Don’t pick it up if you’re not going to buy it. Stop fidgeting. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Actually, don’t touch anything. At all.
For people of color, these phrases are well-worn proverbs: as a little (or big) brown kid, you don’t want to be accused of shoplifting. At best, the charge of swiping bracelets and candy bars could get you a slap on the wrist. But if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, a store employee’s racial prejudice could end in detainment or arrest. Or, if you’re Michael Brown, death.
What many white people may not realize is that getting the opposite of the royal treatment while shopping is an everyday, lived experience for people of color. “Retail racism,” as it’s called, is just one less concern on the minds of those protected by white privilege.
Actress, director and author Gabourey Sidibe made waves last week when she shared her less-than-stellar shopping experience at a Chanel outlet in Chicago. As written by Sidibe for feminist publication Lenny, Sidibe was given the runaround when trying to purchase Chanel frames for her prescription eyeglasses.
At first glance, Sidibe’s account may just sound like the unfortunate result of a cranky store employee. But even if the woman didn’t throw around the N-word, it’s clear the way she treated Sidibe had racial implications.
The logic that fuels false shoplifting accusations against people of color — based on the stereotype that all black people are poor and criminals — also fuels this dismissive behavior. Even dressed to kill in Balenciaga and literally rocking a Chanel bag on her shoulder, Sidibe was still treated as if she couldn’t afford luxury fashion.
Sidibe touches on this, saying, “No matter how dressed up I get, I’m never going to be able to dress up my skin color to look like what certain people perceive to be an actual customer.”
“Depending on the store, I either look like a thief or a waste of time. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground between no attention and too much attention.”
Of course, Sidibe is far from the first person — even the first celebrity — to face racist treatment in a retail setting. If you’re a person of color, you’ve probably been dogged around a store by an uptight employee. Perhaps you have tried to do your darnedest to ignore the inquisitive, uncomfortable looks you’re getting while doing your thing.
One high-profile case of retail racism occurred when an employee in a Swiss boutique refused to show Oprah Winfrey a handbag that piqued her interest. Winfrey was told it was too expensive for her.
Likewise, in an address after Trayvon Martin’s shooting, President Barack Obama spoke about his own brushes with racial profiling. Explicitly, he said, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
Breaking it down quantitatively, the Center for Popular Democracy did a case study of Zara stores across New York City. CPD found that the code phrase “special order” is used among Zara employees to label certain customers as “suspicious” or “potential thieves.”
Out of the employees that did respond to CPD’s question about special orders, 46 percent of Zara employees admitted special orders are “always” or “often” black customers. Fourteen percent said special orders tend to be Latinx customers and only 7 percent of special orders were said to be white.
Next to Zara, Barney’s is notorious for having a poor track record.
The shorthand for this epidemic is “shopping while black.” But of course, these little racist moments in the bigger picture of institutionalized oppression don’t just affect black people. Most notably, Macy’s detained Puerto Rican and Venezuelan women following false accusations of shoplifting.
Apart from just being unfair and a drag (as racism is), this sort of treatment is humiliating. When no real crimes are being committed, it’s clear that the only crime here must be living and breathing as a person of color.