Oprah Winfrey. Actor Robert Brown. Condolezza Rice. What do these people have in common? Their retail experiences were awful because their complexion is darker than the clay that Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze lubed each other up with in Ghost. Or in simpler terms, these famous folks were victims of shopping while black. Unfortunately, this kind of discrimination is nothing new. Last year, two shoppers – Kayla Phillips and Trayon Christian – made national headlines when they were accused of fraud after making expensive purchases at Barneys. Thankfully, on Monday, some fantastic news was announced: the upscale retailer agreed to pay a settlement, including a $525,000 fine, as well as hire an independent anti-profiling consultant for two years. So in honor of this ruling, I want to share some Blaria-fied dos and dont’s on how stores should and shouldn’t treat black customers.
DO: Realize that your ignorance has reached FEMA State of Emergency levels if the number of times it takes me to get your attention is equal to or greater than the number of times I have to say, “Beetlejuice” in order to summon him. Look, I understand. To survive working in retail, you must have a thousand yard stare like you did three tours of Vietnam. But you didn’t. You work in Uniqlo, folding sweaters while Now, That’s What I Call Music Volume 28 blares in the background. So there is no damn reason why the entire first verse, chorus, second chorus, and bridge of Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” plays before you acknowledge my presence. Especially if we’re making eye contact the way groups of married couples did with each other during 1970s key parties while deciding if they want to play a game of “Pass the Peen:”
DON’T: Creep up behind me in the produce aisle like the alien from Aliens
because I’m in the middle of deciding whether to put that container of sliced watermelon in my shopping cart. But thanks to your startling me, I awkwardly announce that I’m really checking out a bushel of giant peaches for a Patti LaBelle peach cobbler recipe, which, let’s face it, probably is “blacker” than just sticking an IV in my arm and mainlining watermelon juice right there in the produce aisle. I know, I know. I need to just own it. We have a black President, I’m rocking an afro, and Erykah Badu’s music taught me how to be a strong, independent woman. I should be able to purchase this delicious fruit without feeling self-conscious. Yet I do because, inevitably at check out, a non-black cashier will ring up the watermelon and do what I did when I was a kid and tried to keep a straight face after my brother got cussed out by my parents in Toys-R-Us:
DO: Allow me to try on clothes in peace. Don’t get me wrong. You can be attentive, but knocking on the dressing room door as if you’re sending morse code to an American ally in the Ukraine is not meant to be helpful; it’s meant to make your presence known and me nervous. So enough, ‘kay? No more unnecessary knocking on the door, no more creeping over the door “Wilson from Home Improvement-style” and definitely no more sliding underneath it the way my boyfriend does underneath my dress on my birthday:
DON’T: Turn up your face at the debit/credit card I’m using like I just opened a Tupperware container full of tuna casserole. #BitchICanSeeYourFace. Just because I’m not whipping out a black AMEX card, does not mean that my financials are broken down like an improper fraction. Sure, my bare bones Chase bank debit card is as basic as Dairy Queen’s ice cream cake, but that doesn’t give you the right to do the following when I swipe it on the card machine:
Money is money, so be grateful that my purchases are contributing to your Lean Cuisine account.
DO: Let me look at a high-priced item instead of telling me it’s really expensive and making an expression like the kind I do when my boss tells me she’s going to leave work early, but is still there at 5:15 P.M.:
#BitchICanSeeYourFaceTheSequel. So it would behoove you to make like you’re on World Series of Poker and hide whatever rude things you are thinking about me. Better yet, realize that it is not only extremely ignorant to assume what I can and cannot afford, but it is insulting to imply that because I’m not of a certain race nor dress like I’m of a particular class, I don’t have the right to browse and/or touch high-priced items. Furthermore, please don’t pretend that directing me to the sale section is a friendly suggestion. We both know it is a read. Like a “you just tucked me into bed, read me the entire Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein anthologies, and then said, ‘Turn that night light off, bitch, and go to sleep,’ and left the room” type read. I am not here for that and will leave because of it.
