What Starbucks could learn from this Washington restaurateur about race at work
|Toronto Star 18 May 2018 at 10:55|
WASHINGTONâAndy Shallal gets right to the point: Which table would you rather serve â a party of four black women, or four white men in suits and ties?
âAnd be honest,â he says.
Protester Aurica Hurst pours out coffee in front of Starbucks in Philadelphia, Pa. on April 16, 2018.Â Â (JESSICA GRIFFIN / TNS)
Co-workers are seen during lunch at a Busboys and Poets location in Washington on May 18, 2018.Â Â (Salwan Georges / The Washington Post)
The room goes silent as the eight new hires at Busboys & Poets, the Washington restaurant-and-bookstore chain Shallal founded in 2005, look down at the table. This wasnât employee orientation anyone expected.
Finally an 18-year-old black man from Oklahoma says heâd prefer the group of black women. âIâd feel more comfortable,â he says. Yes, agrees a white woman a few chairs down, the women are likely to be less demanding.
A student from Bangladesh in his early 20s shakes his head no.
âWhen I see a group of people, all I see is money,â he says. âThereâs just one thing I know: The businessmen are going to spend more money.â
Thatâs not a stereotype, he insists, but a fact.
âHow do you know?â asks Shallal, 63, perchedat the head of the table in a black track jacket and Busboys baseball cap. âWhat if they have a bad business? What if theyâre not successful? What if theyâre cheap, or poor?â
This is Shallalâs favorite part of his job and perhaps the most important: the new-hire orientations he hosts every few weeks to get to know his 600 employees. There are no training workbooks or scripted videos about workplace discrimination. Instead, employees gather around a table at one of Shallalâs six restaurants to discuss their fears, their pasts and, most importantly, their experiences with race.
Itâs an approach Shallal has refined over decades but one that is increasingly urgent as hourly-wage workers are on the front lines of Americaâs race wars â and often ill-equipped for it.
A Black student at Yale was napping in her dormâs common area, and someone called the police
Race â along with sex, politics and religion â has long been a taboo in the workplace. The corporate instinct has been to steer clear or to approach cautiously with anodyne, almost clinical language.
Companies are finally realizing what Shallal has long known: They cannot afford an armâs length approach to race and bias.
The arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia last month has reinvigorated national discourse about systemic racism and the role of companies in addressing deep-seated biases among their workers. As a result, Starbucks will shut down its U.S. stores the afternoon of May 29 to provide âracial-biasâ training to nearly 175,000 employees.
âIt was shocking to us that this could happen in a Starbucks store, and it was reprehensible,â Howard Schultz, the companyâs chairman said at a Washington event this month. âWe were absolutely wrong in every way. Since the Philadelphia incident, we have been working diligently inside the company and with outside resources to create a curriculum of training.â
The move by a giant company such as Starbucks, which last year posted $22 billion in revenue, signals a shift, workplace experts say.
âColor blindness has been the standard way of attending to race in our country since the 1960s,â says Erica Foldy, a professor at New York University and co-author of âThe Color Bind: Talking (and Not Talking) About Race at Work.â âMany people are absolutely petrified of discussing race. White people are afraid of coming across as racist, and people of color are worried about being the target of racism or being seen as too angry or too militant.â
As a result, she says, companies have put most of their energies into limiting corporate liability for workplace discrimination.
In contrast, Shallal has found a way to bring uncomfortable issues to the forefront from day one.
âIâve always thought that race has been one of the most divisive issues that affects how we deal with each other,â he says in a recent orientation. âUnless we deal with that original conversation, itâs really hard for us to get along.â
Weeks earlier, a two-hour session had spilled into four. These are cathartic conversations, Shallal says, but also deeply illuminating ones. These orientations, he adds, have taken on new urgency since President Donald Trumpâs inauguration.
But it is difficult, employees say, to chip away at intrinsic biases.
