Andy Shallal gets right to the point: Which table would you rather serve — a party of four black women, or four white men in suits and ties?
“And be honest,” he says.
The room goes silent as the eight new hires at Busboys and Poets, the Washington, D.C., restaurant-and-bookstore chain Shallal founded in 2005, look down at the table. This wasn’t employee orientation anyone expected.
Finally an 18-year-old black man from Oklahoma says he’d prefer the group of black women. “I’d feel more comfortable,” 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.
“When I see a group of people, all I see is money,” he says. “There’s just one thing I know: The businessmen are going to spend more money.”
That’s not a stereotype, he insists, but a fact.
“How do you know?” asks Shallal, 63, perched at the head of the table in a black track jacket and Busboys baseball cap. “What if they have a bad business? What if they’re not successful? What if they’re cheap, or poor?”
This is Shallal’s 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 Shallal’s six restaurants to discuss their fears, their pasts and their experiences with race.
It’s an approach Shallal has refined over decades and one that is increasingly urgent as hourly wage workers are on the front lines of America’s race wars — and often ill-equipped.
Race — along with sex, politics and religion — 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 arm’s 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 “racial bias” training to nearly 175,000 employees.
“It was shocking to us that this could happen in a Starbucks store, and it was reprehensible,” Howard Schultz, the company’s chairman, said at a Washington event this month. “We 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.”
The move by a giant company such as Starbucks, which last year posted $22 billion in revenue, signals a shift, workplace experts say.
“Color blindness has been the standard way of attending to race in our country since the 1960s,” said Erica Foldy, a professor at New York University and co-author of “The Color Bind: Talking (and Not Talking) About Race at Work.” “Many 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.”
As a result, she said, 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.
“I’ve always thought that race has been one of the most divisive issues that affects how we deal with each other,” he said in a recent orientation. “Unless we deal with that original conversation, it’s really hard for us to get along.”
Weeks earlier, a two-hour session had spilled into four. These are cathartic conversations, Shallal says, but also deeply illuminating. These orientations, he adds, have taken on new urgency since President Trump’s inauguration.
But it is difficult, employees say, to chip away at intrinsic biases.
“As servers, we believe in stereotypes,” a black woman in her 30s said during a recent training session. “Does that make us racist?”
Is it possible, she wondered aloud, to be a racist waiter but not a racist person?
(Shallal’s answer: No.)
“How many of you have been surprised by a tip because you thought, based on a person’s race, that it would not be good?” he asked. Almost every hand went up.
“We need to be more aware of what we bring to the table,” Shallal said. “And what we bring is a lot of prejudice, a lot of preconceived notions and, yes, a lot of racism — whether we like it or not.”
It’s a sunny spring afternoon, shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Shallal has spent the weekend protesting the president’s policies, this time at the People’s Climate March. He arrives at his restaurant in Brookland, a fast-gentrifying neighborhood in Northeast Washington, wearing jeans and carrying a backpack.
“I want to have a conversation about race today,” 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. “If you have lived in this country for any amount of time, you have a race story to tell.”
And so the stories begin: A Catholic University student from New Hampshire says he hadn’t seen a black person until age 6, when he visited Washington with his family. (“My sister and I were on the subway, and we could not stop staring,” he says.)
A black woman in her 50s from Maryland says she also grew up in a segregated neighborhood: “We never had one white person in my school, aside from teachers.”
That distinction between black and white — and the separation that often follows — has vexed Shallal since he arrived in this country as a 10-year-old Iraqi refugee in 1966. His family settled in Arlington, and though Shallal’s junior high was the first public school in Virginia to desegregate, he recalls deep divisions between its white students and black ones.
“Immediately the question was, ‘Are you black or white?’ ” he says. “It made me very uncomfortable because, frankly, ‘What are you?’ is not something anybody asks in most parts of the world.”
