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What is ‘racial bias training'? As Starbucks breaks to learn, we ask an expert

Michelle Tyrene Johnson, a reporter at KCUR in Kansas City, conducted diversity and bias training for employers for more than 15 years.

Starbucks stores across the country will be closed on Tuesday afternoon. The company announced it would use the half day to “conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores.”

Starbucks announced the move in April after video of police arresting two black men at a Philadelphia location went viral. An employee had called police because the men, who were waiting for someone, had not ordered anything and were refusing to leave. One of the pair had asked to the use the restroom.

The Starbucks corporate response may be extraordinary only in its scale: The company employs 175,000 people across the United States. But employers of all shapes and sizes already do this kind of training.

In June 2017, more than 400 CEOs at companies around the country signed a pledge to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace. Starbucks is not part of the initiative, but its CEO Howard Schultz appears to be all-in with its spirit and goals:

"The company's founding values are based on humanity and inclusion," Schultz said. “We will learn from our mistakes and reaffirm our commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment for every customer."

St. Louis Public Radio’s Holly Edgell wanted to know: What exactly is bias training and does it work? So, she turned to Michelle Tyrene Johnson. Although she’s now a reporter for Sharing America partner KCUR in Kansas City, Michelle conducted bias training for more than 15 years.

Holly Edgell: If you were to give a description of what bias training is, how would you describe it?

Michelle Tyrene Johnson: At its essence, it’s a conversation in one space and one time about something that people don’t talk about enough in this country, don’t think about in this country but impacts you every time you exist.

Edgell: What does success look like in this area? How would you as a trainer define it?

Johnson: When I first started doing this, it was: “Everybody in the room is going to have a different way of looking at things from this day forward! I want to blow people’s minds and think about it and embrace this!” And then I realized, that’s not my job. My job is to do my best to, with intelligence, and with facts, and with examples, and passion and with energy and with respect. Always with respect. And if I do that everyplace I go and someone is letting me into that room to have that conversation, then I’ve done all I can do. 

Michelle Tyrene Johnson on diversity versus discrimination

Edgell: I know personally, jobs that I’ve had, there’s a webinar or there’s a group meeting that people go to, or there’s a quiz. What forms can diversity or bias training take?

Johnson: I’m not a big fan of webinars. Because I think this involves people. Part of what people get when they’ve gotten me is they get an actual person who they can relate to and discuss it with. So, to me, it’s about giving people an overview of the issue of diversity and inclusion. And then it’s about creating frameworks to allow people to talk about it differently. I try to take into account what that particular workplace needs. 

Holly Edgell, editor, and Michelle Tyrene Johnson, reporter, are part of Sharing America, a collaborative covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. You can follow them on Twitter @hollyedgell and @DivaofDiversity.

Holly Edgell is the managing editor of the Midwest Newsroom, a public radio collaboration among NPR member stations in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.