Amanda Wannagat was an exemplary Starbucks store manager.
Wannagat had repeatedly received accolades from the global coffee shop chain for her performance. New store managers would get sent to her store in Salt Lake City to learn how to do the job properly.
Despite solid career prospects and reasonable pay that supported her three children, she quit her job in June due to a toxic work environment that, she said, was the result of political indoctrination masked as “anti-racism” and other employee trainings.
“I felt like I was in a cult and I was drinking the Kool-Aid,” Wannagat told The Epoch Times via email.
She joined Starbucks in 2015 as a store manager and quickly became a manager trainer.
Wannagat said she recognized that most of the employees were left-leaning, if not “political activists.” But she thought that had nothing to do with the workplace. She believed the company to be admirable in many regards.
She noticed that the atmosphere of her workplace began to change around 2017 and especially in 2018, after an incident in Philadelphia when a manager called the police on two black men who refused to order anything and refused to leave when asked.
The company issued an apology, its CEO arranged a meeting with the two men, and the manager, reportedly, was to undergo “unconscious bias” training. At the time, the company had just started a new initiative called “The Third Place.”
The initiative was intended to make Starbucks a “warm, welcoming environment, where anyone who crosses the threshold feels like … they’re welcome,” one executive said in a video that serves as part of the program’s training materials that was obtained by The Epoch Times.
The company produced sophisticated quarterly training routines, with videos, slides, and worksheets. It invited speakers who would record talks on various subjects related to the improvement of company culture and professionalism. A group of managers would undergo the training and then go through it with their staff in small groups or individually.
The first several training sessions were rather innocuous, Wannagat said.
But after the Philadelphia incident, the program started to include training with an apparent political bend, she said.
In fall 2018, one training session explained that Starbucks staff needed to learn a special way to deal with “LGBTQIA-plus” people, according to Wannagat.
Rather than getting on with their job, the training encouraged employees to “lean into discomfort” and start a conversation with such customers, discussing issues such as their sex, particularly when a misunderstanding causes a tense situation.
To Wannagat, engaging strangers on personal aspects of their sex seemed to be an inappropriate policy for a company.
Another training session, this one in 2019, asked employees to understand their “hidden biases,” which, in her view, also waded into personal territory into which it’s inappropriate for a corporation to pry.
In 2020, the company allowed staff to wear “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts after protests and riots following the death of George Floyd, a black man, during his arrest by a police officer. Starbucks didn’t allow any other apparel donning political slogans. The Black Lives Matter movement was started by self-described Marxist organizers with the aim to press for political change as a solution to incidents in which police officers killed black people.
Wannagat said she was required to distribute Black Lives Matter T-shirts to her staff, but she never wore one herself and continued to try to steer clear of politics at her job.
Around that time, the staff learned that one of their colleagues, who was unable to work due to becoming infected with COVID-19, “said something online to the effect that all lives matter,” Wannagat said.
“My staff decided to bully her inside the workplace, as well as outside the workplace,” she said.
When Wannagat found out about the situation, she passed the matter on to Starbucks’ Ethics and Compliance Division for an investigation.
Around September 2020, the results came in. Several employees were to receive “final corrective actions”—a final warning before being fired. Wannagat was also tasked with going over the company’s retaliation and harassment policies with the staff.
“After that, my staff got really aggressive,” she said.
The employees became uncooperative, and they were obviously upset with her.
Not only did they consider the results of the investigation unfair, but they also suspected that Wannagat didn’t believe in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The situation only escalated from there.
In January, managers were called in for another “Third Place” training session, this time based on a talk by Ibram X. Kendi, a history professor at Boston University, where he founded the Center for Antiracist Research.
He was to help the company embark on a “journey to become an anti-racist organization,” as one executive noted in one of the training videos.
In his talk, Kendi argued that the “fundamental core” of racial division is a disagreement over what causes racial differences.
How is it, he asked, that black people were 3.2 times more likely to die of COVID-19? In his view, there could be only two explanations, one “racist” and one “anti-racist.”
