Shopping Insider: Shopping While Black

How to get the best steals and deals, for people who take their shopping seriously

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Here's what you can do to fight back.

I’m sure it has happened to you. You’re shopping in a store, minding your own business, and suddenly you have unwanted company. A store employee is hot on your trail, following you around based on the suspicion that you’re going to steal. It’s called racial profiling–or in this case, shopping while black–and it happens every day. (Yes, racism still exists.)

I’ve had several experiences with being followed in stores. The most traumatic was when I was shopping at BeBe, a women’s clothing store in New York City, about three years ago.  I entered the store and soon afterward  about two other women (both white) entered the store.  Before I could begin to browse, a white employee quickly runs over to me. She asks if I need help. I say I’m OK and continue to shop. But she won’t take no for an answer. She proceeds to ask my name and where I live. Then she follows me around the store as I look for dresses.  I’m dressed professionally so I can’t understand why she perceives me as a threat. I repeatedly say I don’t need help but she keeps following me. Then she says she’s going to “set up a dressing room” for me.  As soon as I pick up a dress, she snatches it from me and puts it in the dressing room.  The entire time, the other women in the store (all white) are not getting any help or attention.  It’s not like the store employees didn’t see them–only about five customers were in the store, including me.  All of those women could have shoplifted and no one would have noticed. The employees bought into the stereotype that black people steal.  The next time you’re in this situation (and you will be, trust me), here’s how to fight back:

Speak up. If a store employee is obviously following you or appears in every part of the store you’re in, “fixing” or “re-stocking” items on shelves that clearly do not need fixing or restocking, say something. Let that person know you’re aware that he or she is following you and that it needs to stop. Stand up for yourself.

Don’t make a purchase. Do not try to prove that you can afford to shop in the store or that you’re not going to steal. Leave and take your business elsewhere.

Contact the headquarters. Find the name of the highest ranking executive at store headquarters and write a letter. Let that executive know how upsetting your experience was and that you and your friends will not be coming back to their store unless the problem is addressed. (And you may not even return after that, depending on the severity of the situation.)

Don’t patronize the store. Don’t waste your hard-earned money in a store that doesn’t value customers of color. Encourage others in your network to abstain from shopping at that particular store or using their products, as well.

Blog or tweet about it. Use social media to get the word out about your experience. Use blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else you can get your hands on to let everyone know about how a particular company treats its customers of color. The goal is to get the company’s attention while getting others to join in on the boycott and take a stand against unfair treatment.

Please share your Shopping While Black story with us in the comments section below.

Sheiresa Ngo is the consumer affairs editor at Black Enterprise

  • You’re correct in your position: the treatment should not be tolerated. No one should accept such treatment, and, in fact, no one should treat anyone that way in the first place. Alas, since the racial profiling does exist, we can only proceed in the way that you suggest: do what’s appropriate to maintain your respect.

    Kudos for your stance. Thank you for your article.

  • Kathy

    Yes, that has happened to me more times than I can count. And it’s interesting to note that this seems to happen more frequently when in a store owned/run by Asians, Indians and Pakistanis. Indians & Pakistanis I would think are more tolerant because they are either of the same complexion or darker than I am, but alas, it’s not the case. As an example, in NYC, an African American gentleman won a $14 million lottery. He went to the store to scan his ticket and when the store clerk found out it was a winner (an Indian), he lied & told the man that his ticket was thrown away because it was not a winner. Now, the gentleman knew full well that his ticket was a winner & called the police who promptly closed the store. Turned out the man told the truth – the ticket he scanned showed up clearly on both a closed circuit camera and the machine he scanned the ticket into. The clerk was arrested for theft, and the man received his winnings. I honestly don’t believe the clerk would’ve tried to scam a white person out of their ticket.

  • Nate Snow

    In department stores they usually hire older men to roam the store in plain clothing and spy on “suspicious” shoppers. When I’m in a humorous mood and I feel followed by one of these secret security-types, I usually say something like, “I notice you’ve been following me. I have to say, I’m flattered. But, while I support your lifestyle choice, I have to let you know that I’m straight–and married.” That usually gets them kinda flustered. I’ve been doing this for years. I think I got it from an Eddie Murphy movie, or was it Hollywood Shuffle, or I’m Gonna Git You Sucka? Can’t remember, but it’s funny as h**l. Good article.

