our trainings with businesses, religious organizations, and schools are about building a collective will to work around race and anti-racism to change the institution’s culture.

With some of our clients, people of color either receive more consistent and harsh feedback about their work, or don’t receive feedback at all. Also, when people from marginalized identities are working in environments where maybe they’re the token, or there may not be other people who look like them in leadership roles, you see microaggressions that are exclusionary. Something as simple as a person of color being asked in the office to speak on behalf of their entire race or to lead the Black History Month committee.

This is an extreme example of bias, but there was one organization in the South that had a retreat at a plantation. You know, people have weddings and events at plantations. But if you’re a person of color, you’re like, Do I tell my boss that I don’t want to go to a plantation, and that I’m a little bit insulted that you thought this was okay? How do you navigate those conversations?

People are having these conversations right now because of the Starbucks incident and others that have happened across the country. Organizations zoom in on these high-profile incidents of bias, but what I mean by changing a culture is that there are a million micro moments in a day where there can be behavior going on, unaware to the individual actors. I think we live in a country where systemic racism is the reality, and it is all of our collective problem, so everybody is implicated. If someone says they’re not a racist, you know, great, good job … but are you anti-racist? Do you live your life in such a way that you are cognizant of the ways that racism affects you? To get things done, we have to collectively fight against the system.

Kate Gerson, managing partner of UnboundEd

We work at all levels of education, with everybody from the teachers to the principals to the district staff to the chief academic officers. We have seen a massive “achievement gap” between white affluent students, and then students of color and student living poverty. Race is a very key factor in all of this.

Some of the numbers that are starkest show that students of color are overrepresented in suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary actions. There was one study where hundreds of pre-K teachers were shown a video, and asked to show which child they thought would get in trouble, even though none of the students were getting into trouble. The majority of people said the black boy.

There is also a disproportionate number of students of color being designated as special ed, and few being in AP and advanced classes. They aren’t often given an opportunity to take the SAT early or to be on track for college readiness, so what we see is students who are coming in below grade level, and we are assuming that they can’t accelerate or catch up or outperform. One example of the way bias plays out is when we don’t provide texts that represent a diversity of experiences, or don’t reflect the culture or voice of students themselves — teachers will crouch down next to a student who is working on a math problem, and will do that problem for the student in front of the student, and narrate their math.

Racial-Bias Trainers on What They’ve Seen in Workplaces