The Cost of Unconscious Bias

unconscious bias

In May 2018, Starbucks closed up all their coffee shops in order to have “Unconscious Bias” training after the arrest of two Black gentlemen, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson  at a coffee shop in Philadelphia. Reports stated that the men showed up 10 minutes early to the coffee shop for a business meeting, asked for the restrooms and were told by the white employee that the facilities were for paying customers only. According to the Washington Post article, “After Nelson returned to the table where Robinson was sitting, the white manager approached them to ask whether she could help get them drinks or water.Two minutes later, she called the police to report “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.”

coffee lifestyle starbucks coffee shop
Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

The men were so gracious that they settled with Starbucks for the token sum of ONE DOLLAR each – merely to show that their intention was to get the company to fix what was broken. As a part of the agreement, Starbucks announced it would close 8,000 stores for anti-racial-bias training on May 29. Johnson (CEO) and Schultz (chairman) met with Nelson and Robinson personally to apologize.

All this because of ONE employee… this did not need to happen.

Unconscious Bias is something we all have. It resides in the background of our brains and comes out at unexpected times and places. It may look like an extreme emotional reaction to someone or it could look like a “gut feel” to not hire someone. Either way, it’s there, lurking and unless we realize that this is something we can all fall victim to, it will not get addressed or go away.

So, how does one deal with this?

Harvard has an amazing tool that I assign to my undergraduate business students called the “Implicit Association Test (IAT).” It is free for personal use and it exists to help people realize that we all have blind spots. I get at least one student per semester who writes me a terse e-mail, telling me that they do not appreciate me pointing out that they are prejudiced. I normally reply back simply by writing back “We ALL have prejudice!” It’s good to become aware of the things that might trigger a reaction, much like the one the Starbucks employee had upon watching two African American men sit down at an empty table. I’m not excusing her behavior, I’m merely pointing out that something went terribly wrong in this exchange and it happened to revolve around the people’s race and ethnicity.

We all have physical blind spots in our optic nerve (blocks peripheral vision — that’s why we need side view mirrors on cars!), so why don’t we believe that we have mental blind spots as well? The more we encourage one another to think about matters of DIVERSITY & INCLUSION, the better off we will be as an organization and as a society.

If you’d like to know more about this topic, contact me! 🙂

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A Trip to Prison

L to R – Me, Joan, Ruth, Cay & Jim (taking the picture)

I really need to learn how to say “no!” But one day, a sweet woman named Joan asked if I would consider sharing my testimony with a group of hers. I did what I normally do — jump in head first, without asking questions or details. I replied enthusiastically “Yes! I’d be honored to speak about what Jesus has done for me!” Then she told me that it would be two Tuesdays in a row (because the Bible study group was so big) and… it was in a prison.

Gulp! That meant, she explained, I would need special clearance, a background check, my driver’s license, wear certain clothes, etc. Honestly, I tuned out after she said “Prison.” A few weeks later, I thought maybe she forgot about it, but nope– she contacted me and happily said “all clear!” We could schedule out the dates. Tuesday 8/14 was the first half of the group and today 8/21 would be the second group.

I woke up and prayed, Lord, why did I agree to do this? I’m not an anxious person but my anxiety level was high. I had to think about what I could wear or not wear (can’t wear orange, gray, open toed shoes, certain jewelry, etc). A well meaning friend had told me NOT to hold hands with any inmate because some guy got his hand cut by a prisoner & had to be rushed to ER. All this was swirling around in my head.

Barbed wire all around, orange jumpsuits and the Chapel on the Right

As we reached the facility, I saw the fences & barbed wire and prayed”LORD, I have nothing in common with these people! Help me to say what you want me to say!”

The entrance was like what you see in the movies- double gates that clang shut behind you, guarded entry, X-ray of stuff you brought in. It freaked me out that the women who lead the Bible study brought pens… didn’t anyone watch mob movies where guys were stabbed in the neck with pens? Were they crazy?!

After passing through the entry, we were led into the prison yard. The sight was just as I’d imagined- rough looking women with orange jumpsuits and threatening guards on the perimeter.

As soon as we walked in, the women began to run towards Ruth (the beautiful older woman in the picture above), like sheep to a shepherd. She drew the women in close, covered their hands in a warm embrace and even gave hugs! Several women were already gathered in front of the chapel (can see it in the picture) and as Ruth and the women approached, they also broke out in smiles and surrounded us.

Incredibly, Ruth has led a Bible study there every single week for the last 27 years. No wonder she’s a beacon of light, love and comfort for the hurt and broken. Ruth and the other ladies introduced me to several of their friends and told me how the study was structured.

I can’t tell you how my talk went- I was interrupted so many times but the questions were all good and relevant. The women were warm and attentive. They listened to the Gospel being presented and were an encouragement to me (including an inmate named Sherrie who told me she loved me). That was totally unexpected. I shared about being disowned, about love, forgiveness and about being adopted into the family of Christ as a believer.

Turns out that I had more in common with them than I thought. You see, when you belong to Christ, you have family even in prison! They have been hurt, disowned, failed by others, and they tried to do things on their own. YET the Lord reaches out and adopts them into His family – just like He did for me.

Before I left, I gave out many hugs, several asked (today for the second group) if I could pray for them and one sweet woman named Candace re-dedicated her life to Christ. She told me through tears that she was raised in the church and even went on a mission trip. Then she decided to live for herself and ended up in prison. She said she realized today that she needed to repent and share the light of Christ with others who are in prison with her.

This is what Jesus does for us. His Holy Spirit breathes in new life and gives us eyes to see a world that is lost and hurting.

🙏🏽Thank you LORD for the gift of eternal life, love for others and a huge family- even behind bars. Thank you LORD for faithful women who teach your Word to outcasts of society, for taking me out of my comfort zone and for helping me to share your light with women. In the mighty name of Jesus, Amen.