  • Lucia

    The solution to this is a practice we’ve long ago abandoned, shamefully: SHOP AT BLACK OWNED STORES AND RECYCLE THOSE DOLLARS WITH YOUR PEOPLE.

    Plain and simple.

    I’m from NY and have been followed around in stores on so many occassions, I’m ashamed to admit. We SHOULDN’T HAVE TO BE dressed professionally. Whites shop in sweat pants, ugg boots, and t-shirts with sloppy ponytails atop their heads and they’re left ALONE.

    I don’t care how I’m dressed. Don’t follow me. It took me a long time to learn that I needed to take my dollars where I’m respected and valued as a customer and where my consumer dollars will benefit me, my children, and my people.

    As far as I’m concerned, whites are doing us a FAVOR when they treat us this way in their stores. Because we shouldn’t be there in the first place! We should be shopping with our own people, plain and simple.

    They’ve been doing it for centuries and continue to do so. So does just about every other group I can think of. Blacks, however, are the only ones who don’t realize or understand the value of this. Shame on us.

  • Melanie

    This happens to me quite often and even though I expect it, it always upsets me. I am always very aware of this profiling and have written letters and emails to certain retail stores to voice my displeasure of the treatment I have received. We all have to make sure that we speak out against this nonsense otherwise it will surely continue. I also agree with the previous poster that it SHOULD NOT matter HOW anyone is dressed when they go out to shop, as long as they have the money to pay for the items they are purchasing.

  • lori

    So I guess I’m not paranoid. When I worked retail in college security was so busy watching me go in and out of the stock room that they missed the little old white woman stuffing telephones in her purse. I pointed her out and they were red faced before the managers. I’ve been stopped in banks, stalked in malls and confronted in supermarkets. Once they backed away when they realized there was a real baby in my baby sling! Yes, it bothers me. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s their problem, not mine. So I leave, without making a purchase, never to return again. The venues that value me as a client gets my business ANDreferrals.

  • craig

    like lucia said in a previous comment, ” shop at black owned stores “. Black ownership is what black enterprise has been preaching for 40 years. maybe we’ll get the hint in another 40 years

  • Yes;Ive been a victim also of that. I travel cross-sountry as a independent contractor in the Trucking Industry and alot of times when you standing in a fast food restaurant someone gets to coughing as though they have a cough attack; so I in return cough back and all of a sudden they stop. Also when you come into a facility of business or truck stop someone of the opposite race begans to whistles; so I return a whistle. Most time when I return that whistle they stop,because they figure you caught them in their jesture. God bless everyone, we’re powerful people and they know it . Sims Intl.Inc.

  • This offends me greatly when I shop at Walmart or CVS. I am stared at even though I am spending anywhere from $80.00 to well over $200.00. Why would I steal? Oh, I know, I am a Black woman. They have people at the door at Walmart, who stares at me from the time I leave the cashier to the time I exit the door. Whites and Hispanics are exiting all around me, but their eyes are on me. Racial profiling. I do not want to shop there anymore. And CVS was all right until they got a new manager. Now he looks at me as if I should not even be in the store. No smile whatsoever and he won’t even smile. I believe I will write a letter to both CVS and Walmart.

  • This offends me greatly when I shop at Walmart or CVS. I am stared at even though I am spending anywhere from $80.00 to well over $200.00. Why would I steal? Oh, I know, I am a Black woman. They have people at the door at Walmart, who stares at me from the time I leave the cashier to the time I exit the door. Whites and Hispanics are exiting all around me, but their eyes are on me. Racial profiling. I do not want to shop there anymore. And CVS was all right until they got a new manager. Now he looks at me as if I should not even be in the store. No smile whatsoever. I believe I will write a letter to both CVS and Walmart.

  • Noreen Mallory

    What can I say?. .When a friend told me about this article, I was happy to hear that more attention is being brought to a longstanding issue. And right now as I write this, my certified letter of complaint about racial profiling is on the desk of the CEO of Duane Reade, a ubiquitous drugstore in NYC. Quite frankly, I am sick of this practice! I have had numerous experiences and find it interesting that in NYC, so many people have complaints. As a person who has lived in many cities in both the north and the south (Im from Philadelphia), I believe that retailers and other businesses in New York City are some of the worst anywhere. I have been stopped and/or followed at the post office, in drugstores, coffee shops etc. It is obvious to me that I fit a profile which personnel in all of these stores – who I always complain to – deny. I agree that we must complain – in writing – and use all of the social media networks that are available. We must also use the method that is sure to get these companies’ attention – sue! I am sueing Starbucks who threw me out of a Manhattan store, banned me from the store and called the police on me. The criminal case was thrown out of Manhattan Criminal Court as it should have been. I did not do anything. It does not matter that I am a Harvard graduate, journalist and Navy veteran. All these representatives from various retailers see is brown skin which equates to negativity and subversiveness. I, along with many others are sick of it! I say that for retailers such as Duane Reade and Starbucks, we put them on blast and talk to them in the language that they understand – money.

