How Shopping While Black Hurts African Americans

Oprah Winfrey has experienced
Oprah Winfrey has experienced "shopping while black.". Greg Hernandez/

You may be familiar with the phrase “driving while black.” This term refers to racial profiling—specifically law enforcement’s practice of pulling over African American drivers and detaining or searching them with no probable cause. They simply stop black drivers due to the perception that African Americans are likely to break the law.

The term “shopping while black” is related. This occurs when store personnel “profile” black customers due to the perception that African Americans often shoplift.

Such profiling may consist of treating black patrons rudely or following them around shops to ensure that they don’t steal. Even high profile African Americans such as Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey have reportedly been victimized for “shopping while black.”

Spot the signs of racial profiling in retail with this review, and find out what can you do to counter this practice.

How Common Is Racial Profiling in Retail?

Just how often are customers of color racially profiled? While it’s now common to require police officers to record the race of those they stop and the reason for stopping them, there’s no legislation that requires retailers to record the race of customers they follow, question, ignore or otherwise disrespect. Given this, tracking racial profiling in retail is difficult. The data that exists on the subject is widely based on surveys of people of color about their experiences shopping.

According to a 2004 Gallup poll on racial profiling, for example, 65 percent of blacks and 56 percent of Hispanics think that retail discrimination is widespread. Meanwhile, just 45 percent of whites agree. Perhaps this is because whites are the group least likely to be racial profiling victims.

Why Racially Profiling Shoppers Doesn’t Work

Blacks, particularly males, frequently experience racial profiling in retail, but a 2004 University of Florida study found that African Americans and Latinos aren’t more likely than whites to shoplift.

Other stereotypes that the study challenged were that women are more likely to steal than men, and young people are more likely to steal than older people. In fact, the opposite is true in both cases. Such findings indicate why shopkeepers would be better served if they focused on a patron’s behavior rather than on a person’s race, age or gender. Despite such findings, some retailers will inevitably continue to train salespeople to profile customers of color. So, how can you tell if you’re a victim?

How Racial Profiling Plays Out in Retail

If a salesperson is hot on your trail, you’re likely being racially profiled. Don’t expect to be openly followed, though. Many salespeople have learned to stealthily track clientele of color throughout stores. These salespeople may pretend to be rearranging items as they move in your general direction. And when you move to another section, they will pretend to work in that section also.

Some salespeople will repeatedly ask customers of color if they can help them with something. If a customer of color tries on clothes in a dressing room, the salespeople may repeatedly “check in,” knocking on the door numerous times to inquire if the customer needs anything.

In some cases, these salespeople may be genuinely trying to help. But if you sense that a salesperson’s attentiveness is not rooted in customer service but in something more sinister, listen to your gut. In addition, observe other salespeople and determine if they’re being just as attentive to customers of all races. Be just as vigilant when you’re at the cash register. Does the sales clerk ask everyone who pays by credit card for identification, or just minority clientele? If the way you’re being treated by staff stands out and you’re a minority, racial profiling may be at play.

Other Examples of Racial Profiling

Sometimes theft isn’t the foremost issue on a salesperson’s mind when they racially profile. Rather than worry about a customer of color shoplifting, a salesperson may racially profile by presuming that minority shoppers can’t afford merchandise. Accordingly, these salespeople may ignore shoppers of color. They won’t wait on them, act annoyed if minority customers ask for help or take longer to serve such customers.

If a minority customer asks to see expensive goods, the salesperson may point out how costly the items are, implying that the customer probably can’t afford such a purchase.

In biography The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy, author Glenn Kessler writes about former Secretary of State Rice experiencing such behavior in a jewelry store. A friend of Rice recalled witnessing a sales clerk bringing out costume jewelry after Rice asked to view the store’s wares. When Rice asked to see nicer jewels, the clerk grumbled, to which Rice reportedly responded:

"Let's get one thing straight. You are behind the counter because you have to work for minimum wage. I'm on this side asking to see the good jewelry because I make considerably more." With that, a manager brought Rice the luxury jewels, according to Think Progress.

How to Avoid Being Profiled

There’s no real way to avoid being racially profiled.

If salespeople are determined to racially discriminate against others, they’ll find a way. That said, customers of color may receive better service in stores if they’re dressed well. They may also arouse less suspicion if they shop alone rather than in a group. Customers of color who patronize establishments often enough to familiarize themselves with staff will also reduce their chances of being profiled.

If you’re a loyal customer, the staff will not only be inclined to trust you but appreciate you as well.

While these steps may help, they’re not foolproof. Moreover, it’s not a person of color’s job to prevent being profiled. It’s the job of retailers to train their staffs not to discriminate.

Take Action if You Are Being Profiled

If you’re racially profiled while shopping, you can deal with it immediately. Ask the salesperson you believe is following you around or ignoring you what’s going on. “Funny, everywhere I go, you go too. Why is that?” you could say. If the salesperson’s answer isn’t satisfactory, ask to see the manager. If the manager’s the one doing the profiling, ask to see the manager’s superior and on and on. Detail the incident in a letter to company higher-ups.

Don’t make a purchase to prove that you’re an honest person who can afford to shop at the establishment. Instead, make a point not to patronize the store again. Tell friends and family about what happened to you and blog about it to let the whole world know.