âAs servers, we believe in stereotypes,â a black woman in her 30s says during a recent training session. âDoes that make us racist?â
Is it possible, she wonders aloud, to be a racist waiter but not a racist person?
(Shallalâs answer: No.)
âHow many of you have been surprised by a tip because you thought, based on a personâs race, that it would not be good?â he asks. Almost every hand goes up.
âWe need to be more aware of what we bring to the table,â Shallal says. âAnd what we bring is a lot of prejudice, a lot of preconceived notions, and yes, a lot of racism â whether we like it or not.â
Itâs a sunny spring afternoon, shortly after Trumpâs inauguration. Shallal has spent the weekend protesting the presidentâs policies, this time at the Peopleâs Climate March. He arrives at his restaurant in Brookland, a fast-gentrifying Washington neighborhood, wearing jeans and carrying a backpack.
âI want to have a conversation about race today,â he tells 22 employees, including an Ethiopian woman born in a Sudanese refugee camp and a white man who grew up on an Indian reservation in Montana. âIf you have lived in this country for any amount of time, you have a race story to tell.â
And so the stories begin: A Catholic University student from New Hampshire says he hadnât seen a black person until age 6, when he visited Washington with his family. (âMy sister and I were on the subway and we could not stop staring,â he says.)
A black woman in her 50s from Maryland says she also grew up in a segregated neighborhood: âWe never had one white person in my school, aside from teachers.â
That distinction between black and white â and the separation that often follows â has vexed Shallal since he arrived in this country as a 10-year-old Iraqi refugee in 1966. His family settled in Arlington, Virginia, and though Shallalâs junior high was the first public school in the state to desegregate, he recalls deep divisions between its white students and black ones.
âImmediately the question was, âAre you black or white?â â he says. âIt made me very uncomfortable because, frankly, âwhat are you?â is not something anybody asks in most parts of the world.â
It wasnât clear, he says, where a brown immigrant named Anas would fit in. During high school, Shallal worked at his familyâs restaurant, Pizza Kaezano, in a suburban Virginia strip mall â and started going by Andy. He graduated from high school at age 15, got a degree in biology from Catholic University and briefly attended medical school at Howard University before dropping out.
Shallal made his way back to the familyâs pizza business, which he eventually sold for a profit. In 1987, he opened Skewers and CafĂ© Luna in a Dupont Circle rowhouse. The idea, he says, was to create a space where activists could rally for progressive issues. When France resumed nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean in 1995, Shallal removed French wines from his menu and poured out bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau in Dupont Circle. He sought to address racial issues along with political ones â speakers included Alice Walker, Jesse Jackson and Marion Barry â but was frustrated that his customers remained mostly white.
âIâd think, why arenât there more black people at war protests, or speaking out against other issues that impact people of color in a very dramatic way?â Shallal says. âAnd slowly I realized that we were hopscotching over the foundational issue in this country, which is race. In order to make progress anywhere, we had to get into the root of the conversation. Race had to be front and center.â
In 2005, Shallal opened Busboys and Poets â a restaurant with an unapologetic focus on race â in a neighborhood where black and white residents were increasingly living alongside each other. He named the restaurant after the poet Langston Hughes, who once worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel.
He commissioned paintings by black artists and created his own mural, an homage to the civil rights movement that includes suffragists, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, as well as an excerpt from Hughesâs poem âLet America Be America Again.â
The first staff meeting at Busboys was, naturally, a discussion about race. The restaurantâs permit had yet to arrive, but employees sat around a table and talked about how a personâs race shapes his or her experience of dining out.
âOne of the reasons we created this place is so different people can come together and intersect,â Shallal says now. âThese days, white people and black people go to school together, they work together because they have to, by law. But rarely do you have black people and white people having dinner at each otherâs homes.â
His conversations with new hires, he says, are one way of addressing difficult issues. And Shallal has no qualms about very personal questions.
