It’s Not Just Starbucks: Where Do We Go from Here?

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Ilene Wasserman

The most recent Starbucks incident has received a lot of attention. Many of the questions I am hearing are: Who is to blame?  Who should do what to remedy the situation? Is the training Starbucks is investing in on implicit bias the solution? Is the apology from the police commissioner enough?

And then… next week or even tomorrow there will be another story about another audacious episode that takes our attention and off we go. Only in this case the interruption takes our attention away from people whose lives have come into the limelight, illuminating what is, for some, an aspect of their daily experience.

Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson are two business men who are also dark skinned.  They entered a Starbucks to meet someone for a business meeting.  One asked to use the restroom and was told that the restrooms were for paying customers.  He returned to his table and was approached by the manager who asked whether they wanted to order drinks. They declined.  According to 911 records, the police were called approximately 2 minutes after the two men entered the store. According to Mr. Robinson, they were then put in double lock handcuffs, were not read their rights, and were not told why they were being arrested. Mr. Nelson said, he wondered if he would make it home alive. “Anytime I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind.  You never know what’s going on.”

In every moment, we make sense of what is happening by telling ourselves a story.  The stories we tell ourselves are influenced by the experiences we have had and not had; what we hear and don’t hear; and the forces of the stories that are being told around us, be they from people we know, the communities we live in or the media we attend to. And we do so – in a matter of minutes.

The recent incidence at Starbucks is ripe for opportunities to learn together – as long as we take the time to have the conversations and learn:

To NOTICE the assumptions we are making

To step back and OBSERVE the situation

To REFLECT and deepen our understanding, and,

To ENGAGE and learn

To NOTICE again with a new perspective,

In our recent book, Communicating Possibilities: A Brief Introduction to the Coordinated Management of Meaning, we use the acronym NOREN (Notice, Observe, Reflect, Engage, Notice) as a guide to take complex moments that we might encounter daily, and engage with them as learning opportunities.

One of the models guides us in asking ourselves about the nature of the stories we are telling.  What are the untold stories?  The unheard stories?  The untellable stories? The stories we don’t take the time to explore, so that we can challenge our split-second responses — and consider before reacting?  What are the assumptions we all made each step of the way – with each unfolding news reporting and commentary?  What are the forces in our culture and our society that are operating here?

I have been privy to stories from parents who fear for their brown and black children – who teach them from a young age that they are vulnerable to a seemingly random moment when an encounter might be misinterpreted and go poorly.  What have been private conversations among family members have become every day news.  What has been the experience of some has become news to all.

Starbucks will be closing its stores on May 29th for implicit bias training.  I have been asked by clients, colleagues and students and others what I think about this response.  My response is this is a start but by no means enough.

Just imagine what would be possible if we were to make more time with each other.

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