The racist person would ask whether black people, on average, were less likely to follow COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as social distancing. That person would also ask whether black people tended to have more comorbidities due to a lack of self-care or perhaps have some genetic predisposition that makes them more vulnerable to the disease.
All such ideas suggest there’s “something wrong” with black people, he said, and as such, they portray black people as inferior, which suggests some other race must be superior in some regard.
Black people have been two times, Hispanics 2.3 times, and native Americans 2.4 times more likely than white people to die of COVID-19 when adjusted for age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I define a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is superior or inferior to another racial group in any way,” Kendi said.
An “anti-racist” idea, he said, “is any idea that suggests that there’s nothing wrong or right with any racial group.” Such ideas would prompt questions about whether “there’s something wrong with the conditions, something wrong with policies, something wrong with practices, something wrong with society.”
He acknowledged that “most Americans today and historically have actually argued both.” But he rejected such a proposition, portraying the two ideas as conflicting.
Kendi framed the issue of police killings in the same fashion.
“Why is it that black people are the victims of police violence at three times the rates of white people every year on average?” he asked.
He argued that people pushing racist ideas would place the onus on black people to “act right around the police,” while those engaging “anti-racist” ideas would say, “It’s actually the result of some larger structural issues.”
If somebody would argue that they aren’t racist, they would be automatically associating themselves with people in the present and the past who made such claims based on dishonest arguments, he suggested.
“When people in today’s time say that they’re not racist, they’re connecting with white supremacists who say that they’re not racist. They’re connecting with Jim Crow segregationists who are like, ‘It’s perfectly separate but equal in Mississippi. We’re not racist.’ They’re connecting with people who lynched black people by the thousands who were like, ‘We’re not racist. These people broke the law. And we’re just following through with the law.’ They’re connecting with slaveholders, who said, ‘We’re not racist. This slavery is God’s law. Slavery is nature’s law. Slavery is an American law. We’re just following the law. Or we’re just following nature. You know, indeed, black people are the cursed descendants of Ham. So, we’re not doing anything wrong,’” Kendi said.
He also said that the way to enact “anti-racist” policies is to put “different folks in positions of power.” Starbucks should consider making it easier to be “anti-racist,” Kendi advised.
“One of the ways we do that is to provide incentives to be anti-racist.”
While looked upon as a guru to progressives, Kendi’s ideas have been rejected by both conservative and classical liberal scholars.
“The major issue with what Kendi says is that it is an either/or fallacy. He presents the problem as either a matter of culture or a matter of policy. This takes the onus off of people of color completely, which I think is a mistake,” Erec Smith, associate professor of Rhetoric and Composition at York College of Pennsylvania, told The Epoch Times.
“Another issue is that he never gives an example of a racist policy relevant to Starbucks or beyond. This is because that explanation would surely echo one of his most famous sentiments that he doesn’t seem to share in these videos: The only solution to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
Kendi also failed to address the likelihood that racial divisions could have different causes altogether, such as overemphasis on racial group differences.
“I’ve been working on de-emphasizing racial difference for most of my life, which makes current anti-racism all the more frustrating,” Smith said.
Kendi’s representative didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.
If Starbucks’ “anti-racist” push was supposed to alleviate racial tensions, Wannagat saw no evidence of that—just the opposite.
“It created a problem. It created a wedge,” she said.
It was apparent to Wannagat that some staffers started to feel uncomfortable around each other.
“I didn’t see a divide along race in my store until then,” she said.
Turning the workplace political turned up the heat to such an extent that Wannagat had to reprimand her staff for ignoring customers and doing “malicious things” to the drinks of people who came donning political messages with which they disagreed.
Eventually, Wannagat decided to take a leave of absence and escalate the matter up the corporate ladder again.
The corporation sent somebody to address staff retaliation against Wannagat. A meeting was arranged with the most aggravated staffers and her, but they wouldn’t back down.
“They screamed at me, and they yelled at me,” she said.
In June, she decided to leave.
“I’ve had a really great job, and I just won an award in December of 2019. And 2020 came along and just crashed everything down and really put me in a spot where I had to choose between my morals, my values, my beliefs, or my job,” she said.
Starbucks didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.