I’m sure it has happened to you. You’re shopping in a store, minding your own business, and suddenly you have unwanted company. A store employee is hot on your trail, following you around based on the suspicion that you’re going to steal. It’s called racial profiling–or in this case, shopping while black–and it happens every day. (Yes, racism still exists.)
I’ve had several experiences with being followed in stores. The most traumatic was when I was shopping at BeBe, a women’s clothing store in New York City, about three years ago. I entered the store and soon afterward about two other women (both white) entered the store. Before I could begin to browse, a white employee quickly runs over to me. She asks if I need help. I say I’m OK and continue to shop. But she won’t take no for an answer. She proceeds to ask my name and where I live. Then she follows me around the store as I look for dresses. I’m dressed professionally so I can’t understand why she perceives me as a threat. I repeatedly say I don’t need help but she keeps following me. Then she says she’s going to “set up a dressing room” for me. As soon as I pick up a dress, she snatches it from me and puts it in the dressing room. The entire time, the other women in the store (all white) are not getting any help or attention. It’s not like the store employees didn’t see them–only about five customers were in the store, including me. All of those women could have shoplifted and no one would have noticed. The employees bought into the stereotype that black people steal. The next time you’re in this situation (and you will be, trust me), here’s how to fight back:
Speak up. If a store employee is obviously following you or appears in every part of the store you’re in, “fixing” or “re-stocking” items on shelves that clearly do not need fixing or restocking, say something. Let that person know you’re aware that he or she is following you and that it needs to stop. Stand up for yourself.
Don’t make a purchase. Do not try to prove that you can afford to shop in the store or that you’re not going to steal. Leave and take your business elsewhere.
Contact the headquarters. Find the name of the highest ranking executive at store headquarters and write a letter. Let that executive know how upsetting your experience was and that you and your friends will not be coming back to their store unless the problem is addressed. (And you may not even return after that, depending on the severity of the situation.)
Don’t patronize the store. Don’t waste your hard-earned money in a store that doesn’t value customers of color. Encourage others in your network to abstain from shopping at that particular store or using their products, as well.
Blog or tweet about it. Use social media to get the word out about your experience. Use blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else you can get your hands on to let everyone know about how a particular company treats its customers of color. The goal is to get the company’s attention while getting others to join in on the boycott and take a stand against unfair treatment.
Please share your Shopping While Black story with us in the comments section below.
Sheiresa Ngo is the consumer affairs editor at Black Enterprise