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Political science expert shares thoughts on discrimination training

“Celebrating difference is good, but celebrating sameness and commonality is better,” says Dr. Shanti Fernando

Starbucks mug and coffee beans

On Tuesday, May 29, Starbucks will shut down more than 8,000 U.S. locations to host racial bias education for its staff members.

This initiative responds to an incident on April 12 where a staff member called the police on two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks. The men were there early for a business meeting. When one of the men asked to use the restroom without ordering, a manager called 911.  

A viral video of the men’s arrests showed customers arguing they had done nothing to warrant such treatment.

Shanti Fernando, PhD, Associate Professor and Political Science Program Director in the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, shares her thoughts on how companies can better deal with unconscious racial bias:

Do you think this is the right move for Starbucks?

“I think that it is good in that it sends a message that Starbucks takes the incident seriously and is willing to put money and time into delivering that message to the public and to their employees. I think it will be seen as a more favourable move by those who are less likely to be affected by discrimination or see this as perhaps a more isolated incident than it actually is. Most racialized minorities face such incidents on a fairly regular basis.”

Will a single day of training be enough?

“I think training like this is fine, but one day cannot effectively combat such a pervasive problem. While it helps to tell employees that discrimination is wrong and perhaps give them some direction about how to behave, many times facts do not change people's minds, as we can often discount facts and reasoning if it does not match our own biases. Implicit or social biases are relatively automatic features of prejudiced judgement and social behaviour, so you can consciously reject stereotypes and support anti-discrimination efforts, but still also hold negative associations in your mind unconsciously.”

What is the best move for companies in that case?

“I think the best move for companies is to give employees an opportunity to not only have ‘training’ against racial bias, but to actually speak to racialized minorities who have experienced this kind of discrimination and ask them to describe its detrimental effects and how often it happens to them. This can help build the kind of empathy for racialized minorities that you can’t achieve just by presenting facts or simply saying to employees that it is wrong to discriminate.

Quite a lot of novels, biographies and essay collections are authored by racialized minorities. Asking employees to read and discuss these books will educate them about the lives of racialized minorities and make this more real for them. Ultimately, it is not about telling employees to behave a certain way, but rather, encouraging an atmosphere of respect for all people. That means being empathetic and putting yourself firmly in someone else's shoes, and treating them in a manner you would wish to be treated because you are trying to connect with them rather than ‘othering’ them or fearing difference.  

Celebrating difference is good, but celebrating sameness and commonality is better. It will ultimately be good for companies to create greater and deeper connections between fellow employees and between employees and their customers. It will improve the quality of life of employees and customers, and this will ultimately benefit companies who depend on both of these groups to thrive.”


To schedule an interview with Dr. Fernando, contact