Righting a Wrong: Racism, Audism, Starbucks, and Us

Director for We the Deaf People–Chapter for District of Columbia


On the afternoon of May 29, 2018, Starbucks, taking an enormous risk by losing 12 million dollars in profits, closed 8,000 stores across the United States for racial-bias training.

This unprecedented move came in response to an incident that occurred on April 12 at a Starbucks in an upscale neighborhood in downtown Philadelphia. Two Black men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, were arrested for trespassing. They aroused the suspicion of the staff because they hadn’t ordered any food or drinks. And they were denied use of the restroom. Their crime? They were waiting for a third person to show up for a business meeting.

There were public protests, calls for a boycott, and lots of negative publicity. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and Police Chief made public apologies. Starbucks made amends, offering the two men who had been unjustly arrested generous financial compensation. The financial settlement was announced on May 2. Then Starbucks ordered the mass closure of stores for the training of its employees.

Starbucks took action to address the racism that is still prevalent throughout the nation. What about Audism, another prevalent social problem?

In 2013, twelve Deaf people, members of a “Deaf Chat Coffee” group that met monthly, filed a discrimination suit against Starbucks for refusing service to them in several New York City locations. The plaintiffs cited harassment, taunting, intimidation, and other forms of mistreatment, such as a staffer screaming obscenities at one and ordering him to leave, and telling a Deaf woman, also a Deaf Chat Coffee member, that they did not serve Deaf people, and a manager calling police and falsely reporting that the Deaf chatters were causing a disturbance. And being told that they were not welcome there.

This seems like an extreme example of what Deaf people deal with daily. We all have “restaurant horror stories.” Just as Blacks recognize that “restaurant Racism” is still part of our reality, we recognize that “restaurant Audism” still exists.

As long as Starbucks is taking concrete action to address racism, why not offer anti-Audism training too? The problem is that Audism is not considered a “burning issue” the way Racism is, because it’s a heavy appropriated “sound and language war,” involving people with an “invisible” difference.


The complaints of the Deaf Chat Coffee twelve involve a few staff members and a couple of managers. Even one is one too many. The plight of the Deaf Chat Coffee members didn’t grab headlines the way that the plight of Robinson and Nelson did. Yes, there was some publicity, but no protest rallies, no calls for a boycott, no organized outpouring of national outrage.

I was dismayed to learn about the Deaf Chat Coffee members’ lawsuit, the descriptions of the mean-spirited treatment dished out to them, and the profoundly disturbing ignorance displayed by the staffers and manager who mistreated them. Even if these stores had trouble with individual Deaf people before—say, a mentally-unbalanced customer who threw a tantrum, or one who hung around for hours without ordering anything—that wouldn’t give them the license to mistreat other Deaf customers.

Ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent of Deaf people are decent, law-abiding customers, and any commercial establishment should welcome their patronage. The best amends that can be made are acceptance, a welcome (just as hearing people take for granted), and a bit of patience, compassion, and kindness. Also professionalism.

Can Starbucks earn a national reputation for being Deaf-friendly and Deaf-aware in all its locations? I encourage Starbucks to set a good example, and support Deaf people, because if the company continues to ignore Audism, it will ultimately alienate and lose the Deaf community.

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see: Starbucks closing 8,000 stores across the U.S. to administer anti-Audism training to its employees, and hiring Deaf people to do the training and the teaching. That would be a tremendous achievement.


Copyright © 2018 Jason Tozier

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