  • Angela

    I was the victim of racial profiling at a Duane Reade store located on 125th Street in Harlem near the A/D train in June 2006. I was searching for makeup and spent about 20 minutes because of course there are no makeup samples and I was trying to find the right shade. The store had an undercover police officer escort me to a back room of the store, closed the door and he took my id. He said that there was surveillance video showing that I took makeup, which was not true. But nothing like this had ever happened to me before and I was terrified since I had been robbed a week before. He told me that nothing would happen if I gave him the money I had in my wallet, which was $50. He took the $50 out of my wallet, opened the door and let me out. I was a first year law student (but I had not yet taken criminal law) and I should have sued the Duane Reade but I was so shaken up. I could have been raped by the store security guard or god knows what. I have never stolen anything in my life or ever broken the law and even as an innocent person that experience shook me to the core. It is 5 years later and to this day I have never been able to set foot in a Duane Reade store. If I knew back then what I know now, I would have sued to bring attention to Duane Reade’s discriminatory practices and gotten the DOJ to investigate to see if there was a pattern at that store. It is sad that as an African-American ivy-league educated female, this experience will forever be a nightmare I will never forget.

  • SkyBlue

    Wow, Angela, that is terrible…this guy pretty much extorted money from you. I’m sorry that happened.

    I will share my experiences with being racially profiled and followed around while shopping. As a person of mixed race, I’m very light-skinned. Not everyone can tell that I am a woman of color but some people can. My mother is black and my father was white.

    Anyway, I will admit to shoplifting a few times as a teenager. I took little things like blush and lipstick but nothing of real value. I stopped not only because I was caught by security, but also because I realized that my actions were stupid. It wasn’t worth it. I was ashamed of myself because I knew better than that. Besides, my mother would have been disappointed in me. I was a troubled kid with a terrible life and I made a lot of mistakes. After being caught, I learned my lesson.

    I was 17 then. I am now almost 30 years old. I have not shoplifted since I was a young girl in high school, but that still doesn’t stop employees in stores from treating me like a criminal.

    I’ve been followed and I can tell when people are looking at me with suspicion. It happened this afternoon when I was in a clothing store just browsing. I noticed that all the employees seemed to be suspicious of me for some reason. I don’t believe that I am being paranoid either. Besides one very friendly African-American sales clerk, I was the only other black person in the store. The white manager seemed very hostile the minute I walked into the store. She was staring at me and I heard one of the employees muttering into her earpiece, obviously about me.

    I noticed that the manager seemed to be observing my every move constantly. She never took her eyes off me. The employees were also a bit too helpful, which seemed odd. I wondered if they were really just trying to be helpful and do their jobs or if there was something else behind it. They were pushy. Every time I turned around, there was somebody up in my face. I was kind of annoyed because they were focusing way too much attention on me. I was just trying to shop in peace.

    I felt uncomfortable because I simply went in there to look around and possibly spend money if there was something I liked. I had no intention of stealing. I didn’t do anything wrong. The store is obviously under new management because I have shopped there previously and nothing like that ever happened. The new manager is a white Cuban woman with blonde hair. Unfortunately, Hispanics in Miami are known for discriminating against black people, especially black people who do not speak Spanish.

    It was an unpleasant experience. I didn’t buy anything, I simply walked out. I spent my money at the bookstore instead and I was NOT treated like a criminal. I bought two great books for only $2 and I was not followed or watched at the bookstore.

    This was not the only time I’ve experienced “shopping while black”. But my point is that when you feel that you’re being treated unfairly or racially profiled, you should take your business elsewhere. Don’t spend a penny of your money in a place that refuses to treat you with respect.

    My husband says that they treated me unfairly because I look young for my age. I doubt it. Anyway, I don’t care if I look young. I don’t care what I’m wearing. I don’t appreciate literally being stalked while shopping. I believe that if I were a wealthy white woman, these things wouldn’t happen.