This is what kicking the (coffee) can down the road looks like.

16 May

In response to the racial profiling, harassment, humiliation and discrimination incident at one of their Philadelphia stores last month, Starbucks has changed its policy to allow anyone, whether or not they’ve made a purchase, to use the bathroom at Starbucks. 

Which is not the point. 

What happened isn’t about bathroom access. It’s about racial bias leading to racist consequences that will just find the next opportunity to rear its head, if not in denying a request to use the bathroom, then in disapproving of the way someone else smells. Or in not tolerating their simply occupying space near you. And yes, in all three of these incidents, white people called the police on black people. This isn’t to say this is only about white people’s bias against black people, but the phenomenon and underlying issue is certainly, persistently and significantly inclusive of white people’s bias against black people.

My issue with this “open bathroom” announcement is that it (toilet) papers over the real issue, allowing Starbucks to think it’s addressing racial bias, when it’s really just removing one of the more public ways racial bias in its culture (and yes, broader US culture) may manifest.

What’s worse, now anyone who disagrees with the open restroom policy (fearing, perhaps, an influx of whomever they’ve come to expect Starbucks will call the police on) can blame it on black people, as if racial inclusion and equity are wreaking havoc on society.

(Which, actually, they should—at least on those aspects of society that are unfair, denigrating and divisive.) 

But we can’t advance equity and inclusion by eliminating people’s everyday opportunities and responsibilities to practice them. What’s next for Starbucks, an “open hiring” policy that eliminates applications and interviews, so as to avoid any incidence of bias in hiring? I would hope instead that Starbucks would vet and improve its hiring processes, sustaining and evolving its bona fide practices and criteria, and eliminating and educating managers about unintentional, unhelpful bias in hiring. Similarly, whether or not Starbucks chooses to stop policing its bathrooms, it still needs to educate its employees about the inevitability that they’ll profile some customers as more respectable and preferable to others (based on perceived race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, physical and mental abilities) and to train their employees to discern how to engage with the diversity of the public at the cash register, when closing up their stores, when someone asks for change or directions, when someone pays for their order with change scrounged from the bottom of their bag or when someone has lingered over one cup of tea for several hours.

Because the only way to realize the promise of equity and inclusion in our collective experience and impact is to practice doing what we need to do, everyday, with a commitment to learning and growing.

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