This Is What It’s Like To Shop As A Black Person

This story was originally published on April 17, 2014. We decided to repromote it one year later, given the disturbing new report published on Zara's alleged racial profiling.
A number of hashtags have popped up on Twitter after Michael Brown’s shooting death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The one that resonated with me the most was #igotthetalk, a way for people of color to share the day their parents told them how police would treat them, and how to behave so they wouldn’t be in danger.
I remember my version; it came in middle school and was something like "How Not To Get In Trouble When You Go To The Mall."
I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati — a place that was (and still is) segregated by both race and people’s attitudes about race. You knew in which neighborhoods you were and were not welcome. My father, an immigrant from Barbados, was never a fan of letting me go to the mall by myself, worrying I would become “just another American mall rat.” But, more importantly, he and my mother feared that mall security, store personnel, and even other shoppers would unfairly target me.
My parents said things like "Be careful how you’re dressed. Don’t be sloppy and call extra attention to yourself, because you’re Black and people are already watching you." Or, "Don’t be loud, because people are already watching you." "If your friends are up to no good and being rowdy, loitering, or even shoplifting, walk away." Why? "Because people are already watching you, and you’re going to be the one that gets in trouble."
I rarely went to the mall without adults, but I do remember being followed around at Gadzooks while shopping for my shredded pleated skirts and safety-pinned shirts, and at Spencer’s Gifts while giggling with my friends at the sex toys. I never knew whether to be relieved if someone ignored me, or insulted that they probably didn't even consider me an actual customer. I still feel this. You get paranoid after a while.
My younger brother, as he became a teenager, would get more talks, different talks. Don’t be threatening. This is how to talk to police. Here's what you do if you get pulled over. (Speak as politely as possible. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t fight or run. Don’t argue. Don’t give them any excuse to arrest you — or worse.)
The talks feel stranger when considered in hindsight. I was 13 years old when Timothy Thomas, an unarmed teen, fled the cops and was gunned down. Cincinnati rioted, and curfews went into effect. It’s one thing to tell your kids to behave in public, and to be polite to law enforcement, and maybe it's something every parent tells their child. Imparting adequate severity — that these etiquette lessons could have life-or-death consequences — is a burden no parent should bear. And, I dread one day having to tell my children that they will be treated like criminals because of the color of their skin.
I was comforted last year when New York opened an investigation in response to racial profiling complaints against retailers such as Macy’s, Sephora, Century21, and, most notably, Barneys — which made news twice in short order for discriminatory actions. Trayon Christian was accused of using a fraudulent debit card when he purchased a $350 Ferragamo belt, and was detained by police until they could prove it was, in fact, his own money. Shortly after, another customer, Kayla Phillips, came forward and said she was stopped after buying a $2,500 Céline bag.
Just last week, the luxury department store reached a settlement agreement with the New York Attorney General that included a $525,000 fine.
The victims in those cases had simply walked into a store, with their own money, and purchased an item they wanted. That’s no different than when I bought my first pair of designer shoes — I had saved for a year, and it was going to be a special buy for my 25th birthday. I went after brunch with a friend, also a woman of color, and felt invisible wandering through the spacious store. We whispered to each other as if we were going to be caught and thrown out. To be fair, plenty of people find the archipelago of pristine racks and minimally stocked shelves in Barneys to be intimidating. But, this wasn't in our heads: Not once during our laps through the store did a single sales person offer assistance. Though they did approach plenty of non-Black shoppers who were dressed the same as we were, looked to be the same age, and were browsing the same merchandise.
But, hurt feelings and a spoiled birthday splurge aren't the worst parts of racial profiling in retail. By virtue of their skin, Black people look like criminals to many. And, that means they're more in danger of being stopped and frisked, of being followed around or out of a store, and being shot down, like Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin, both of whom were returning from stores when they were first approached by police (or neighborhood watchmen). Trayvon, as you'll recall, was getting candy from a convenience store. In Brown's case, video purporting to show him shoplifting is being used to justify the police officer's response, even though he was stopped for a different, unknown reason. This is why people riot.
And, it's why the outcome of the Barneys lawsuit is so important. In addition to paying the fine, the company agreed to hire an independent anti-profiling consultant, adopt new policies, train its staff, investigate customer complaints of profiling, and keep better records on false stops and detentions by its loss-prevention team. Perhaps it's sorry because it got caught, and that's something it should be ashamed of, but it's also going to make these changes now. It doesn't have a choice.
There's much ground to make up, and one company's improvements starting in New York may not save lives in Missouri, or beyond. But, I'm hopeful that an impact will be felt — perhaps by the next young woman hoping to spoil herself with her hard-saved money. Mostly, though, I'm hoping that in the future, when I drop my children off at the mall, the most important thing I'll have to say to them is “Have fun, baby.”