Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I caught a shopkeeper in the act of racial profiling

Never Done: I caught a shopkeeper in the act of racial profiling

I've been trying on clothes lately, trying to find a couple items to build up a more robust and potentially professional wardrobe. I set out for one particular boutique in Red Hook, where I hoped to find a dress by a local designer I like, but when I got there there was literally a GON FISHIN' sign on the door. How quaint. How un-helpful! So I decided to try my luck in random boutiques on Smith Street, which I'd heard might have some potential.

I tried on a dress in the first store I went into -- Smith and Butler -- and although I loved the cut, I didn't love the pastel fabric. Also, I didn't love the fact that she had a super-slimming mirror in the women's dressing room, so I asked the shopkeeper if she had any other mirrors, and she sent me down some stairs to the men's department. Men, I guess, don't want to look too skinny. And I prefer seeing myself looking as close to how I really look as possible. And I liked how I looked.

So I went back up to ask her if she had the dress in any other fabric, and she said she didn't, but when she told me the designer was from Sweden, I did warm up to the pastel a little bit. (I am a shamless Swedophile.) But just then, two black guys came into the store. I only caught a glimpse of them, but I heard them talk about wanting nice jeans. They headed straight to the back of the store -- to the men's department where I had just been -- and the shopkeeper said to me, "Excuse me, I have to follow them. I mean, you understand. I have to follow them."

That made me curious to get a better look at the guys -- were they teenagers or older? Did they look like they were there to shop or steal? Did they seem threatening in any way? So I followed a bit, and got a better look, and what I saw was two men in their late 20s, early 30s, who totally looked to me like they were there to shop for nice jeans. Not that I can tell everything from a quick look, but that's what it looked like to me: they seemed like customers.

I went back in the dressing room and took off the dress because there was no way I was going to buy something from this shopkeeper. (I also took a photo of the dress so I could try to find it elsewhere.) Then I went to talk with her about what she'd done, but there were now other customers in the store as well as the two men, so I slipped out. But it felt wrong, and I knew I had to go back in and talk with her. But first I went to to a couple other stores (and found some good clothes in one of them) and while in there, I asked the other shopkeepers if they had ideas of what might be effective. Neither had good ideas, but one of them told me that if her employees were doing that, she would want to know.

Then my friend Claire called, and I asked her what she would do. Her thought was to ask the woman what she was thinking, which made sense to me. In fact, when I used to do diversity trainings and taught people about interrupting racism, we often suggested a three-step process.

1. Validate them in some way
2. Ask them why they think the way they do
3. Give correct information

So I went back in. I looked around to make sure there was nobody in the store, so that I wouldn't embarrass her in front of a customer. I asked her if I could talk with her for a minute and she said yes. I told her I thought her store was lovely (actually I thought it was strange. It had a motorcycle in it.) and then I asked her if she had had a big problem with shoplifting in her store. She said yes she had, that "they" come in and steal and that she's had to put in security cameras. I asked her if what made her think that the men who came in were shoplifters, and she said "they" steal from her all the time, and that when three of them come in, it's a real red flag for her.

So by now you've noticed that I am putting the word "they" in quotation marks. It's because she kept using the word, and to me it just reeked of a euphemism for young black men. Also, she called them three, when there were really only two, which to me indicated that she felt that the two men were a greater threat than they actually were. So I asked her if she knew the men who had come in (because she had said that they steal from her all the time.) And she said no. And I asked her if she follows groups of young women when they come in the store, and she got flustered. So I decided to move to the "give correct information" phase of our conversation, and I told her that many young black men had let me know how difficult it is for them to be suspected and followed in stores, and that the TWO men in the store earlier had struck me as customers, not shoplifters.

To this she responded that I didn't understand how hard it is to be a woman working alone in a store. I didn't tell her that actually I did know, although it is true that I have never been a woman working alone in a fancy New York boutique. Instead, I told her that she had lost my sale because of what happened earlier, and that I wouldn't be coming back in her store. "That's your decision." And I wished her luck, and told her I hoped she'd think about what I'd said, and I left.

I didn't end up feeling like I was terribly effective. So on the way home, I devised a little creative action. I think I'll make some stickers that say "We prosecute racial profilers" and stick them up ... where? In dressing rooms? On offending boutiques' doors?

Who's in?


  1. I <3 Jenny Levinson.

    I have to admit, in my head I am happy you didn't want to embarrass her. In my heart, I think about how embarrassing it is to watch someone "deploy" an employee to follow you around the store.

    I've lived in Prospect Heights for going on eight years now. There is a grocery store right at the corner of Flatbush and Park Place where I get followed EVERYTIME I go in there.

    Clearly, I stopped going there years ago because of this (and after telling the employee following me that he KNEW me and that this was RIDICULOUS) but everyone once and awhile, something makes me have to go in there (emergency TP or something) and I get angry again.

    Thanks for trying to interrupt this...

  2. I'm definitely in. And very proud of you. Years ago - I think it was in the 70s - I read an essay in Esquire magazine by a young black man who explained what it felt like to see people, especially women, cross to the other side of the street when he was walking down a sidewalk. I fear I have been a profiler myself, but I try try try to call myself on it. And I don't cross the street when I see three of "them" (that makes me sick...) coming. I usually just smile.

    Thank you for providing a model for us - validate, ask, give - will certainly work in most situations that could turn confrontational.

  3. hi Karen -- I was thinking that if I embarrassed her, it would probably be way less effective! But a part of me wanted to say something right in the moment so the guys knew I was on their side. But then ... what if the store had the jeans they wanted, and I made it harder for them to buy them if that's where they wanted to buy them? Oy. Your story is intense! They KNOW you and you pointed out that that they know you and they still follow you? I think they need one of our stickers!

  4. Lori -- I think we all do it. Having just read Claude Steele's book, Whistling Vivaldi, about stereotype threat, I realize it cuts in many directions. I think it's great you notice it when it's happening, and then act from your head and heart, and not your conditioning! xo