Starbucks is under fire for its treatment of black customers — but baristas say they've also experienced racism at the chain

  • Starbucks will close all 8,000 of its US stores for a racial-bias training on Tuesday afternoon.
  • In interviews with Business Insider, former and current Starbucks baristas say they have also faced racial discrimination.
  • Some baristas feel that they cannot speak up about racism from customers.
  • The anecdotes highlight the racial bias present throughout the food-service industry and beyond.

On Tuesday afternoon, Starbucks will shutter every US store — totaling more than 8,000 across the country — for racial bias training.

The move comes after police arrested two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks location on April 12. Minutes after arriving for a business meeting, Rashon Nelson asked to use the restroom without ordering any food or drinks. A white store manager responded by calling 9-1-1 on Nelson and his friend Donte Robinson. Witnesses say both of the men "didn't do anything." Footage of the arrest quickly went viral, sparking a national backlash against the chain over racial profiling.

In response, Starbucks announced plans to close its locations for several hours on Tuesday to "conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores." The training will cover messages on "implicit bias" and "conscious inclusion" from Starbucks executives, as well as a chance for the some-175,000 employees to share their own stories.

Business Insider spoke with more than a dozen current and former Starbucks baristas of diverse racial backgrounds from across the US to hear their perspectives on the incident, the upcoming training, and working at the chain. Nearly every black and Latino barista we spoke with shared stories of racism they've experienced or seen behind the counter, mostly from customers.

"All of my black coworkers have been called the N-word with a hard 'r' at least once"

Racial bias from Starbucks customers manifests on a spectrum, baristas say. It can range from a microaggression — like refusing to place money in the hand of a black cashier to pay — to something more violent, like being called the N-word.

Angela De La Torre, a 21-year-old Mexican-American who has worked at Starbucks for a year in California's Central Valley, said customers have verbally assaulted her and other nonwhite baristas on several occassions.

"I have been asked not to make someone's drink while they spoke to me in mock-Spanish, asking me to have my white coworker make the drink instead," she said. "I have been called 'rude' and asked to 'please speak English' while sharing private conversations with other Spanish-speaking coworkers. Other Latino coworkers have been told to 'go back to Mexico' and that they're stealing a good job from someone 'from here.'"

De La Torre said that all her black coworkers have been called the N-word "with a hard 'r,'" and that customers calling black baristas "ghetto" have requested white baristas ring them up instead. According to De La Torre, one white female customer, who called her black coworkers the N-word several times, once threw a hot coffee in the face of a barista.

After that happened, the manager instructed De La Torre's team to refuse service to that customer. Although De La Torre generally feels supported by her location's management and emphasizes that she's proud to work there, she said she wished the company would stick up for baristas before racially charged situations escalate.

"I'm happy my manager and district manager support our ability to deny service to people who assault us. However, I do think they could have acted sooner to the coffee-throwing incident, since this woman was a repeat offender," she added.

MC, a black woman who worked at a Houston location, said she experienced racism off the clock from white Starbucks employees at other locations in the city. 

"I've been watched and denied the restroom even though I was a partner (employee) at the time," she said. "But I always knew it was the people, not the company. And after that, I just left and made a mental note that this isn't an area where I'm welcome."

Joseph Zappia, a Starbucks barista of Chicano descent in San Francisco, said he has experienced both racism and homophobia from customers, but always let the situations fizzle out.

"Partners and I have been called 'f-----' multiple times," he said. "We simply do not get paid enough to get ourselves involved."

"You can't fight everyone"

A number of baristas also mentioned positive experiences at the chain. Laurence Blocker Jr., who describes himself as half-Caucasian and half African-American, worked at a Starbucks in Dallas, Texas from October 2010 to June 2014 and said he "never faced any sort of discrimination at all."

"I worked with and for partners who were from a very diverse background, including people who identified as homosexual from barista level, all the way up to District manager," Blocker Jr. said. "I always felt empowered to be who I uniquely am and have the company stand behind me."

In an email to Business Insider, Starbucks said it is its goal to prevent discrimination in stores.

