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Online Shopping While Black

Until racial profiling stops, the internet has an edge over the mall

Brittany Holloway-Brown
Brittany Holloway-Brown

Last November, I found myself at Walmart, covering its Thanksgiving sale for a California newspaper. But once I finished my reporting, I didn’t even consider following the customers I’d interviewed inside to score a deal on a TV or a tablet. Instead, I joined the hordes of shoppers who take advantage of discounts on Cyber Monday, the online supersale that brought in nearly $2.04 billion in 2014. With the click of a mouse, I bought a pair of Oxfords from the Levi’s website, along with some Pamela Love earrings. The purchases arrived at my front door in a matter of days.

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See, I'm such an avid online shopper that I can't recall my last visit to a brick-and-mortar clothing store. I buy tops from the eco-conscious retailer Reformation because the nearest L.A. store is across town from me. And I can find anything from aspartame-free gum to aluminum-free deodorant on Plus, comparison-shopping takes mere seconds on the Internet.

But there's another reason I shop on the web: my skin color. I'm African American, and purchasing online allows me to avoid the pitfalls of "shopping while black."

During my rare retail outings, I try to minimize my interactions with staff.

For the uninitiated, this form of racial profiling occurs when store personnel treat black customers more like potential thieves than shoppers. They may trail black shoppers around or refuse to show them high-end goods. Oprah Winfrey and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have reportedly been victims of the practice. Most recently, it appears, so has NBA star John Henson.

Last month Henson dropped by a Wisconsin jewelry store to purchase a Rolex watch. But the staff not only refused to let the Milwaukee Bucks forward inside, they also called the police on him. Henson's crime? Apparently, being tall, male and black. Even after authorities arrived and confirmed that he was a professional athlete, the staff of Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers remained unrepentant, requesting that police supervise as he shopped.

The 24-year-old later took to Instagram to declare the episode "one of the most degrading and racially prejudice[d] things I've ever experienced in life."

It would be easy to dismiss Henson's disastrous jewelry-store visit as an isolated incident. But that would be untrue. Earlier this month, an Australian Apple Store made headlines after an employee barred a group of Somali and Sudanese students from entering for fear "they might steal something." In June, CVS faced a lawsuit filed by ex-employees who were allegedly told to trail black and Latino customers. According to the suit, the supervisor's reasoning was that "black people always are the ones that are the thieves," and "lots of Hispanic people steal." Last year Barneys settled a racial discrimination suit for $525,000 after allegedly accusing black shoppers of credit card fraud without cause.

And it's not just anecdotal. According to a Gallup poll conducted this summer, more black adults feel discriminated against while shopping than doing anything else: 24 percent said they experienced discrimination in a retail setting, compared to while eating out (20 percent), at work or during police encounters (18 percent), and while obtaining health care (12 percent).

Black consumers have a buying power of $1 trillion.

The routine bigotry people of color face can have adverse health effects. According to a 2009 study, "Racial Discrimination and the Stress Process," published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, black doctoral students said that experiencing racial microaggressions led them to have higher levels of anxiety and depression.

While it may have a new name, the practice of racial profiling in shops is old hat. Growing up, I remember seeing my mother react angrily when she felt singled out at a department store. She complained that sales clerks would ask her for ID when she used a credit card but not request the same of white customers.

Discussing this with me recently, my mother recalled a time during my childhood when we walked into a store only to have the shopkeeper trail us. We would take a step, and the shopkeeper would take a step, my mother said. We would move right, and the shopkeeper would move right.

"Don't worry," my mother recalled quipping to the woman. "We've been in much nicer stores than this."

The bluntness of this remark embarrassed me, according to my mother. I don't remember my reaction, but I know that today I wouldn't feel any consternation about my mother's verbal jab. Why shouldn't the shopkeeper have been called out for how she made us feel?

Enduring such profiling as a child has probably subconsciously influenced my shopping habits as an adult. Before I became an online shopping fan, I spent as little time as possible in stores. I would go into a shop, make a beeline for what I wanted, and leave. I've never spent hours trying on clothes, and during my rare retail outings, I try to minimize my interactions with staff. My husband points out that even while grocery shopping I don't like to ask staff for help. I simply assume they won't be helpful.

The web is one place black consumers know they can shop with dignity.

On the other hand, my friend Sonja Warfield, a television writer who is also black, takes action when salespeople ignore her. "I can be dressed very nicely and still this happens," she said. "It's like I'm invisible. It really puts me out." In some instances, salespeople have literally passed her by to rush to the aid of white patrons. Rather than let such cold-shouldering go, Sonja tracks them down and makes them help her. She has had these experiences too many times to dismiss them as anomalies.

Whether it's Sonja being ignored or Henson being refused service (or me preemptively assuming salespeople aren't there to help), the fact remains that too often, African Americans aren't considered legitimate shoppers. This attitude ignores the fact that black consumers aren't the group most likely to shoplift and that they shop more than others, with a buying power of $1 trillion. Racial profiling is simply bad for business, but as long as racial stereotypes persist, so will "shopping while black."

Black shoppers should be able to patronize brick-and-mortar stores without fear they'll be ignored, followed around, or refused service. Internet shopping, after all, has disadvantages. The wrong package occasionally shows up or sometimes garments look completely different in person than they do on a computer screen. It's also entirely too easy to make impulse buys online.

But until racial profiling ceases, online shopping will continue to have an edge over the mall: It's the one place black consumers know they can shop with dignity.

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist.


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