Day 6

Viral video pushes Starbucks to confront racism in its stores

Canadian consumer racial profiling consultant Tomee Sojourner-Campbell says a day of training is a good start but won't be enough.

Canadian consumer racial profiling consultant says unconscious bias training won't be enough

Protesters held multiple demonstrations inside a Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were arrested after employees said they were trespassing. (Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press)

Starbucks was widely criticized this week after a viral video showed two black men being arrested in one of its Philadelphia cafes.

The company has since announced that it will be closing down 8,000 of its U.S. stores on May 29 to conduct racial bias training with 175,000 of its employees.

But according to a Canadian consumer racial profiling consultant, unconscious bias training alone isn't going to cut it for Starbucks.

It didn't really hit me what was going on, that it was real, until I'm being double-locked with my hands behind my back.- Donte Robinson 

"They need to do more in order to unpack what happened, and not simply say: 'You unconsciously acted,'" says Tomee Sojourner-Campbell, who advises companies who find themselves in difficult situations.

"When we act, we act consciously," says Sojourner-Campbell. "[The Starbucks employee] made a decision to phone the police."

Store policies

Sojourner-Campbell, who is completing a Master of Laws degree at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, says informal store policies often contribute to incidents of consumer racial profiling.

Consumer racial profiling consultant Tomee Sojourner-Campbell. (Njeri Damali Sojourner-Campbell)

"Was there an informal practice or policy in place? Was [the Starbucks employee] told to treat one customer better than another?" 

"I think we focus on the individual, but we tend to forget about the systemic aspects of this," she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Sojourner-Campbell has experience with the surveillance aspect of customer service. As a student, she worked as a security guard in a mall.  

"If I saw something that was problematic, where there was a group of teenagers being picked out because of the colour of their skin or their accent, what I had to unlearn [were] the instructions that were given to me that were unfair," she says. 

"I had to disrupt that with my own understanding that that was simply wrong."

Police were called two minutes after Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson walked into a Starbucks in Philadelphia last week.

Nelson says he asked to use the washroom while Robinson grabbed a table, and that a Starbucks employee told him he'd need to make a purchase before he could use the store's washroom facilities.

What happened was "reprehensible"

Nelson told Good Morning America that he left it at that and went to join Robinson at the table where they were waiting for a friend.

Police say that the store manager asked the men to leave before she called 911.

"It didn't really hit me what was going on, that it was real, until I'm being double-locked with my hands behind my back," Robinson told Good Morning America.

Once the video of their arrest hit social media, protesters took over the cafe. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson responded swiftly, calling the incident "reprehensible."

Johnson also met with Nelson and Robinson and has apologized to them.

A viral video captured the arrest of Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson, right, in a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia. (Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press)

A safe space for some people

Sojourner-Campbell says if she had to grade Starbucks' response this week, she would give them a C+.

"I think they started off with a shaky D and they've moved up to a C+ in terms of how they're handling it and trying to manage a difficult situation," she says.

Starbucks said it will close its U.S. stores for several hours next month to conduct racial-bias training. (Paul Sakuma/The Associated Press)

Many people are commenting this week about the jarring nature of the arrest in the cafe because, by default, many people assume Starbucks is a safe space.

"I think for some people, Starbucks will always be safe," says Sojourner-Campbell.

"It could be white people. It could be people that are upper class ... because perception is not just about race. Other factors come into play — the perceived ability to pay, the person's appearance, etcetera."

Sojourner-Campbell says Starbucks Canada will also look into its practices when it comes to offering equal services to all customers.

"I hope that it's not just going to be racial bias training."

To hear the full interview with Tomee Sojourner-Campbell, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.