Seeing Our Bias Part I: Discomfort Required

After offering well-scripted talking points during an interview on CNN,  Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson choked up as he described how the recent arrest of two black men affected him personally. Spending time with the men was especially meaningful, and it has made him determined to fix the bias in his company. He said the effort is a “journey” that will include shutting down stores on May 29th for anti-bias training.

I believe Johnson is sincere and I applaud his efforts.

It brings to mind my brother Mark who was diversity manager for Marathon Oil Company for over 10 years prior to his death in 2015. I will never forget the day Mark told me how reluctant he was to accept the position after decades in human resources at Marathon. He didn’t want to be pigeon holed into diversity work just because he was black. And “diversity and inclusion” positions were still relatively new then.

But Mark understood that a company like Marathon – which builds relationships around the globe – needed to train employees about culture, customs, and bias. Doing so improves customer relations and sales, prevents lawsuits, and creates the “warm and welcoming” atmosphere Starbucks claimed to offer before last week.

Hopefully, Kevin Johnson’s determination will prompt other leaders in businesses, schools, and churches to think about how bias plays out in their respective spheres.

But not all will be prompted to care.

Many organizations like Starbucks will arrive late to the conversation that Marathon and other forward-thinking organizations have been having for decades. It will take a terrible incident or public outcry to motivate them to action.

Many individuals – including Christian pastors and worshipers – are skeptical or scared of all this talk about discrimination. Terms like “diversity” and “white privilege” reek of political correctness and stupidity.

Many are tired of talking about race. They are sick of protests, and kneeling, and rioting. They invoke Dr. King and biblical unity in their defense of colorblindness.

Many just want us to move on and stop whining. America is a land of opportunity for all, right?

Supposedly, yes.

And  hey, I would love to stop talking about race too. I’m just as tired as anybody, but I refuse to stick my head in the sand and pretend the problems aren’t real.

Until we are just as sick of injustice as we are of protests about injustice, nothing will ever change in our nation. The discomfort we feel is required, much like the discomfort Peter felt in Acts chapter 10 when God showed him that Gentiles were not unclean. Peter refused to believe it at first, resistant because it contradicted the narrative he had always known.

But the Holy Spirit did not give up until Peter changed his mind. Many people like me refuse to give up until we change some minds. We lean into the inevitable discomfort that comes with living in a country that built itself on racism.

Fortune Magazine’s Ellen McGirt offered a  prophetic lens on the corporate sphere in an article written before the incident at Starbucks even happened. Addressing the fact that there are only three black CEO’s at the Fortune 500 level, McGirt speaks of the “courage” necessary “to elevate the thorny issues of history, state violence, image-making in marketing and pop culture, and the systemic barriers people of color and other under-represented groups have always faced.”

Yeah. Always faced.

What happened at Starbucks is not new. You would be hard pressed to find a black person who cannot recount a story of unwarranted arrest or detainment by police, their own experience or that of a friend or relative.

My brother Mark was detained as a college student. A runner, he was running on campus; stopped by police and taken in for questioning because he “fit the description” of a rape suspect. Funny how all of my brothers were stopped by police while running. All of us were runners, for heaven’s sake, and our typical training route took us into one the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. Nothing like a black kid running to arouse suspicion.

Or a black man sitting in a chair at Starbucks…

Or a black man holding a cell phone…

Or a black man doing anything white men do without arousing the same suspicion.

Uncomfortable yet?



“Uncomfortable conversations (and data) are the only way to make lasting change. We live in uncomfortable times… So, for now… let’s keep having these uncomfortable conversations with empathy and grace, as we few, we happy few, we band of siblings, continue to do the work in the face of very troubling odds.”

We are a band of siblings, aren’t we? And our Heavenly Father will settle for nothing less than love among us. Real love, that treats others the way we want to be treated.

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