"In addition, while Starbucks has employment policies which prohibit discrimination or harassment, we know there is more work to do ensure that Starbucks is a place of mutual respect for both customers and partners (employees)," a spokesperson said. "Discrimination of any kind has no place in our stores, nor do we believe it has any place in a civil society."

Christine Herrera, an Afro-Latina woman and former barista, said that though she believed in Starbucks' mission while she worked at the chain, she also encountered racism while on the job. For example, she said some white customers would refuse to place money in her hand when she worked at the chain. 

Starbucks leadership "doesn't condone a partner being disrespected," she said. But she typically would let the incidents pass without further comment.

"However small or however big, you come in contact with these things all the time," Herrera said. "You can't fight everybody. You wind up coming to the conclusion, this is just the way they are. I want to keep my job, I have to keep my job."

Baristas' balancing act

Starbucks' central mission has always been to be more than just another chain. That puts a different kind of pressure on baristas than most coffee shop or restaurant workers face.

"Starbucks for a long time sold itself as a kind of version of community," Temple University professor Bryant Simon told Business Insider.  "Everything that I was taught about Starbucks was, if [customers] are not at home, and they're not at work, they're supposed to be here," Herrera said.

Simon, the author of "Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks," said that Starbucks has tried to set itself apart from other chains by being a community space outside of the home and office. However, Simon says that Starbucks fails to do that — both because it neglects to encourage customers to make new connections and because it excludes certain customers.

Working at a store in a predominantly African-American area, with the express purpose of serving underserved community, Herrera said she believed Starbucks expected her to make an active effort to be inclusive.

"I knew the people. The guy selling the loosies? I knew him. The guy who liked to panhandle? I knew him," she said.

"I didn't have problems with the guys outside, because it was a mutual respect," she continued. "You treat people like people, they treat you like people."

Starbucks maintains that community and inclusion is central to its mission. Last week, the chain announced people no longer need to order food to hang out or use the bathroom at Starbucks.

"We want our stores to be the third place, a warm and welcoming environment where customers can gather and connect," the company said in a statement. "Any customer is welcome to use Starbucks spaces, including our restrooms, cafes and patios, regardless of whether they make a purchase."

Discrimination exists throughout the food-service industry

In the past several months, Starbucks has been dealing with a public-relations headache around race.

After the arrest at the Philadelphia Starbucks, other customers began sharing similar experiences of racism using the hashtag #Starbuckswhileblack. A few weeks later, the company came under fire again, when a barista in California wrote "beaner" — a derogatory term for Mexicans — on a Latino customer's coffee cup. And in late 2017, an Asian customer said a barista wrote "ching" on his cup instead of his name.

But racial bias is not limited to Starbucks. As many experts have noted, it's fairly common for nonwhite food-service employees to face discrimination in the workplace.

Just this month, Manhattan lawyer Aaron Schlossberg made headlines after a video showed him yelling at a Hispanic worker for speaking Spanish to another customer ordering food. After the video went viral, he apologized in a public statement on Twitter and said that he is not a racist.

In an interview with "Good Morning America," Nelson and Robinson said they hoped the Starbucks incident will help prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

"Take this opportunity as a stepping stone to really stand up and show your greatness. You are not judged by the color of your skin, as your ancestors were," Nelson said, adding, "This is something that has been going on for years, but everyone is blind to it."

Racial bias training "is just the first step"

Keba Konte, the black owner of an Oakland, California-based coffee chain called Red Bay, said that he wasn't surprised when he saw the video of Philadelphia police arresting the two men. 

"These things happen every day. A day or two after that, a black woman at a Waffle House was wrestled to the ground by police. Here in Oakland, a white woman recently called the police on a black family having a barbecue at the lake," he said. "This is part of what it's like being a black man in the US. The tragic part was just how calm and expectant [Robinson and Nelson] were."

Konte added that he thinks the racial-bias training is just the first step to addressing these dynamics at Starbucks.

"There's so much work to do," he said. "I think I'd like for black and brown people to be seen as human beings."

"This is not just Starbucks," Raina Johnson, a black nonbinary person who worked at multiple Starbucks locations in Milwaukee, said. "It is every day walking, living, breathing in America as a person of color." 

If you have worked for Starbucks and have something to add to this story, please reach out to us at lgarfield@businessinsider.com.

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