Starbucks Canada Had Its Own "Anti-Bias" Training, But Was It Enough?

Something's brewing at Starbucks Canada, but whether it's strong enough to stamp out discrimination is up for debate

girl with black hair turns her back to camera under starbucks sign

(Photo: Getty)

Following the lead of its American counterpart, Starbucks Canada closed all 1,100 of its corporately-owned stores and offices on June 11 for “anti-bias” training.

During the four-hour session, Canada’s 23,000 partners (a.k.a. employees) were presented with a curriculum identical to that of the American training, which took place on May 23, and were instructed to work together to complete a series of questionnaires while watching 21 videos hosted by senior Starbucks executives and the rapper Common.

An incident in April, whereby Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson were arrested at a Starbucks location in Philadelphia without reason, motivated the company to undertake anti-bias training. The men, both Black, initially asked to use the bathroom and were told it was reserved for paying customers, at which point they sat at a table to wait for a business acquaintance. The store manager called the police and the men were removed in handcuffs.

Both Robinson and Nelson have since reached agreements with both Starbucks and the city of Philadelphia, which together pledged $200,000 on behalf of the men to support young entrepreneurs in the region, but the international coffee chain believed more could be done to eliminate the bias of its partners against Black people specifically.

The training session focused on eradicating racism against the Black community—more specifically against “African-Americans,” which was the term used even in the Canadian context—with the aim of making Starbucks the “third place” in all communities. “Third place” is a term introduced by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who argued that communities need “public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact” separate from their first places (home) and second places (work). Starbucks has been trying to become “the third place” for quite some time, and in the curriculum, Starbucks noted the Philadelphia incident as directly contrary to its third space ethos.

Almost immediately, there was skepticism that a four-hour training session would be enough. Some people, like Maclean’s columnist Andray Domise, also expressed fear that importing the American curriculum into Canadian stores verbatim would ignore the nuanced way racism and other forms of discrimination that exist in Canada.

Maya*, a Starbucks employee in Ottawa who underwent the training on June 11, echoes Domise’s fear that importing the American curriculum will contribute to the false belief that Canada doesn’t have a racism problem. “As Canadians, we can often see racism as an American problem when, in fact, we’re just as capable of the same prejudices and biases,” said Maya.

To Domise and Maya’s points, a documentary called Story of Access, created by Stanley Nelson and underwritten by Starbucks, was one of the cornerstones of the training. It details the history of enslavement, segregation and racism against the Black community in the United States. When asked about Starbucks’ intentions, Nelson told IndieWire that he’s “convinced that Starbucks really wants to effect change. If you look at how many of these other incidents have happened, nobody else has done anything like this. In some ways, it might be easier as a corporation to just forget about it.”

According to Tim Gallant, the senior communications manager of public affairs for Starbucks Canada, Starbucks did not mean to suggest that four hours of anti-bias training is all that’s necessary, nor is it all the company has planned. “The plan moving forward is still being formalized, but it will include a timeline for the next 12 months,” Gallant says. “This is the first step in a series of training that will be rolled out throughout the year and in the years to come.”

As for the focus on anti-Black racism, Gallant says the narrow curriculum is a direct reaction to the incident in Philadelphia.

Michael Bach, founder and chief executive officer of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, which has been working with Starbucks Canada for three years, says he believes the company made the right decision to focus on racism against Black people.

“Sometimes the words ‘diversity and inclusion’ can be used as a catch-all, intended to represent the lived experiences of all minority groups,” Bach, who identifies as a gay man, tells FLARE. “This focuses on race and I’m grateful for that. It’s still a shared conversation. I think an Indigenous person or a gay person would hear these stories and understand [what it means to have a] lived experience that’s different from most.”

a green newspaper provided to starbucks employees at the anti-bias training

Here’s a look at one of the workbooks provided to Starbucks partners at the training session

It remains to be seen whether training sessions about bias against other groups, such as Muslims, Indigenous people and the LGBTQ community, will be part of Starbucks’ 12-month plan.

Maya, for one, believes additional sessions are necessary. “When looking at racial bias in Canada, I think it [is] important to draw attention to the racism [experienced] by Indigenous people,” she says. “We could’ve spent more time looking at biases against those of different socio-economic levels, too. My store is in a developing area so we have a number of regular patrons that either live in shelters or do not have a great deal of disposable income. These people often come in just for some water and a place to sit, but staff have previously struggled to welcome these people as they would anyone else.”

Starbucks Canada partners also need more time to really grasp the material, says Maya. “We’re not [fixing] quality assurance issues. We’re talking about an issue more rooted in societal problems and that takes more than a four-hour afternoon to… fully address.” And, though Gallant says the training was mandatory, only about half of Maya’s coworkers attended. “[The] others either had to be at another job or they had booked the day off. We were told they will be completing the training online at a later date.” 

There’s no doubt that Starbucks Canada is taking a step in the right direction, but as it stands, it feels like all froth and no substance. If the coffee giant really wants change, its anti-bias training will have to be comprehensive, actually mandatory and more specific to the Canadian experience.

*Name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the respondent

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