âAny atheists in the room?â he asks at the beginning of one session. Three people raise their hands. At another, he asks how many people have thought seriously about killing themselves. Seven hands go up.
Shallal shares, too. He tells employees about the debilitating stutter that dogged him until his early 30s and about the skydiving trip that helped him face his fear of heights. âI donât believe in God,â he says, âbut that gave me a new perspective on the universe.â
Then he turns to the person next to him: What is your biggest fear? Failure, they may say, or blood, or death. Some say theyâre not afraid of anything, and Shallal presses them further: What about snakes? Spiders? Itâs good to feel uncomfortable, he tells them.
At the Brookland session, a woman whoâs half-French, half-Haitian says sheâs afraid of being pulled over by the police. Another woman, who moved to College Park, Maryland, from Barbados at age 8, talks about being told for years that she acted âtoo white.â
Why? Shallal asks.
âIn America, to speak eloquently, or to have big dreams, thatâs wanting to be white,â she says.
Shallal shakes his head.
At the other end of a table, a woman whoâs half-Irish, half-Colombian says she feels uncomfortable having to talk about race. Is she white, or is she Hispanic? People see her light skin and brown hair and assume sheâs white. âI feel like Iâm double-dipping,â she says. âIâve got my white privilege, but Iâve also got minority privilege.â
Two seats over, a black woman, a recent Howard graduate, sits up.
âI feel bad sometimes,â she says. âI feel like white people are always feeling guilty.â
Shallal cocks his head. âYou feel bad for white people?â
âItâs one of those things where white people seem nervous all the time around black people,â she says. âBut I think thatâs why white people and black people go home to their dinner tables by themselves. Theyâre afraid theyâre going to say or do the wrong thing.â
A white woman nods. In her senior year of high school, she acted in a play alongside the schoolâs only black student. She heard sobbing one day and realized someone had painted âN*****â on stage in red letters.
âThat was the first time I realized thereâs an issue here,â she says. âWhen you grow up within your own culture, it really breeds ignorance. You donât even know where to begin.â
During a recent session in Arlington, the conversation veers from Kanye West to gun legislation and the #MeToo movement.
And then Starbucks comes up. Could what happened in that Philadelphia shop, where a manager called the police on two black men who were waiting at a table, have happened here? Shallal asks.
âOf course,â a white woman says. âYou can tell your workers, âWeâre not racist here,â but do you really believe thatâs going to change their world view? Sensitivity training is not going to stop anyone from having prejudices.â
The group nods.
âHow are you supposed to know, âThis person is racist so I shouldnât hire him?â â says an Asian American woman in her 20s. âEvery job tells you the same thing: Donât be racist. Donât harass people. Unless your culture is different, I donât think anything will change.â
Shallal agrees. That is why, he says, heâs spent the past decade trying to create a melting pot of employees who believe in equality. And his restaurants take on a feeling of a community center â with poetry slams, book readings and film screenings.
âWeâll ask right away during a job interview, âDo you feel strongly about any social or political issues?â â says Marija Stojkovic, head of human resources. âInstead of avoiding those issues, we look for ways to talk about them.â
She also likes to ask potential employees hypothetical questions. What would they do, for example, if a customer walked in and asked them to take down a poster promoting a pride parade?
âOf course we want every customer to feel welcome, but we also need employees to be able to say, âIâm sorry, but this is why we believe in supporting these issues,â â she says. âWe believe we can teach people anything â they can learn the menu, the ingredients â but a culture of diversity and inclusion is the most important thing.â
After hundreds of these sessions, there are certain things Shallal has come to expect.
âAlmost every time, someone will say, âI feel like Iâm colorblind so Iâm a good person,â â he says.
âBeing colorblind is the absolute worst thing because weâre not a colorblind society,â Shallal says. âWhat we need is for people to realize, âIâm not colorblind. I have prejudices and I need to check myself in every encounter.â Thatâs the only way we move forward.â