On April 12, two men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks. They were waiting for a business meeting. All they had to do to get arrested was not order anything.

A Starbucks employee called 911 to report their ‘crime’. Surveillance video and 911 records show there were two minutes between the men arriving and the call being made.

It so happened the two men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, are black.

While they were sitting in a police cell, waiting for what would happen next, the video a Starbucks customer shot from the arrest went viral. Outcries about racism, profiling and discrimination followed, as did a protest at the local Starbucks restaurant and a national boycott. Almost every national news and talk show in America featured the incident.

And, as a loyal Stephen Colbert fan, that’s how I know of it.

The incident shows an issue that goes beyond the narrow-minded world of racism – into the even narrower-minded world of biology.

I guess the attention and outcries are justified. However, that’s not why this news item caught my attention – besides, I’m not the person to say much about the outcries, being a white man from the Netherlands.

It caught my attention because it also shows an issue that goes beyond the narrow-minded world of racism – into the even narrower-minded world of biology.

The incident shows that people rather just follow and use the rules than talk to each other.

The Starbucks location where the arrests occurred has a policy that restrooms are for paying customers only. Rashon Nelson had asked if he could use the restroom, but, since he wasn’t paying for anything, the manager had told him he couldn’t. That was about all the customer-manager interaction there was between the two.

Then the Starbucks employee called 911. She said, “There are two gentlemen at my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” The operator said in return, “Alright, police will be over as soon as possible.” “Thank you.” That was all. No questions, no doubts, just a procedural transaction of words.

People choose rules and procedures over human-to-human contact so that they don’t have to be part of a – possibly – difficult situation.

Same goes for dispatch and the police that followed up on the call. (Although not quite the same: they made it worse. In the communications between police and dispatch that were also released, someone says “we have a disturbance at the Starbucks” and refers to “a group of males inside causing a disturbance.” As a result, additional officers were sent. The Starbucks employee never called it a disturbance, though.)

And when the police arrived at Starbucks, there was no real conversation between the two men and the cops that came to take them away. The only thing you can make out in the video is one of the police officers saying that Nelson and Robinson shouldn’t get into a fight – when they never even got close to picking one – just before they put the handcuffs on them.

Starbucks’ executive chairman Howard Schultz announced it will close all its 8,000 stores to give its employees a racial-bias awareness training. I guess that never hurts.

But mostly I think it won’t help either. Worst case, Starbucks employees will walk out of the training even more aware of the fact that people are of different races, instead of seeing people as just that: people.

Like I said, this incident is just another example of how people choose rules and procedures over human-to-human contact so that they don’t have to be part of a – possibly – difficult situation.

Rules and procedures can serve as a refuge, which can turn into a lonely foxhole from which we shoot at innocent bystanders.

I am not an American, and I am white. That said, this, to me, is not about where you live or what race you are. I am seeing these types of ‘interactions’ all the time in my own, flat, European country too.

For one, people get stopped or arrested here quicker also when they aren’t pure white. Unfortunately, racial profiling is something that happens everywhere. But, like I said, this is not about race or ethnicity alone.

It is also about people that call the police for disturbance if their neighbors are partying too loud, without having asked their neighbors themselves to lower the volume. It’s about a manager asking HR to handle a conversation with a difficult employee. It’s about employees walking away from negotiations and going on strike, just because they have a right to.

And it’s about the man who got the police called on him just last week because he was shaking his can of chocolate milk. The person who had called the police thought he had been masturbating. True story.

People are scared of people they don’t know. That’s a biological fact. Somewhere within our primal brain, bells go off when we come in contact with an unknown specimen of our own species.

The bells even sound when we meet someone from another group than our own, even if we know that someone. And they ring even louder when we encounter others of a group that have a bad reputation. Rules and procedures can then serve as a refuge, a silencer to our xenofobic bells.

But the problem is, that refuge can turn into a lonely foxhole from which we shoot at innocent bystanders.

Because, when we stop engaging with the people we come in contact with, we don’t learn how normal and just-like-us they are.

Starbucks will close all its 8,000 stores for a racial-bias awareness training. That’s a lot of money going to be wasted.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc coined the term mere exposure effect. It’s the mechanism in our brains that causes us to feel better about things simply by being exposed to them. He explained the usefulness of this by stating that, as an animal, we must react cautiously to new things. By repeatedly being exposed to something or someone, we learn whether the thing or person is safe or unsafe. The more we are exposed to something or someone, the safer we think it, or he or she is.

That’s why we must expose ourselves deliberately to the people that we know the least or, better yet, we’ve heard bad stories about. Get a conversation started. See what they’re like.

Starbucks will close all its 8,000 stores for a racial-bias awareness training. That’s a lot of money going to be wasted. It would be so much better if Starbucks – and almost every other company for that matter – would train its employees to just have real talks with their customers – or coworkers for that matter.

For, if employees would expose themselves to customers – and coworkers – more, a lot of good stuff might happen.

And if employers are not going to give the right training, I say we all go sit at a Starbucks nearby and wait for someone we don’t know. Who knows who we can get exposed to.

And if that won’t happen, maybe we’re gonna be lucky anyway, and get arrested for refusing to make a purchase or leave and go viral on YouTube too.


Olav de Maat is author and consultant. He has a book, a Facebook page and a website (and a daughter, a dog and a girlfriend).


 

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