It wasn’t clear, he says, where a brown immigrant named Anas would fit in. During high school, Shallal worked at his family’s restaurant, Pizza Kaezano, in an Annandale strip mall — and started going by Andy. He graduated from high school at 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 his family’s pizza business, which he eventually sold for a profit. In 1987, he opened Skewers and Cafe 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 — speakers included Alice Walker, Jesse Jackson and Marion Barry — but was frustrated that his customers remained mostly white.
“I’d think, why aren’t there more black people at war protests, or speaking out against other issues that impact people of color in a very dramatic way?” Shallal says. “And 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.”
In 2005, Shallal opened Busboys and Poets — a restaurant with an unapologetic focus on race — at 14th and V streets NW in a neighborhood where black and white residents were increasingly living alongside one another. 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 Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.”
The first staff meeting at Busboys was, naturally, a discussion about race. The restaurant’s permit had yet to arrive, but employees sat around a table and talked about how a person’s race shapes his or her experience of dining out.
“One of the reasons we created this place is so different people can come together and intersect,” Shallal says. “These 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 other’s homes.”
His conversations with new hires, he says, are one way of addressing difficult issues. And Shallal has no qualms about asking very personal questions.
“Any atheists in the room?” 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. “I don’t believe in God,” he says, “but that gave me a new perspective on the universe.”
Then he turns to the person next to him: What is your biggest fear? Failure, they may say, or blood, or death. Some say they’re not afraid of anything, and Shallal presses them further: What about snakes? Spiders? It’s good to feel uncomfortable, he tells them.
At the Brookland session, a woman who’s half-French, half-Haitian says she’s afraid of being pulled over by the police. Another woman, who moved to College Park from Barbados at age 8, talks about being told for years that she acted “too white.”
“Why?” Shallal asks.
“In America, to speak eloquently, or to have big dreams, that’s wanting to be white,” she says.
Shallal shakes his head.
At the other end of a table, a woman who’s 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 she’s white. “I feel like I’m double-dipping,” she says. “I’ve got my white privilege, but I’ve also got minority privilege.”
Two seats over, a black woman, a recent Howard graduate, sits up.
“I feel bad sometimes,” she says. “I feel like white people are always feeling guilty.”
Shallal cocks his head. “You feel bad for white people?”
“It’s one of those things where white people seem nervous all the time around black people,” she says. “But I think that’s why white people and black people go home to their dinner tables by themselves. They’re afraid they’re going to say or do the wrong thing.”
A white woman nods. In her senior year of high school, she acted in a play alongside the school’s only black student. She heard sobbing one day and realized someone had painted “N*****” onstage in red letters.
“That was the first time I realized there’s an issue here,” she says. “When you grow up within your own culture, it really breeds ignorance. You don’t even know where to begin.”
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.
“Of course,” a white woman says. “You can tell your workers, ‘We’re not racist here,’ but do you really believe that’s going to change their worldview? Sensitivity training is not going to stop anyone from having prejudices.”
The group nods.
“How are you supposed to know, ‘This person is racist so I shouldn’t hire him?’ ” says an Asian American woman. “Every job tells you the same thing: Don’t be racist. Don’t harass people. Unless your culture is different, I don’t think anything will change.”
Shallal agrees. That is why, he says, he’s 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 — with poetry slams, book readings and film screenings.
“We’ll ask right away during a job interview, ‘Do you feel strongly about any social or political issues?’ ” says Marija Stojkovic, head of human resources. “Instead of avoiding those issues, we look for ways to talk about them.”
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?
“Of course we want every customer to feel welcome, but we also need employees to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, but this is why we believe in supporting these issues,’ ” she says. “We believe we can teach people anything — they can learn the menu, the ingredients — but a culture of diversity and inclusion is the most important thing.”
After hundreds of these sessions, there are certain things Shallal has come to expect.
“Almost every time, someone will say, ‘I feel like I’m color blind so I’m a good person,’ ” he says.
“Being color blind is the absolute worst thing because we’re not a color blind society,” Shallal says. “What we need is for people to realize, ‘I’m not color blind. I have prejudices, and I need to check myself in every encounter.’ That’s the only way we move forward.”