If You’re A Black Woman Shopping In New York, Then You’ve Probably Been Racially Profiled

African-American writer Shea Peters wasn’t surprised when she heard that Barneys department store in New York was fined for racially profiling customers – it’s been happening her whole life.


by Shea Peters |
Published on

Think racial profiling is a sad but forgotten part of America’s history? I'd beg to differ. I distinctly remember watching my black mother with a doctorate degree get strip-searched at Burlington Coat Factory in Memphis because she wore a jogging suit that she bought a year earlier at the same store. My mother grew up during the Civil Rights era, she rode the back of the bus in Tennessee, she lives, works, serves children and helps families. My mother never wore that jogging suit again. But while seeing this happen in Southern, socially conservative areas like Memphis is one thing, I live in New York City and racial profiling is something I experience almost everytime I go shopping.

As a black shopper in New York, you will not only become used to being highly visible, you’ll also become accustomed to being completely invisible as well.

It's like seeing a ghost. The feeling of someone right behind you, watching your every move, but when you turn around… no one is there to help. You walk a few more steps and you hear someone, that weird feeling of being watched and ignored at the same time. You are hyper-aware of your surroundings, your hands, your bag and where you place things because you know they are watching you and no one else, but you. But as a black shopper in New York, you will not only become used to being highly visible, you’ll also become accustomed to being completely invisible as well. One particular sunny Saturday afternoon, I found myself in Carolina Herrera's boutique with only two other customers and at least triple that number in staff members. After 20 minutes only the black security guard spoke to me on my way out the door, alas, empty-handed. Another lovely day, I walked into another boutique in Soho that's the size of a NYC one-bedroom apartment so – I’m pretty sure the staff could see me – and not a word. This might not seem that unusual in places like Britain where customers are used to being left to their own devices while shopping but, trust me, being totally ignored by store staff is not something a white woman in New York will be used to.

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Barneys was fined $525,000 and forced to hire an 'anti-profiling consultant.'

Recently, high-end department store Barneys New York has been in the spotlight for illegally profiling young, African-American shoppers – detaining them after they had paid for their shopping, to question the validity of their purchases. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker once famously told Vanity Fair: ‘If you're a nice person and you work hard, you get to go shopping at Barneys’. Well, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found Parker's statements to be untrue when it comes to black and Hispanic shoppers at Barneys and fined the department store $525,000 and forced them to hire an "anti-profiling consultant".'

It’s not just happening in the stores – New York City local news stations disproportionately cover crimes committed by African-American people, according to a recent report by Media Matters. Data from the NYPD found that while black suspects were arrested in 54 per cent of murders, 55 per cent of thefts, and 49 per cent of assaults, news channels including WCBS, WNBC, WABC and WNYW featured crimes that were predominantly committed by black people. According to the report, the stations covered murders of which 68 per cent of the suspects were black, 80 per cent of the suspects of thefts were black, and 72 per cent of the suspects of assaults were black. Do you think that 80 per cent of thefts being shown on TV news has no effect on black people being profiled in a store? Of course it does. Another major store, Macy's, who bills itself as the world's largest department store, is currently settling out of court with actor Rob Brown from HBO's Treme for illegally detaining him for potential credit card fraud after his purchase at their Herald Square location. Both Barneys and Macy's received backlash from social media after these incidents, but what's the answer?

Within the corporate culture of fashion, there are very few black faces – fashion is a business, and in business things trickle down from the top.

In the United States, so much of our style and taste as consumers is taken from black neighbourhoods, whether we like to admit it or not. But that style and taste is later reserved, sold and priced for and claimed by the white consumer. I was once told by a friend that everyone wants to be black, until it's time to be black and ain't that the truth. As black people in America, we take our shopping seriously. We stand in line. We wait for sales. We even debate why ‘Black Friday’ has to be called ‘black’. It's almost a given that when we shop, the extremes of being black and invisible or black and highly visible go with you in every store and there is little in between.

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I think part of the answer is in the infrastructure. Within the corporate culture of fashion, there are very few black faces - fashion is a business, and in business things trickle down from the top. If Macy's, Barneys, and other fashion companies hired more black faces in their corporate offices and upper management, then how much of an impact would that have on black shoppers? Sure, there are plenty of sales associates that are making $9 an hour… but how many black Retail Planners, Category Managers, Buyers, and Merchandisers are really being employed at DVF, BCBG, Bloomingdale's, Tory Burch, and others? The answer – very few. These are the leaders in fashion, but where are the black faces? Walk into their Midtown Manhattan offices and you are met by 90 per cent white and a sprinkle of Asian employees. If you are being followed around a store (or ignored) as black person, the likelihood that there are any black corporate officers to complain to is going to be rare.

Diane von Furstenberg is my favourite designer and I feel like she knows how to design clothing to fit a woman's body. DVF is the President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), but I counted one black face on her LinkedIn page… and she's an assistant. But this isn't a news flash, this is fashion corporate America. In a city that is over 50 percent black and brown (despite what you see on Girls, Sex And The City, Seinfeld, and Friends), we are not represented on the catwalk during Fashion Week and are even less so in the corporate offices of major designers. Until we change the culture of the fashion industry at the top level – how can we ever expect racial profiling to stop in store?

Follow Shea on Twitter @iamsheabutta

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Picture: Jason Lloyd-Evans

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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