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Shopping While Black: How to Detect This Practice and Respond Appropriately

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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. Well, the term “shopping while black” is related. In this case, 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.” So, how can you tell if you’re being racially profiled while shopping, and what can you do about it?

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% of blacks and 56% of Hispanics think that retail discrimination is widespread. Meanwhile, just 45% 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.

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