The moment we began to discuss Diversity and Inclusion, I had a flashback to when my friends and I took a road trip to Chicago over the Summer. In the car, we started playing an episode of This American Life. The first act of episode 648 is titled All the Caffeine in the World Doesn’t Make You Woke, and it details Kelefa Sanneh’s experience while sitting in on one of Starbucks’ anti-racial bias classes in a corporate office that took place following the incident in Philadelphia involving the arrest of two young black men. The format of the class was created with help from the Perception Institute, a group that does this kind of anti-bias work. He gives the listener a lay of the land and explains that the class is primarily self–directed with no official leader, they each have a 68 page booklet, there are iPads with preloaded videos and there is an opening statement which Sanneh describes as the “racial equivalent of a surgeon generals warning.” In addition to this, only two of the people in the room are black.
We are given an opportunity to listen in on a few conversations, one of which is between Whitney, who is white, and Rodney, who is black. It takes them ages to even get close to a point where they talk about race, and when they finally get there, they drop it. They instead discuss things like where they’re from or how many siblings they have. Sanneh explains to us that this is what every discussion is like. No one is talking about race, yet. One problem with this could be that at the beginning of the class, it was only ever implied and never stated that the act in Philadelphia was racist. It wasn’t until later on that we find out that they all watch a video that argued that African Americans have been systematically excluded from public spaces.
After this, Adrienne, the other black person in the room, began speaking openly about experiences she’s had in the workplace that made her feel other. She remembered coming into work in the summer of 2016, after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by the police. She was exasperated as to why no one talked to her about it or wanted to discuss an equally horrific event saying, “That was a big thing for me, because again, I came to work. It was very sad. And nobody said anything. And I'm just like, have you guys been watching the news? Two black guys just got killed. And it was just like, ugh. But then that was around the same time that somebody had shot up the gay club in Orlando. And everybody was talking about it. And I was just like, how is this different?”
We hear from her again after they listen to a pre–recorded story from a store manager talking about how he refused to give an older black man a refund without a receipt when he, and other partners in the store, had violated that return policy before for other people. She says, “I think what bothers me is that this guy we're talking about with the coffee said he had broken the rules before. For some reason, he didn't do it for an older black man. That's what bothers me, is that you purposefully were like, there's a black guy that came in here. I'm not going to do it this time. This is the one time I'm going to let the rules work for me. That's the type of stuff that I just don't understand.” This was a point in the training that prompted the response of Whitney as they respectfully discussed whether or not that situation involved unconscious or conscious bias and why. Still one of the few and far between moments during the class that felt like they were getting somewhere.
Sanneh ends the story with explaining that during “the day of the training, May 29, while the group had been impaneled, the national conversation about race had been proceeding in the real world, although not in a way they would have predicted. While they were watching their videos and filling out their workbooks, Roseanne Barr, unbeknownst to them, was being condemned for a tweet in which she compared an African-American woman to an ape.” Hearing this for the first time really jarred me because it really made me think about how much work still needs to be done before we reach a point where it feels like these classes actually make a difference. Having this more first–person perspective into what one of these trainings is like really opened my eyes to how these experiences can be improved upon to better the lives of everyone involved. Why do we teach these classes in what feels like a roundabout way? Why do the black people in the room become the de facto discussion leaders? How can we design better solutions that produce more important impacts?
I only go into so much in this blog post and I highly recommend listening to the episode if you haven’t already. Experiencing the emotion in the room is a huge part of this story and it really changes the way you think about it. You can find it here https://www.thisamericanlife.org/648/unteachable-moment and I highly recommend listening to the story after it as well, which discusses education of kids in jail who are facing adult sentences and the dilemma of “why learn algebra when you’re facing 25 years?”
Here is the link for the Perception Institute, who created the format of the training, if you would like to read more about what they do: https://perception.org