At the beginning of April, in need of a prescription refill, I took the subway to a drugstore in my Toronto neighbourhood where I hadn’t been since COVID-19 stuck us all inside. The store was busy and a security guard was stationed by the door. I paid for my prescription and reluctantly put it in my tote bag. This will be an issue, I thought. I gripped the receipt and headed to the exit, where the guard was standing. As I approached, he walked towards me, his hand raised like a stop sign. Thinking it was a social-distancing measure, I smiled.
“Did you buy something?” he asked, still blocking the exit.
“What?” I was confused. Was this small talk while I waited?
“Did you buy something or not? What’s in your bag?” He pointed to my tote. Ah, I thought. I get it now.
This was far from the first time I’ve been falsely accused of shoplifting. I was 15 when I was first followed around a clothing store, surrounded by all its employees, and asked if I “enjoyed the stolen stuff I put in my bag,” so I’m aware that my body inherently means I’ll be watched. (It’s why, before going to the drugstore that day, I’d freed my hair from my bun. To look softer. I’d put on some earrings. To show you don’t have to steal. I’d swapped my sweats for leggings. To look like you have a job.) But COVID-19 has made such scrutiny so much worse: The increase in surveillance, security measures, and law enforcement — ostensibly to protect the population from the spread of the virus — has resulted in the overpolicing of Black people.
While the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. recommends wearing cloth masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Black Americans are afraid for their lives if they do so. In Wood River, IL, two Black men filmed an encounter where they were followed around a Walmart by a white police officer, then kicked out of the store for wearing masks (a fear that surfaces when I reluctantly put on my own). In Miami, police handcuffed a Black doctor outside of his house wearing a mask. In Canada, where racial profiling is alive and well, a white woman in Halifax called the police on a Black man for, in her opinion, not following proper social-distancing measures. The man was arrested.
There are countless more incidents like these. Because, just as Black people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, so too are we more likely to be the target of increased government surveillance — whether it’s the neighbourhood police patrols, fines for not socially distancing, government-backed ID checks, and snitch lines. And it all boils down to systemic racism and the fear of marginalized bodies. Two white teens hanging out in a shuttered park might not draw too much complaint, but it could be a very different story for two Black kids, whom we know are more likely to be carded by police on any given day, let alone when the world is in lockdown.
Two white teens hanging out in a shuttered park might not draw too much complaint, but it could be a very different story for two Black kids, whom we know are more likely to be carded by police on any given day, let alone when the world is in lockdown.
Black women and girls have one of the biggest targets on their backs now and prior to the pandemic. Unlike white women, who are viewed as fair, innocent, educated, trustworthy, virtuous, and in need of protection, Black women are treated as if society needs protection from us. Black women historically bear the brunt of some of the most aggressive police tactics — from harming pregnant Black women, punching grandmothers, or slamming young Black women into police countertops and dragging them out of classrooms.
A 2018 study from the U.S. found that 60% of Black women shot by police were unarmed. Most recently, in March, Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT was killed by police who raided her home without identifying themselves. And still, Black women and girls are so excluded from discussions about police brutality and anti-Black racism that this birthed the #SayHerName campaign following the 2015 death of Sandra Bland.
Canadian data is limited, but you’ll recall the experiences of women like Stacy Bonds, who was stripped-searched by an officer while arrested in 2008 (the officer was later docked four weeks of pay, his only punishment), and Majiza Philip of Montreal, whose arm was broken when she was arrested in 2014 after tapping on the window of a police car. Or Santina Rao, whose wrist was broken and head concussed when she arrested by police in a Halifax Walmart this past January on suspicion of shoplifting (she had paid for her purchases), to name a few.
Equally as troubling, in Canada, the number of Black incarcerated women “appears to be rising quickly,” according to a 2014 Statistics Canada report (54% from 2002 to 2010, and another 28% between 2010-2012), despite Black people representing only 3.5% of the Canadian population (and Black women being one of the most educated groups in Canada). Considering Black women typically receive harsher sentences than white women for the same crimes, the increase in policing during the pandemic could put Black women at a devastating financial, legal, and social disadvantage, further fuelling the societal belief that Black women are criminal, up to no good, and a threat to society.
Which are exactly the stereotypes the security guard saw in me when he blocked me from exiting the drugstore that day. “I’m sorry. How was I supposed to know?” he whined as I waved my receipt in front of him and exited with my paid purchases.
After the incident, I contacted the company (which eventually apologized and passed on my message to the store manager — I still haven’t heard back) and I tweeted about my experience, which has over one hundred retweets with people demanding accountability from the drugstore, tagging politicians, and also sharing their own experiences being falsely accused of shoplifting. Every one of these actions — as well as those from advocates, journalists, and everyday people — help make sure that racial discrimination and other inequalities during the pandemic aren’t forgotten.
Ultimately, the way we respond to racial profiling now can help set better precedent for how we treat and view vulnerable groups in a post-COVID-19 world. When we punish and question people of colour for accessing basic necessities, especially during a pandemic, it reveals who we think deserves to be healthy and safe. I’d like to wear a mask to protect myself like everyone else instead of worrying about looking suspicious, or take a walk to clear my head around the block without fear of seeming out of place, or pick up a prescription — hair messy and tied up, no jewelry, and sweats — without having to prove I bought something.
It’s long overdue.