DON’T: Stare at me/follow me around your store because it will make me change the motto on my family crest to Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”. In all seriousness, glaring at me and/or following me is unpleasant, but more importantly, it is a boneheaded decision. Why? Jerome D. Williams, a professor and Prudential Chair in Business at Rutgers Business School, explains in his Huffington Post essay regarding Macy’s, Barney’s, and the NYPD’s stance on shoplifting:
The reality is that non-minority shoppers account for most of the criminal activity. This is supported by data provided by the FBI’s UCR database which can be accessed on-line…Taking 2012 data, for example, the FBI data shows that approximately 70 percent of larceny/shoplifting arrestees are white. Our research suggests that whites don’t frequently show up in shoplifting crime statistics to this degree because people aren’t watching them. In fact, one could argue that whatever shoplifting statistics are reported in most cases have a built-in bias and are skewed upward. That’s because the statistics actually are not really an indication of who’s actually shoplifting. They are a reflection of who’s getting caught, and that’s a reflection of who’s getting watched. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wow. Even if you don’t care about this data because of whatever prejudices you have, your checking account should. Because while you’re spending all your time keeping an eye on me, some white dude just peaced out your store with an unpaid for box of Fruit Loops.
DO: Treat me with respect BEFORE you realize that the white dude down the aisle is my boyfriend. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have been in the store and the following has happened:
When my bf, some of his friends, and I walk into a store together, the sales clerks are like…
…then we separate and Jon and his friends are browsing on their lonesome so the clerks come over like...
And I feel like I wandered onto the set of I Am Legend because I cannot get assistance from anyone. But then a couple of employees see my boo walk over to me, kiss me, and place an item in my shopping cart and they:
And ask me how I’m doing and if I’m finding everything OK. Cut to me:
Listen, my name is not Julia Roberts and I’m not in the mood to be Pretty Woman‘d. You should be nice to me regardless of whom or whom I’m not dating. Behaving as though I’m only worthy of attention once my boyfriend is beside me is trifling.gov/askasenator. So please get your life together…and then ring my items up.
DON’T: Security guards, when you ask for the receipt and a black customer shows it to you, don’t do what my mom did the first time she saw an iPhone:
It’s a receipt and you freaking know it. It is ludicrous that after you’ve seen proof of payment, you still manage to think the items were stolen or worse yet, you let a white couple, who is setting off an alarm, walk out the store because you’re too busy harassing someone who doesn’t deserve it. This is what happened to celebrated writer Roxane Gay as she was leaving a Best Buy earlier this month:
This is a damn shame. No one should be subjected to this type of treatment. So quit trying to find a way for the black patrons in your store to be the criminals you have labeled them in your mind.
DO: Be OK with your hand being near mine when giving me change after a purchase. Actually, be better than OK with it because I’m a human being. Of course, I’m not saying you have to hold my hand like we’re doing a game of Ring Around The Rosie BUT please note that if the distance between our hands when giving me my money isn’t less than the distance required between the faller and spotter during a trust fall exercise at summer camp, then you’re fucking doing it wrong. And my reaction to that nonsense will be the same as the one I have when I try to make one of Rachel Ray’s 30 minutes or less meals and two hours later, all I have done is chop some onions and boil water:
OK, I know I’ve been joking around a lot in this blog post, but it’s only to keep from being sad. All these sort of discriminatory things happen all the time and they don’t make the newspaper. Nor are there consequences like with the Barneys case. A lot of times, black people are just forced to suck it up and keep it moving as I have done.
I have lived in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood for the past six years. When the organic food store opened a couple of years ago, I would say that for the first year of its existence, I was consistently followed around the store. Employees would pretend to be stacking loaves of bread when they were really checking to see if I was going to put a jar of almond butter in my purse. Normally, I would be like, “Screw this place. I’ll go somewhere else,” but all the other stores in my neighborhood have garbage produce sections, so I can’t. I need fruits and vegetables, so I sucked it up and kept shopping at this particular place and eventually, they left me alone.
And that’s absurd. It’s absurd that was I judged from the beginning when I clearly make more money than all the damn employees up in that organic food store. It’s absurd that after purchasing items from there the first time, it was not enough for the manager to realize I’m not a thief. It’s absurd that there were times where I thought, “I better dress up a little, so the stock boys won’t think that I’m up to something.” It’s absurd that there were some days I didn’t got to that store because I just didn’t have the strength to deal with being made to feel like a criminal in my own neighborhood. It’s absurd that “shopping while being black” is a thing. It’s absurd that when I explain this white people, I’m made to feel I’m overreacting or “searching” for a reason to feel less than or they reply with, “This happens to me, too.” And finally, it’s absurd that in 2014 this foolishness is still going on and that I even have to write a post like this.
*Photo credit: Aaron Showalter/The Daily News*